The Man Who Laughs (1928) Directed by Paul Leni. Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova (125 min).

Little Gwynplaine is heir to a royal title. Plotters after his fortune abduct and then cruelly disfigure him, selling him to a carnival after his mouth has been surgically carved into a grotesque grin. Both historical spectacle and horror film, a genre without many modern examples but beloved during the silent era, Leni directs in extravagantly romantic German Expressionist style. Veidt (later, Major Strasser in Casablanca) emotes heartbreakingly, he’s a tender soul with a monster’s face, inspiring Batman scribe Bob Kane to create The Joker. Live musical accompaniment by David Drazin.

The Man Who Laughs was Universal’s biggest production of 1928, the backlot “smothered in décor and chiaroscuro and turned into an impressive recreation of the splendor and horror of 17th century London” (Clarens 56). Lon Chaney specialized in a particular style of historical/horror/romance, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are the lasting examples of this style. The deaths of both Chaney and Leni at the moment of the silent to sound transition did more to halt this extravagant style of horror film production than the arrival of talkies, which commenced in 1927. The Man Who Laughs was completed in a silent version, and then a Movietone synchronized score was added later.

The Man Who Laughs (L’Homme Qui Rit) was based on a novel by Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. He wrote it in 1869, while living in exile in England. It had been filmed twice before, once in 1909 and once in 1921. It is a variation on Beauty and the Beast, as were the Lon Chaney films whose heroes are Quasimodo and the Phantom. Chaney specialized in playing these deeply wounded and deformed, yet sentimental monsters, and many reviewed bemoaned the fact that Chaney had not played Gwynplaine with the flourishes of his customary and beloved masochism.

The original publicity for the film masked Gwynplaine’s terrible grin. Like a freak show (their heyday was in the 1920s) you had to pay your money for the big reveal. The idea that children were regularly mutilated to increase their worth to a carnival sideshow is repulsive, a reaction that has been elicited in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, where children with beautiful singing voices are blinded to make them more pitiful beggars. Gwynplaine’s make-up was by Jack Pierce, whose masterpiece was Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster make up in 1931.

The photo, from William K. Everson’s The Bad Guys, that terrified and fascinated me as a child.

The 56 sets took eight months to design and build. The teeming Southwark Fair scene—the recreation of a famous London carnival of the 16th and 17th centuries, juxtaposes a mélange of freak shows, musicians, exotic animals, bear baiting, boxers and tumblers, included 1500 actors in period costume and 18 cameras. The sets were by the brilliant Charles D. Hall, the designer of Frankenstein’s laboratory, the spooky staircase in Dracula, the creaking mansion in The Old Dark House, the Bauhaus nightmares of The Black Cat, and for Chaplin, the madly teetering cabin in The Gold Rush and the out of control factory machinery in Modern Times. His sketch for the scene where Gwynplaine is abandoned on a frigid rock is reproduced in the film almost exactly. There are many memorable aspects to The Man Who Laughs, but the production design is indispensable to the atmosphere of horror. It’s worth noting that while actors in front of the camera may be what you think you remember from a film, the technical people behind the scenes are responsible for many of your dreams and nightmares.

William K. Everson appreciates the visual beauty as a major attribute of the film. “…it is, however, an incredibly good film to look at. The marvelous prologue, with its grim torture chamber scenes, the blizzard, with bodies swinging from gibbets and the abandoning of a young child as the boat pulls away from the dock, sets a high powered standard of visual eloquence.” He also loves the subplot with Olga Baclanova “and her attempted seduction of Gwynplaine—stripping away his mask and kissing his deformed mouth in a manner combining lust and loathing at the same time—results in some of the most remarkable scenes of sensuality and animal passion ever seen on the screen” (Everson 28).

Veidt said in the film’s pressbook, “Although my mouth was made up for Gwynplaine, the laughing clown, my gums especially painted and false teeth superceded on my own, I could not rely on this alone for effect. I could not paint a grin on my face. I had to put it there, and keep it there myself. No pretty dancer every worked harder to earn to kick than I did to grin. But, learning to acquire a grin was not as difficult as trying to relax it! After a few months work, it seemed to be ‘set’ there” (Conrich 51).

Director Paul Leni was one of the many Europeans fleeing the Nazis to find a home at Universal Studios, run by Carl Laemmle, himself German born. Leni was born in Berlin, and became a painter, and then a set designer. Leni specialized in thrillers, notably Waxworks, in which Veidt also starred. He brought his Expressionist camera eye to Hollywood, noticeable in the very first shot of his first American film, in which a hand wipes away the cobwebs from the opening title of The Cat and the Canary. His films were “the cornerstone of Universal’s school of horror (Clarens 56). Although Leni died tragically of blood poisoning from an ulcerated tooth in 1929 at the age of 44, his influence is felt in all the great Universal horrors, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Cat and The Werewolf of London, all founding monsters of Hollywood.

Conrad Veidt was born in Berlin, Germany in 1893. After the compliments following his delivery of a dramatic prologue before a school Christmas play, he decided to be an actor, much to the dismay of his family. Offered a year long contract as an extra with Max Reinhardt’s theater company, he printed up business cards reading, “Conrad Veidt, Member of the Deutsches Theater.” He served briefly in WW I, but was furloughed after contracting jaundice. He resumed his stage work, rejecting all offers for lowly motion pictures, until he realized that he could get $50 a day, instead of a month, if he switched his loyalties. One of his early silent films was Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) which was a plea for gay rights and the overturning of Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuals. Cadaverous at 6’ 3” and 165 lbs, he was perfect to play the murderous sleepwalker, Cesare, in the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and would soon find himself called “Man with the Wicked Eyes” and “King of the Gooseflesh.” He also starred in the first of many versions of The Hands of Orlac about a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has a murderer’s hands grafted onto his arms.

