The Man Who Laughs

King James II has his sworn political enemy put to death in an iron maiden and the son Gwynplaine sold to gypsies.  Disfiguring the young lad, he is left all alone when those same gypsies are exiled from England.  Gwynplaine wanders the countryside and finds a dead woman with a baby still in her arms.  Rescuing the infant he seeks shelter from a chap called Ursus and he (and the baby) soon grow up.

Gwynplaine’s disfigurement is a ‘permanent smile’ (The Joker in Batman would base his look on him) and he is now part of a travelling act featuring clowns. The baby has grown up into a beautiful woman called Dea who is also blind.  Dea loves Gwynplaine as does he but he feels this is down to the fact she can’t see his face.  Of course that’s not the end of the story as the royal court find that Gwynplaine is still alive and destined to wed a Duchess.

Based on Victor Hugo’s book (he who created Quasimodo) The Man Who Laughs is a sweeping grand production made at the end of silent era.  Forgotten for years, the film was brought back into the public consciousness by screenings and its championing by respected cinephiles.

Stylishly directed by German film maker Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary) whose brilliant career was cut short by his early death in 1929.  Another German Conrad Veidt took on the role of Gwynplaine and although no words are heard his performance is superb.  Utlising the great make-up of Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) he brings to the screen huge amounts of tragedy, suffering and the feeling of real love towards Dea.  The way Veidt glides around the screen fully covered or showing his face is truly mesmerising.  I really couldn’t stop watching the guy.  Portraying Dea was silent film star Mary Philbin (Christine opposite Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera).

Extensively restored by Universal.  The Man Who Laughs features the original music soundtrack complete with the odd sound effect and a newly composed score.  Whilst the new one sounds good, I went for the old school one complete with its hissy reproduction.

Whilst the fact that it’s almost a hundred years old, black and white and silent, please do not let it put you off. Its a beautiful eerie love story (I did shed a little tear) and just as effective now as it was back in the day.

  • Starring Conrad Veidt  Mary Philbin and a lot of very odd looking supporting characters
  • Directed by Paul Leni
  • Distributor Eureka