The Man Who Laughs

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Taking place in England in the year 1690, The Man Who Laughs features Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman who has offended King James II. The monarch sentences Gwynplaine’s father to death in an iron maiden, after calling upon a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone, to disfigure the boy’s face into a permanent grin. As a title card states, the King condemned him “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.”

The homeless Gwynplaine is seen wandering through a snowstorm and discovers an abandoned baby girl, the blind Dea. The two children are eventually taken in by Ursus, a mountebank. Years pass and Gwynplaine falls in love with Dea, but refuses to marry her because he feels his hideous face makes him unworthy. The three earn their living through plays highlighting the public’s fascination with Gwynplaine’s disfigurement. Their travels bring them before the deceased King’s successor, Queen Anne. That is when Queen Anne’s jester, Barkilphedro, discovers records which reveal Gwynplaine’s lineage and his rightful inheritance of his father’s position in the court.

Gwynplaine’s deceased father’s estate is currently owned by the Duchess Josiana and Queen Anne decrees that the royal duchess must marry Gwynplaine, as its rightful heir, to make things right. Josiana, who knows who Gwynplaine is, arranges a rendezvous and is sexually attracted to, but also repelled by the “Laughing Man” image. Gwynplaine, who has been made a Peer in the House of Lords, refuses the Queen’s order of marriage and escapes, chased by guards. He finds Ursus and Dea at the docks, sailing from England under banishment, and joins them on the boat.


Other than recently rewatching The Artist a few weeks ago, it has been quite some time since I last watched a silent film. Figuring it was about that time, I decided it was time to do something about that, thus I watched The Man Who Laughs.

What is this about?

In this classic horror film based on a novel by Victor Hugo, Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), 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. He finds refuge in a traveling theatre troupe, but his lineage is eventually discovered, and he soon finds himself being pulled back into the social and political world he was taken from as a boy.

What did I like?

Story. Based on the novel of the same name, this is a film that brings it to life without resorting to mutating the source material just to make it more interesting. As far as I know, the only real change is less of the wolf, Homo, and the ending, which is more morose in the book than the film, very similar to another novel/silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Legacy. Conrad Veidt may not be well-known by today’s audiences, but you are sure to know a couple of characters that have been influenced by characters he has portrayed on screen, Jafar and the Joker. The character he plays here, Gwynplaine, is the basis for the Joker. Going even further, as I was watching the film, I noticed just about every incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime, from the comics to Heath Ledger, played out. Whether that was some subconscious thing in the back of my head, or just various parts that influenced the various Jokers is debatable, but there you go.

Emotional. There is a real emotional resonance about this film, mainly tied into Viedt’s tragic portrayal of Gwynplaine. Part of this can be traced back to Hugo’s writing, who has also made us feel for characters like Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera, but it takes someone with real talent to bring life into a character on the big screen…in a silent film, on top of that!!! This is something we just don’t get from today’s films.

What didn’t I like?

Genre. There seems to be a great discrepancy regarding what genre this should fall in. Some say horror, some say melodrama, some say thriller. I vote for that drama/thriller. I can get the horror thing, especially if you were seeing this for the first time when it was released in 1928, but other than the creepy permanent grin, there really isn’t anything that can deemed horror in my eyes. Now, if you get creeped out by that Soundgarden video for “Black Hole Sun”, then yeah, you might want to put this in the horror bin, but I don’t really think many people would go that route.

Transition. If I’m not mistaken, this is one the last silent films, as “talkies” were on the horizon. You can hear those elements on display here as there are sound effects, and some vocals (just people screaming…which you can barely make out). This is more of a personal complaint, as I’m sure this blew people’s minds when it was initially released, but for me, when I watch a silent film, I want to enjoy the silence.

The Man Who Laughs sounded like some kind of flick that would have us following a sadistic supervillain-type. At least that’s was my first impression upon hearing it. I was wrong, but delightfully so, as I enjoyed this film immensely. I won’t recommend this to everyone, though. Not all people are into silent cinema, and that’s ok. If you are, however, then you should most definitely check this out. It is a must-see!

4 out of 5 stars


One Response to “The Man Who Laughs”

  1. […] some praise on director Brian de Palma, at least for his decision to insert clips of the great film The Man Who Laughs here and there. Why is this relevant? Well, Elizabeth Short’s body was found with a Glasgow […]

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