It was Paul Leni’s Waxworks, in which he played Ivan the Terrible, that brought him to Hollywood. John Barrymore wrote to him, “I saw your picture, Waxworks. You must play King Louis XI. You know you are one of the most talented men in the film world. You don’t know me, but I want you to come. I cannot make the picture without you” (Soister 17). He starred with Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue, stooped and sinister as the King (to disguise the fact that he was considerably taller than the star). His performance was acclaimed, and fan magazines anointed him, “The German Lon Chaney” who was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Chaney had recently deserted Universal for MGM and the studio was looking for a replacement, both for his talent and money making abilities. Carl Laemmle’s assistant, Paul Kohner, convinced Laemmle to hire Veidt at $1500 a week, and engage him to star in what would have been Chaney’s next project. Veidt and Leni had worked together in Waxworks, and Leni could give Veidt subtle direction in German, a language they both felt more familiar with than English. Some consider The Man Who Laughs the only time Veidt, primarily a character actor, would play a leading part for a great director.

In 1930, Veidt returned to Berlin, rather than star in Dracula at Universal, but the worsening political situation there made him look for work elsewhere. Invited to make a film in England, when asked on an official form his reason for leaving Germany, he wrote Jude (Jew) even though it was his wife, and not himself that was Jewish. He starred in two films in Britain protesting anti-Semitism. A contract to act in Wilhelm Tell forced him to return to Germany, where the Nazi government tried to detain him by saying he was to ill to travel. British producer Michael Balcon sent a physician to Germany to confirm his health, and get him out of the country, and Veidt never returned home to Germany again.

His most spectacular role in British films was as the evil vizier, Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad. Not only was this Technicolor version, which costarred Sabu and June Duprez quite splendid, but the Disney version of Aladdin uses Veidt as a model for the animated Jaffar. In Hollywood films, Veidt’s contribution to the war effort was to play a succession of Nazi villains, the most famous of which was Major Strasser in Casablanca. Since MGM had charged Warner Brothers $25,000 for the used of Veidt, who was under contract to them, he was the highest paid actor in the film. Only a year later, he died of a heart attack on a California golf course. He was only 50.

Mary Philbin’s career did not outlast the silent era. A Universal Studios beauty contest runner-up in her hometown of Chicago, she came to Hollywood where she starred in several high profile films. She was in Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Go Round (Stroheim was perhapsone of the judges of her beauty contest photos) and her face is in one of the most famous silent film images, as she takes the mask off of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. She never married, although she was briefly engaged to Paul Kohner, the casting director and head of foreign language production at Universal. Her parents insisted she break off the union because of religious differences. Although she lived until 1993, she rarely appeared at silent film festivals, and lived her life quietly out of the spotlight.

Veidt and Philbin in a deleted happy ending scene from the film.

Olga Baclanova, who plays the lecherous Duchess Josiana was specifically requested for the role by Veidt. She appeared on stage with the Moscow Art Theater beginning in 1912, and worked extensively on stage and in films in Russia. Although she received the highest Soviet award for arts, “Worthy Artist of the Republic” the artistic climate was changing in her homeland. She defected to the US while acting in a play in New York. While she acted in a number of excellent films, including Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York, she is best known for her role as the trapeze artist Cleopatra, the only “normal” person in Tod Browning’s Freaks. Her enthusiasticly lacivious vamping as the Duchess is one of the film’s highlights; she looks rather eerily like Madonna.

Kirk Douglas at one point in his career was interested in starring in a remake of The Man Who Laughs, but on screening it found that perhaps it was not the film he remembered, and that it would not be a suitable setting for his own grin.

The first time I saw this film, it was with the Movietone score. I’d been looking forward to it, as a photo in one of my favorite books about old movies, had always disturbed me. The score is not particularly imaginative, and when a reedy tenor voice intrudes on a tender love scene, singing the dreadful “When Love Comes Stealing into my Heart” it ruins the mood, almost irreparably. Experienced with a fine score like the one provided by David Drazin, the film becomes a rousing crowd pleaser. When the dog saves the day, the audience cannot resist cheering.

Veidt, whose name is not particularly well known today, was a pioneer in the German Expressionist style that has forever after influenced the horror genre. Peter Kobel says if he had played no other part that Cesar, in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari he would be a cinema immortal, and Veidt himself said, “No matter what roles I play, I can’t get Caligari out of my system” (Kobel 148). His real face, gaunt and angular is one of the great character faces in the movies, and the face he shows us as Gwynplaine, one of the most hideous, and heart breaking, in the history of film.

An on-set production still. The top of the set was filled in with a matte shot.


(Deleted happy ending and on-set photo from Everson. Sources include: Illustrated History of the Horror Film by Carlos Clarens, “Before Sound: Universal, Silent Cinema and the Last of the Horror Spectaculars” by Ian Conrich in The Horror Film, edited by Stephen Prince, Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design by Léon Barsacq, film notes for the 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening by Richard Hildreth, Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson, Conrad Veidt on Screen by John T. Soister, Horror in Silent Films by Roy Kinnard, Conrad Veidt: From Caligari to Casablanca by Jerry C. Allen,, “Conrad Veidt: Part 2” by Pat Wilkes Battle in Films in Review May-June 1993, Silent Movies by Peter Kobel and the Library of Congress).