17th century England: King James II (Sam De Grasse) enjoys being entertained by his court jester, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who is a cruel and Machiavellian individual. It’s Barkilphedro who suggests that a rebel lord’s young son, Gwynplaine Clancharlie (Julius Molnar), be sold to the dreaded Comprachico gypsies. Furthermore, the evil Barkilphedro instructs the Comprachico surgeon, Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), to carve a grin on the boy’s face so that he will spend the rest of his life perpetually laughing at his father’s foolish decision to defy the King.
When fickle King James banishes the Comprachicos from his kingdom, Gwynplaine is left to fend for himself on the harshest of winter nights. He’s soon compelled to rescue a blind baby girl (who is subsequently christened Dea) from her dead mother’s frozen arms. Thankfully, the pair are taken in by a travelling philosopher, Ursus (Cesare Gravina), when Gwynplaine approaches his caravan desperately seeking food and shelter.
Years later, the now fully-grown Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) and Dea (Mary Philbin) are still travelling with Ursus. Gwynplaine is a well-known strolling musician who performs under the name “the Laughing Man”, and he and Dea appear together in Ursus’ stage plays at village fairs. The happy and contented family unit is made complete by their faithful guard dog, Homo (Zimbo).
The only note of contention and doubt in their lives revolves around Gwynplaine and Dea’s love for each other. She wants them to marry, and Ursus has given them his blessing. However, Gwynplaine feels that he doesn’t have the right to marry a woman who has never seen the twisted results of Hardquanonne’s surgery. Sadly, the unexpected appearance of a face from Gwynplaine’s past sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to tear the family unit apart forever.
Fear not if the above synopsis reads as if I’ve described the whole film to you. While there might well be enough in the way of emotional highs and lows – and enough instances of high-quality drama, angst, and horror – to sustain a 90-minute film artfully woven into the perfectly paced and completely involving scenes described above, they only account for the first 18-minutes of The Man Who Laughs (1928). Indeed, these scenes effectively work like a prologue that serves to secure the viewer’s keen interest in what the film’s central narrative might offer during its remaining running time.
Based on a story by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs possesses a narrative that successfully draws upon and incorporates elements that are associated with a number of genres. The film feels and plays like a cross between a very dark fairy tale and a historical drama about political chicanery in England’s royal courts. But it also foregrounds a tragic and truly affecting love story that’s like no other, while also contrasting the lives – and the relative states of contentment and happiness – of those who possess money, power, agency, and beauty, and those who do not.
Amazingly, these disparate elements are spun together in such an original way that it’s impossible to guess where The Man Who Laughs’ narrative might lead next. Our inability to safely surmise how the story will end generates noticeably high levels of tension and suspense. Indeed, there’s so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given.
Although The Man Who Laughs plays like a fairytale at times, the outstanding quality of the cast’s acting abilities enables the viewer to suspend their disbelief and become fully engaged with the storyline – and emotionally invested in its lead characters – from the outset. Indeed, director Paul Leni takes viewers on an emotional and dramatic rollercoaster ride, which is guided by the mounting frustrations that Gwynplaine and Dea experience.
Acting-wise, The Man Who Laughs belongs to Conrad Veidt, who turns in an extraordinary performance. Gwynplaine’s permanent toothy grin is both ghoulish and freakish. Still, it remains a grin nonetheless, and thus – by logical extension – it’s an expression that signals mirth at first glance. But Gwynplaine is a deeply tragic figure. Veidt counteracts Gwynplaine’s perpetual grin by emoting inner pain via his sad eyes, and it’s also seen in the wrinkling of his forehead, the dipping of his head, and his laboured body movements.
At times Veidt’s approach plays as if Leni instructed him to use his face to express the immense and irresolvable tension that would arise if somebody were to engage a sports car’s accelerator and brake pedals at the same time. Ultimately, the heartrending sense of inner torture and outer tension that Veidt conveys via his strained facial contortions is an acting master class all of its own. Veidt and the film’s hair, make-up, and costume departments give Gwynplaine a very distinctive look. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Gwynplaine had been a major influence for Bob Kane when he created the visual aesthetics of Batman’s grinning nemesis, the Joker.
The top-quality acting isn’t Veidt’s alone. The beautiful Mary Philbin is perfectly cast as the gentle, sweet, and innocent blind young woman who loves Gwynplaine with all of her heart. Philbin is called upon to emote extreme sadness as well as blissful happiness, and she rises to the challenge commendably. Olga Baclanova almost steals the show as a wanton and perverse aristocrat, Duchess Josiana, who wants to add Gwynplaine to her roster of sexual conquests while slumming it incognito at one of the country fair shows. Baclanova effortlessly exudes and forcefully projects intoxicating sex appeal.
The Man Who Laughs is an incredibly well-made and sophisticated-looking film. Leni directs the proceedings with complete mastery, and it possesses the kind of technical qualities that became more commonplace in films made during following decade. Leni and cinematographer Gilbert Warrington present a succession of pleasing shots – many of them mobile – that make use of expressive compositions and interesting angles. The pair favoured using an assortment of camera placements when shooting a scene, which results in editor Edward L. Cahn being provided with just the kind of material needed to construct some wonderful montages.
The Man Who Laughs possesses all of the hallmarks of an expensive production. It features grand set designs, and hundreds of extras populate the film’s big set pieces at country fairs and the like. One of The Man Who Laughs’ most impressive big set pieces involves a nerve-wracking and dangerous-looking rooftop chase that also features a good bit of swordplay and derring-do. The film’s fine costumes are in keeping with those of top quality and epic historical dramas. It also features expert dog wrangling that results in a wholly endearing performance by Zimbo. The Man Who Laughs represents silent filmmaking at its creative best
The picture quality of Eureka Entertainment’s Region B Blu-ray of The Man Who Laughs is excellent. Gilbert Warrington’s black and white cinematography is rendered perfectly. The presentation’s sound quality is excellent too. Two audio tracks are available for selection here: the film’s original 1928 movietone score and a new score by the Berklee School of Music. I went with the 1928 movietone score and it worked fabulously. The music perfectly compliments what’s happening onscreen while simultaneously enhancing the emotional impact of any given scene’s dramatic content. Interestingly, during some scenes the soundtrack features actual sound effects (crowd noises, the wailing wind, etc.).
The extra features on this release include an interview with critic Kim Newman, a video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns and historian and artist Fiona Watson, a featurette about the production of the film and a gallery of rare stills. The first 2,000 copies come with a card slipcase and a booklet that features writing by writers Travis Crawford and Richard Combs.