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“AN UNDERRATED CLASSIC”
A Film Review of The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Copyright 2005 Glenn Walker
The Man Who Laughs from 1928 should be remembered alongside other silent classics like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame but somehow it slipped between the cracks over the years. Making this oversight more upsetting is the fact that this film was pretty much the blueprint for what would become the Universal horrors of the 1930s.
The film, a Carl Laemmle production, was directed by German émigré Paul Leni, who died much too young, but also brought other chillers like The Cat and the Canary (1927), the original haunted house movie, and Waxworks (1924) to the screen before his time was up. The Man Who Laughs was his second to last film. From his fatherland, Leni brought the expressionist themes of shadow over light – perfect for the genre.
Based on a French novel (by Victor Hugo) much like its predecessors Hunchback and Phantom, the film was a spectacle with a literal cast of thousands. Hugo’s story, adapted by J. Grubb Alexander also of Svengali and a master scenarist of the silent days, tells the tale of Gwynplaine, a man scarred by Gypsies to wear a permanent grin because of his father’s treachery.
Originally meant for Lon Chaney because of the monsterous make-up required for the part, the actor unfortunately could not get out of his contract or his hectic schedule to do it. Director Leni turned instead to his homeland, and actor Conrad Veidt. While probably best known as Major Strasser in Casablanca, the role that won him Gwynplaine was that of the frightening somnambulistic slave Caesare in the surreal German horror flick The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Easily Veidt slides into the role of Gwynplaine as a proper replacement for Chaney.
The make-up for Gwynplaine required hooks to turn the corners of Veidt’s mouth upward into the horrific grin. This apparatus forced the film to be silent rather than sound, which was just coming into its own at the time, for Veidt could not speak while wired up. This was designed by artist Jack Pierce who would later produce the familiar visage of the Frankenstein monster for Universal a few years later. The German-influenced expressionist sets of The Man Who Laughs also prove a precursor as they were devised by Charles D. Hall, later to work on both Frankenstein and Dracula.
It should be noted that the ghastly grimace of Gwynplaine was Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s inspiration for the Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, years later in 1940. The Joker’s pasty-face reminicient of the make-up of the silents, and his horrid grin was also permanent, although caused by an acid chemical bath, like many of the caped crusader’s rogues gallery. Many are the scene where you can see the Joker in Gwynplaine’s image.
Gwynplaine himself is not anything like the Joker, or even evil. Like the Phantom or the Hunchback, he is a sympathetic creature, misinterpreted by his deformity as a monster. And like those characters, and the master Lon Chaney who portrayed them, Conrad Veidt does most of his acting through his eyes, an amazing feat.
In an unfortunate glitch, look for the telephone wires in 17th century England. But on the good side, don’t miss the pretty and innocent Mary Philbin, America’s next sweetheart at the time, and the always evil (even when she’s good) Olga Baclanova as the Duchess, in the highlights of their careers in my opinion, and of course the powerful performance of Conrad Veidt in the title role. The film, a true lost classic, should not be missed.