The Man Who Laughs

"Good"

The Man Who Laughs Review


The model for all the great Universal horror to follow, 1928's The Man Who Laughs is a (now) rarely seen silent picture that aficionados of the genre might want to get their hands on. Based on the Victor Hugo story, and designed to capitalize on the recent successes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, The Man Who Laughs is really more of a melodrama than a horror film, but it's a melodrama dripping with German Expressionist technique (director Paul Leni and star Conrad Veidt were imported from Germany for the job), and, like the two horror films above and a myriad that followed, it has a horribly disfigured hero at its center.

How disfigured? Think Joker. Gwynplaine (Veidt) is a member of royalty in England circa King James II who is abducted from his father as a little boy for political reasons and left in the "care" of the Comprachicos, a band of gypsies among whose ranks we find a surgeon named Hardquanonne. Gwynplaine escapes, but not before this surgeon has performed a ghastly procedure on him, leaving him with a permanent, eerie grin cut across his face. He becomes a successful circus clown ("The Man Who Laughs") performing with a woman named Dea (Mary Philbin), whom he loves and whose claim to fame is that she is both beautiful and blind. The Countess Josiana takes an interest in him when she sees him perform; as Gwynplaine's noble roots are uncovered, a scandal is born, and the story takes a Dickensian turn before ending in the kind of rampage that any member of the Frankenstein household could tell you all about.

The Man Who Laughs was a big hit in its day. The production is a beauty, featuring, as it does, an embarrassment of atmospheric riches and an interesting performance from Veidt, who is forced to convey a whole range of emotions while grinning creepily from ear to ear. The motivations of the supporting cast -- particularly a court jester named Barkilphedro -- can be hard to follow, and modern audiences will note an unnerving resemblance between leading lady Philbin and Madonna, particularly in semi-profile. And one unintentionally hilarious detail involving a pet wolf named Homo threw me every time it occurred; two great inter-titles result from this, first when the wolf's owner shouts, "Be quiet, Homo," seemingly at our hero, and second when a character asks the wolf (who, in an instance of insensitive stereotyping, wears a studded leather collar), "Where are you taking me, Homo?"

Kino, a company that deserves increasing recognition for bringing great silent film back to the video shelves, has done The Man Who Laughs proud, including on its new DVD edition an original making-of documentary, extensive documentation, and even some touching candid footage of Veidt in the company of other American imports of the era, such as Emil Jannings and Greta Garbo. The Man Who Laughs, poised between the great German horror that preceded it (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks and, The Golem, all now available through Kino) and the great Universal horror that followed, will likely remain little more than a curiosity for the man on the street. But for genre fans, it's still an inviting and necessary stop.



The Man Who Laughs

Facts and Figures

Run time: 110 mins

In Theaters: Sunday 4th November 1928

Production compaines: Universal Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 12

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Paul Leni

Producer:

Starring: as Gwynplaine, as Dea, as Duchess Josiana, Brandon Hurst as Barkilphedro, Cesare Gravina as Ursus, Stuart Holmes as Lord Dirry-Moir

Also starring:

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