31 Days of Hell: The Man Who Laughs (1928) - Reviewed

Of all the aspects present in Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s divisive box office smash Joker, among the most striking was the film’s clear and overt homage to the film which inspired the creation of the character in the first place: Paul Leni’s 1928 expressionist horror/melodrama The Man Who Laughs.  From the first scene right up until the last, the iconography fueling Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s development and inception of the legendary supervillain of popular fiction is given center stage as the guiding spirit of Phoenix’s interpretation more than anything on the printed page itself, going back to the roots of the character before a single panel was even drawn. 

Rarely seen yet alive and well in the hearts and minds of cinephiles and Joker fans alike, this silent romantic period melodrama penned by The Hunchback of Notre Dame author Victor Hugo tells the dark and disturbing tale of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a fierce medieval political battle between King James II and Lord Clancharlie.  After Clancharlie is executed via iron maiden, his son Gwynplaine has a hideously frightening grin surgically carved into his face from childhood to adulthood wearing a fixed faux smile. 

Abandoned and alone, Gwynplaine rescues an abandoned blind infant named Dea (Mary Philbin) and together they are taken in and cared for by sideshow performer Ursus (Cesare Gravina).  Soon the blind Dea and Gwynplaine come to love one another yet Gwynplaine maintains his distance fearing Dea will reject him if she finds out about his disfigurement.  Meanwhile news surfaces Gwynplaine is legally a rightful heir to a wealthy estate as he finds himself dragged unwillingly into a political scheme involving forced marriage to the lustful Duchess Josiana (Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova).

Written in 1869 before being made into two lower budgeted silent features in 1908 and again in 1921, the story caught the attention of Universal Studios who fresh off of their hit adaptation of Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame were eager for another box office success.  The role was initially offered to Notre Dame lead Lon Chaney but due to unresolved rights issues to the novel the project was put on hold with Chaney making The Phantom of the Opera for Universal instead. 

After Opera became a hit, Universal Studios founder and then-president Carl Laemmle redirected his attention to The Man Who Laughs, transforming Hugo’s story into an expensively budgeted film.  Hiring German expressionist horror helmer Paul Leni after his own hit The Cat and the Canary and recasting with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari star Conrad Veidt in the role of Gwynplaine, Universal Studios moved ahead with The Man Who Laughs.

A mammoth superproduction costing an astronomical (at the time) $1 million, the film sported in addition to the frightening and uncomfortable makeup effects for Veidt’s frozen grin a brilliant production design by The Phantom of the Opera designer Charles D. Hall.  The resulting sets looked somewhere between 17th century England and gothic expressionist Germany, treading a fine line between period piece and fantasy horror. 

Visually the film prominently features excellent moody expressionistic cinematography by future Panic in Year Zero photography Gilbert Warrenton.  Largely the film consists of medium close-ups of the actor Conrad Veidt’s face with the combination of white makeup and his fixed grin achieving a near demonic gaze.  Much of the film is shrouded in darkness and shadow though the film’s lavish production design coupled with some pioneering visual effects matte work is captured in twisty wide angled shots, providing something of a warped perspective on the tragic hero’s outlook.

What’s striking about The Man Who Laughs is how it uses something as simple and expressive as a smile to profoundly disturbing effect while calling attention to an astonishing degree of human cruelty.  The so called ‘Chelsea Smile’ in which facial mutilation within an organized criminal circle occurs is grim enough, but The Man Who Laughs inflicts this atrocity unto a small child, abandoned and deformed through no fault of his own for no reason.  The wicked smile is almost always (including within this film) associated with villainy, which makes Gwynplaine’s forced smile play against expectations and ordinary readings of the facial expression.  We know there’s a good man trapped behind that hideous avatar, we just have to work to see past it.

Much like Notre Dame’s Quasimodo and the history books’ own John Merrick, Gwynplaine is a noble, humble figure trapped with the face of a monster.  But unlike those aforementioned physically-disfigured heroes born with latent birth defects, Gwynplaine’s affliction is manmade.  Seen now, that infamous image of his surgeon sticking his fingers in his mouth to form a wicked smile exudes a degree of cruelty not seen even in some of the nastiest of Lars Von Trier’s films.

Being a pre-code film also afforded The Man Who Laughs with a myriad of transgressions later censors would surely have edited out including the sexually hungry Duchess Josiana and her attempts to seduce Gwynplaine consist of the half-naked nymphet practically dragging him into her bed kicking and screaming.  While ostensibly a melodrama about a clown figuratively and literally crying on the inside replete with last-minute rescues in the form of his German shepherd coming to save the day, it also includes some still-graphic violence of said dog viciously tearing a man’s throat out.

Upon initial release, the film did well enough commercially to engender a re-release with the then newly introduce Movietone sound-on-film system, incorporating various musical cues and scattershot sound effects for key sequences including a crowd chanting Gwynplaine’s name.  The film also marked one of the earliest examples of an original song produced for the film tacked onto the end as a promotional tool for record sales, with the song When Love Comes Stealing plays over the grand finale.

Critically, however, the reception to The Man Who Laughs was divisive.  Rather infamously esteemed critic Paul Rotha referred to Leni’s daring and still disturbing epic “slack, driveling, slovenly”.  This negative perception surrounding The Man Who Laughs tragically and inexplicably remained present for decades all the way through the 1970s.  It wasn’t until probably the last thirty or so years, however, that the film began being reassessed and met with newfound appraisal.  Roger Ebert, in particular, added the film to his ‘Great Movies’ list, calling it ‘one of the final treasures of German silent Expressionism’. 

While not overtly a horror film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, what The Man Who Laughs manages to do which neither of those pictures does to the same effect is get under your skin.  Because it doesn’t announce itself as a horror piece it plays like a waking nightmare with the poor Gwynplaine as a prisoner within his own body with a grin so creepy it imprints itself into your psyche the moment your eyes first meet it. 

Yes the finale makes a swan dive for broad melodrama and no there aren’t any over scares in this, per se.  And yet something in it stays with you and disturbs on an implacable level, touching on fears of uncharted realms of human cruelty while calling attention to the old saying ‘not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within’.  The impression this flickering, grainy gothic baroque period piece leaves you with a kind of daylight terror which remains timelessly difficult to process or shake off.  As the spokesman for Carl Laemmle, Jr. declared before the opening credits to the eventual 1931 Frankenstein, ‘well, we’ve warned you’.

--Andrew Kotwicki