The Man Who Laughs (1928)


  • directed by Paul Leni
  • starring Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst, Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell
  • Gwynplaine, the son of an aristocrat, is kidnapped for political reasons and then disfigured by a gypsy surgeon, who leaves the boy’s face paralyzed in a contorted smile.

 “God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine.”

Director Paul Leni was a German avant-garde painter and set designer who experienced some success with the stylish anthology film, Waxworks, but never broke through in Germany or during his brief time in the U.S. There was good material and some breathtaking visual moments for Leni but he very much remained an aesthetic-driven everyman until the end of his life one year after releasing Universal’s adaptation of The Man Who Laughs. Going back to the Victor Hugo well was an attempt by the studio to keep the high-profile Gothic romantic melodrama train rolling after two big successes in the years prior–The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.

Like the early films of Joe May and Ernst Lubitsch, the look and feel of Leni’s films are rarely without a mighty theatrical and Expressionist aesthetic. The carnival settings in this film were exciting and twisted and the scenes with the royals appropriately opulent. The subject matter was begging for a loud form of Expressionist compositions with props and angles thrashing across the screen. Here though Leni went in another direction, perhaps recognizing the otherworldly qualities of the narrative and going for a more subdued and natural visual form. By 1928, pure Expressionism as it was known was coming to an end hand in hand with silent film. The style primarily existed only in the silent years and was then picked apart and appropriated throughout many more mainstream genres going forward.

Written in 1869, The Man Who Laughs is about a man who was used by others for various purposes since birth. Gwynplaine was used as a young boy by King James II as a lesson to his insubordinate father. He was then found and used as a freak show entertainer positioned right next to the three sword swallowing man and the five-legged cow. Later in life he was used again by the royals who discover his esteemed lineage and need him to legitimize the Duchess Josiana through marriage.

Through all of these injustices Gwynplaine has no choice but to literally smile, as it was carved into his face at a young age. After his father is killed he wanders and stumbles across a child in similar circumstances, the blind girl Dea, and both get taken in by the charlatan, Ursus. There is always love and care shared between the deeply insecure Gwynplaine and the soft-spoken and vulnerable Dea. Unlike the carnival audience members who point and laugh, Dea is unable to see any disfigurement and instead notices an immensely warm person who has the gift of making people laugh.

Mary Philbin plays Dea like she is made of tissue paper and the forecast calls for heavy rain. To see her in The Man Who Laughs is to want to drop everything and nurture her. A very delicate performance. Both leads elicit much sympathy as the great Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine was similarly raw, but it was a unique watching experience to have to rely on his eyes alone to glean any depth of emotion. Silent film hinges on a performance style that more often than not crosses the line to over-emotive and this was the exact opposite. These two leads say everything that needs to be said about pain, damage, and much more without doing much of anything.

The length of the movie was one problem I had. When a simple story like this takes 110 minutes to unfold, often, as here, there will be buffer scenes or side stories that weaken its impact. In this case the greater share of showing what’s being done to Gwynplaine and Dea as opposed to how they’re coping with or internalizing such injustice kept interrupting my heartfelt devotion to the characters.

The one part of The Man Who Laughs that I was fully expecting but looking forward to was the happy ending for the pair. After escaping Queen Anne’s grand plan, Gwynplaine dodges several guards to reunite with Ursus and Dea aboard a boat and right then was the moment the entire film was building to, the same smile we’ve seen all along but this time for real.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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