Director: Paul Leni
Screenplay: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony (titles)
Based on a Novel by: Victor Hugo
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Josephine Crowell, Sam De Grasse
Country: USA
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1928
BBFC Certificate: PG

The Man Who Laughs was originally supposed to be a follow-up to the hugely successful Universal adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, once again bringing a Victor Hugo novel to the screen and starring Lon Chaney. It was due to be helmed by the acclaimed French director Raymond Bernard. However, rights issues delayed production for a while. In the meantime, Universal and Chaney found more success with The Phantom of the Opera.

With the rights agreed, work began once again on The Man Who Laughs, but by now Chaney had gone to MGM. The studio said they would lend him out to Universal but Chaney turned it down at the last minute. Bernard also stepped aside, so a new director and lead were required. Paul Leni was given the job of director after the success of The Cat and the Canary and his German classic Waxworks. This change led the studio to an obvious choice for a star, Conrad Veidt, who had worked with Leni in the past and was famous for his iconic role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The film wasn’t as commercially successful as Hunchback and Phantom and disappeared from circulation for a while before it was restored in 1969 and reappeared later in 1998. However, it became highly influential, even if its impact didn’t become common knowledge until much later beyond its release. For one, James Whale acknowledged Leni’s innovative techniques as a major inspiration for his Old Dark House (1932) and Frankenstein films (1931 and 1935). Bob Kane, creator of Batman, was also influenced by Jack Pierce’s makeup on Conrad Veidt for his villainous Joker. Veidt’s character shares parallels with more recent screen outings for the Joker too, in The Dark Knight and Joker. The film also has many similarities to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

So it clearly had an impact on popular culture, but how does this silent classic hold up today, over 90 years later? I was sent a copy of Eureka’s new Blu-ray release of The Man Who Laughs as part of their Masters of Cinema series, to find out.

The film is set in 17th Century England, beginning in the reign of King James II (played by Sam De Grasse), who we see sentence a political enemy, Lord Clancharlie, to death in an ‘iron lady’ (a.k.a. iron maiden). Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar), is mutilated by a comprachico doctor, under orders of James’ evil jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), giving him a permanent grin that makes him “laugh forever at his fool of a father”. The comprachicos are soon exiled, leaving Gwynplaine deserted in the snow. He discovers a woman, frozen to death but holding a baby, who he takes with him to find shelter. They are taken in by the travelling showman Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who soon discovers the baby, who he names Dea, is blind.

We move forward several years to find a grown-up Gwynplaine (now played by Veidt) still living with Ursus and Dea (now played by Mary Philbin), the latter of which he is madly in love with. She reciprocates his love but Gwynplaine is too ashamed of his hideously scarred face to marry her, believing such a beauty as Dea deserves better and wouldn’t love him if she could see him. The trio performs in a popular act centred around Gwynplaine’s ‘Man Who Laughs’.

Meanwhile, Barkilphedro is still scheming with the country’s monarch, now Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell), as well as the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) who is a disgrace to the royal family due to her scandalous behaviour.

Barkilphedro, however, discovers that Gwynplaine is still alive and is, in fact, the rightful heir to Josiana’s estate. So he plots a way to keep the Duchess wealthy, by forcing Gwynplaine to marry her. Josiana’s lustful ways are quite enticing and Gwynplaine is thrilled to discover a sighted woman could be attracted to him, but he’s torn between this and his pure love for Dea. Further complications arise when Gwynplaine is arrested and soon after made into a Lord!

The Man Who Laughs certainly does live up to its lofty reputation. Not only is it finely produced, as I’ll get into later, but it is astonishingly entertaining. The iconic images of Veidt in make-up may suggest it’s a horror film but, as with Hunchback and Phantom, it’s actually more of a tragic romance or melodrama. This might not suggest great entertainment, but the film has a compelling narrative, a genuinely moving love story, a couple of pretty sexy sequences with Josiana, some comedy, a swashbuckling finale and even a heroic dog! With a dark, horrific edge on top of all this, it’s wonderful all-round entertainment that flourished in the early days of Hollywood.

It sees Hollywood at its lavish best when it comes to visuals too. Universal back then didn’t have a great reputation. They generally just churned out cheap products for the Midwest audiences. However, they occasionally went big and created a brand for their ‘prestige’ pictures called ‘Universal Jewels’. Now and again they pushed this out even further and produced a ‘Super-Jewel’ like Hunchback, an epic made on a grand scale where no expense was spared in putting the story on screen. The Man Who Laughs was granted this brand too. It reputedly involved 56 sets which took eight months to design and build, and the results are astonishing.

