THE MAN WHO LAUGHS
Unfortunately, The Man Who Laughs was not a success. This was all due to its timing. It was made silent just at the time when films were making the move over to sound, which had come one year earlier with The Jazz Singer (1927). It was briefly contemplated that The Man Who Laughs be shot in sound but the idea was quashed when it was realised that Conrad Veidts dentures did not allow him to speak and the film was only released with an orchestral soundtrack instead.
The Man Who Laughs was directed by German emigre Paul Leni. In Germany, Leni had made the historical film Waxworks (1924), a classic in the Expressionist style of the German silent era where Conrad Veidt gave a memorable performance as a mad Ivan the Terrible. Leni had been brought to Hollywood by Universal president Carl Laemmle Jr where he had made the stylish Old Dark House thriller The Cat and the Canary (1927), which had been a big hit the previous year, as well as the Charlie Chan film The Chinese Parrot (1927). Leni would go on to make another Old Dark House thriller The Last Warning (1929) but his promising career was cut short by his death of blood poisoning in 1929.
The Man Who Laughs is an exquisitely produced film. For all that people often dismiss silent cinema as crudely made, this is a work that has been produced with the consummate artistry and the very heights of production design, photography and directional élan that were available during the era. Paul Leni brings an extraordinary arsenal of visual trickery to bear on the film like the striking opening scene set in the kings bedroom with a wall covered by giant 12-foot carved icons, one of which suddenly opens up as a secret door. There is a superbly moody set piece when young Gwynplaine is abandoned in Cornwall by the Gypsies a scene that is pure German Expressionism. We see the child Gwynplaine following a trail of footprints in the snow that lead to a cliff face, only for Lenis camera to pan up and show the silhouettes of skeletons dangling on hangmans gibbets overhead, before the boy finds the mother frozen to death in the hollow of the cliff holding a still living baby.
The main failing of The Man Who Laughs is that after such a visually arresting opening the film slows down. The films biggest problem is simply that it is too faithful to the Victor Hugo novel, which was originally published in 1869. The middle of the film tends to drag down amid a lot of overly complicated plotting about the discovery of Gwynplaines heritage and the Duchesss court schemings. The story feels over-plotted here, amid which some aspects are not clear we are not sure why the court jester Barkiplhedro seems to be manipulating the situation, nor for that matter why Josiana becomes obsessed with Gwynplaine, whether she knows the truth about his heritage, or whether she genuinely desires him. Certainly, Paul Leni plays the various arrests and schemings for fabulous melodrama.
Conrad Veidt gives a memorable performance with his angular face contorted into a rictus grin, his hair slicked back and his eyebrows seemingly frozen in wide-eyed surprise the whole way through. [Bob Kane has directly cited the character of Gwynplaine as the inspiration for the creation of The Joker in the Batman comic-book and it was later borrowed as the title character in the William Castle flm Mr. Sardonicus (1961)]. As the Duchess Josiana, Olga Baclanova, the expatriate Russian actress ]who later gained fame as the scheming Cleopatra in Freaks (1932), gives a performance that makes the screen ooze with sexuality. Paul Leni seems to put everything he has into depicting Baclanovas sexuality showing her draped across her bed in a negligee trying to seduce Conrad Veidt and making remarkably intense eye contact across the crowd during his performance. The Man Who Laughs was made several years before the Hays Code came into place and Leni is able to get away with scenes showing her naked from behind getting up out of the bath. Mary Philbin plays with the sort of dewy, wide-eyed innocence that had been personified by Mary Pickford during the silent era.
The Man Who Laughs had been filmed as an earlier Austrian-made silent production in 1921, which is still in existence today, and as a later French-Italian sound production in 1966. Neither of these versions are widely seen and the version here is the definitive adaptation of the Victor Hugo story.
Film online in several parts beginning here:-