Film Title: The Man Who Laughs
Studio: Universal Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Mary Philbin
- Conrad Veidt
- Brandon Hurst
- Olga Baclanova
What do you do if you’re Universal Pictures producer Carl Laemmle and your bosses want more of what made them a lot of money, but the star that made them that money defected to rival studio MGM? After huge successes with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal’s biggest star, Lon Chaney, was lured to MGM. Laemmle had planned a lavish new epic melodrama from another Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs. But instead of using the talent he had under contract and going forward with the project, he knew that what he needed could not be found on the Universal contract roster. Using his connections with folks working within the German Expressionist movement, he convinced several to come out to Hollywood to work. Director Paul Leni had made a big success with his 1924 film Waxworks. One of the actors that appeared in that film, Conrad Veidt, had also appeared in the classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Laemmle secured their services and both traveled to Hollywood. Leni proved himself with the success of his first American film The Cat and the Canary (1927) and that same year with an entry in the popular Charlie Chan series The Chinese Parrot. Working on those pictures, he collaborated with cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, art director Charles D. Hall, and Jack P. Pierce (who would go on to design Boris Karloff’s makeup for Frankenstein in 1931). He used the same team for The Man Who Laughs and one of the last classics of German Expressionism was set to launch. Its success would define the look of Universal horror films for decades to come.
The film opens with the title card, “17th Century ENGLAND.” King James II (Sam De Grasse) is awakened by his loyal but unscrupulous jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) and informed that the traitorous Lord Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt) has been captured. Confronting the lord, the king proclaims, “So the proud rebel who refused to kiss our hand, returns from exile to kiss the Iron Lady?” But it turns out, no; Clancharlie has returned seeking the whereabouts of his young son Gwynplaine who was left behind.” Oh, he’s well,” the king assures him,” but a Comprachico surgeon carved a grin upon his face so he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.” The king then orders Clancharlie to be placed in the Iron Lady, a huge sarcophagus-like contraption with giant spikes poking inward on its massive doors. Clancharlie steps inside and the camera comes in close on his noble face as the doors close.
We next see a broadside carrying a proclamation from the king: “The Compachicos Being Gypsy Traders in Stolen Children: And Practicing Certain Unlawful Surgical Arts, Whereby they Carve the Living Flesh of these Children and Transform them into Monstrous Clowns and Jesters. THEREFORE ALL COMPRACHICOS ARE HERBY BANISHED FROM ENGLAND UNDER PAIN OF DEATH, James II.” A group of Comprachicos are seen hurriedly loading a ship with their belongings in a driving snowstorm. As the ship pulls away from shore, a small boy, his mouth covered by a scarf, Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.) is left behind to fend for himself. He wanders through the snow and comes across a woman sitting against a snow bank cradling an infant in her arms. As the boy approaches he realizes that the mother is dead but the baby lives. He takes the little bundle from its frozen mother and puts it under his coat next to his body for warmth and continues his journey. At last he sees a lighted window in the wilderness and approaches it. It is the home of Ursus, the Philosopher (Cesare Gravina). Ursus takes the young Gwynplaine in only to discover there is an infant as well. It is a girl and she is blind. As Ursus ministers to the infant the scarf drops from Gwynplaine’s face and it is revealed that his mouth has been surgically altered to force a perpetual smile. “Don’t laugh,” Ursus admonishes the boy. “I’m not laughing,” Gwynplaine replies. Gwynplaine’s plight then becomes clear to Ursus, who now knows that he has two orphans to care for.