Leni used to be a graphic artist and set designer himself, so had a keen eye, but Charles D. Hall did the honours here. He had previously worked on Hunchback and Phantom and went on to design the Universal productions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and other horror features for the studio, as well as a couple of Chaplin classics. An early scene featuring hanging bodies in a snowy landscape is particularly striking in The Man Who Laughs and there’s a great level of period detail elsewhere too. Leni’s German cinematic roots lend the film a slightly expressionistic look, though the sets are more realistically designed here than in a true expressionist film like Dr. Calligari.

The cinematography is also fantastic in The Man Who Laughs, with Gilbert Warrenton in charge. It’s moodily lit throughout and features a few impressive moving shots, including one mounted on a period ferris wheel.

Even more striking is the makeup used for Gwynplaine’s twisted grin. A mouthpiece was used to get the effect and was very painful to wear for Veidt. He still had to physically put a smile on for the role too though, it was only accentuated by the mouthpiece, so the shoot was gruelling for the actor. Jack Pierce, who did the make-up, was left off the credits (likely so that Universal could substantiate their claims that Veidt was doing all the work himself in a bid to name him the new Lon Chaney) but he went on to be famous for creating most of the iconic original Universal monsters that followed.

Veidt must get his dues though, as his performance is magnificent. Being a silent movie, there’s an element of overplaying the physicality, but there is still an awful lot of subtlety here. With his permanent grin, Veidt had to do extra work with his hugely expressive eyes and body language. You truly feel for the tragic character and his love for Dea is beautifully portrayed.

Both Leni and Veidt died young, sadly. Leni died only a year after the film was released, aged only 44. Veidt lived longer, getting typecast as a Nazi after WWII broke out, famously featuring as Major Strasser in Casablanca, but died aged 50 a year after that. Leni only directed one other film after The Man Who Laughs, The Last Warning (1928), which was a mystery thriller and one of Universal’s last silents. One can only wonder what the director would have achieved had he lived on into the sound era.

Speaking of sound, The Man Who Laughs was completed and initially released as a silent film, but its success prompted Universal to soon recall it and re-release it with sound effects, a synchronised score and even a theme song, “When Love Comes Stealing.” This version is the one I watched and whilst I found the sound effects less obtrusive than those in Spite Marriage, which I saw recently, it’s still a little odd to hear effects and background voices now and again but not constantly.

With swooning romance, dark twists, sex, comedy, action and sumptuous visuals, The Man Who Laughs has got it all. It’s a grand, final hurrah from the silent era whose influence can still be seen today. Don’t hesitate to give it a watch if you get the chance, or better yet, buy Eureka’s wonderful new Blu-ray release of the film.

The Man Who Laughs is out on 17th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The film looks fantastic for its age. There is some light wear in places, but largely it looks great, with sharp details and a fairly high dynamic range. The original movietone score has got quite a harsh hiss/crackle but, if that gets too much, you can always listen to the beautifully recorded new score. I stuck to the former, but I had a little listen to the new one and it sounded great.

There are a handful of special features included in the package:

– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Universal’s 4K restoration
– Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (stereo) score by the Berklee School of Music
– Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (mono) 1928 movietone score
– A brand new interview with author and horror expert Kim Newman
– A brand new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson
– Paul Leni and “The Man Who Laughs” featurette on the production of the film
– Rare stills gallery
– A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford, and Richard Combs

It’s not a huge amount of material and I would have loved a commentary in particular, but the three video pieces we get are all very good. Kim Newman is clearly a fan of Leni and talks of how he should be better known and ponders what great heights he might have reached had he not died at such a young age.

David Cairns and Fiona Watson’s essay is excellent, covering a lot of ground on the film’s history, as well as offering a little analysis. It’s quite ambitiously put together for a featurette of its kind, with performance aspects mixed in with straight-forward narration. This effect is a little hit and miss, but the content is all fascinating and thoroughly researched.

The other featurette offers a more general look at the film’s production, so covers some of the same ground as the other two pieces, but it’s still a valuable addition to the set.

The booklet is wonderful as always, though three of the essays repeat many of the same facts and stories about the production, so perhaps it could have been tightened up a bit. A piece on the experiences of one of the members of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra in writing and performing the new score is a nice touch at the end, though it made me want to watch the film again with their score instead of the movietone one I opted for.

A fantastic package overall then and one that comes very highly recommended.

The Man Who Laughs - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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