Years pass and Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) grows to manhood. He and Ursus and the blind baby, now a beautiful young woman, Dea (Mary Philbin) and their dog Homo (that’s not a typo) travel the countryside to fairs and markets exhibiting Gwynplaine as “The Laughing Man” in plays composed by Ursus “like a certain Shakespeare, only better” to enthusiastic rural audiences. And, of course, Gwynplaine and Dea are deeply in love. However, because Dea is blind, she doesn’t know about Gwynplaine’s deformity. Gwynplaine believes that he does not deserve Dea’s love, for if she could only see him, she would not love him. During their performance at the Southwark Fair, the surgeon Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), who is now reduced to traveling the carnival circuit exhibiting a pig with two snouts and a five-legged cow, recognizes Gwynplaine as the boy he once carved up. And he knows there’s potential money to be made from this knowledge as regimes have changed and England is now ruled by Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The estate that still rightfully belongs to Lord Clancharlie’s heir (which would be Gwynplaine) is now being occupied by the beautiful but decadent Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova). Josiana also catches the performance by Gwynplaine and Dea and finds herself both attracted to and repelled by Gwynplaine: “I am she who did not laugh. Was it pity, or was it love? My page will meet you at midnight.” she tells him in a note.
With this, Gwynplaine is plunged into the machinations of others. There will be betrayal, recrimination, retribution, a bizarre make-out session, a chase across the rooftops of London, and an appearance at Court. “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man! will be proclaimed. God closed my eyes so I could see the real Gwynplaine, will be murmured.” And Homo will do his darnedest to reunite Gwynplaine and Dea twice!
This is truly a great film, every bit as deserving of a place in film history as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, or Dracula. Gwynplaine, like the heroes of those films, can’t help the way he is. Still he searches for redemption. Universal reportedly spent one million dollars on this 1928 production. It is lavish in its art design, sets, and costumes. Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine is extraordinary. Universal contemplated making The Man Who Laughs one of its first talking pictures. It wasn’t Veidt’s German accent that nixed the plan, but the fact that Veidt, wearing an oral prosthesis to achieve his grotesque appearance, couldn’t speak while wearing it. Yet we see everything we need to in Veidt’s eyes. Mary Philbin is not called on to do much but look lovely and concerned from time to time which she does very well. Cesare Gravina as Ursus, who was used so well in Von Stroheim’s Merry-Go-Round (also featuring Philbin), gives a finely detailed performance. The use of German Expressionist lighting and camera angles, masterfully applied by Leni and Warrenton, makes for a unique film of its time, and a film to which many subsequent horror and noir films owe much.
The film itself was re-mastered in 1999 from two original nitrate prints located in Europe. The original Movietone soundtrack was cleaned up and re-synched by Universal for this DVD release in 2003. Both the picture and sound are very good. As the image comes from an original release print, it carries the wear that the print does. There are certainly some wear and scratches evident, but nothing that would detract from a viewing. The restored soundtrack adds a period flavor that a new score would not. The quality of the recording (including a love song, “When Love Comes Stealing”) is acceptable. This is a Kino Video Release and adheres to the high standard that Kino has set for their releases. The extras on the disc include:
– The Story Behind The Man Who Laughs (14 minutes), this explains the history of this production and is informative and entertaining.
– At Home With Conrad Veidt (3minutes) is a portion of a newsreel production about the German contingent in Hollywood in 1928. It includes Veidt and his family, fellow German Emil Jannings, and a brief glimpse of Greta Garbo playing with Veidt’s daughter.
– Excerpt From The Italian Version (4 minutes) shows a sequence from the film with Italian title cards.
– Excerpt from Hugo’s Novel allows you to page through a portion of, well, Hugo’s novel.
– About the Restoration is a nice little documentary about the restoration process for this film.
– Gallery of Photographs
– Gallery of Promotional Material
This film is a masterpiece, one of the last of the silent film era, and a precursor to the use of German Expressionism that would be reused, reapplied, and reconsidered from 1928 until the present. Conrad Veidt gives a towering performance, and Leni surrounds him with an appropriately lush and creepy world in which to exist. More melodrama than horror, as were many of Lon Chaney’s works, The Man Who Laughs is an important film. It should be seen by all film enthusiasts interested in classic films.
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