❉ Presented from Universal’s 4K restoration, one of the most influential silent films of all time.
There’s a line of dialogue in The Man Who Laughs that often enters my head. It’s “This is outrageous! A clown in the House of Peers!” Perfect place for him if you ask me. I mean, given the rate that Boris Johnson is filling the plush privileged benches of the Lords with all his cronies…
Joking aside, it’s incredible to consider just how relevant a ninety-two year old silent movie still is upon society and popular culture. The influence of German Expressionist Paul Leni’s 1928 film could be felt upon the successful Universal Monsters franchise which reached its peak in the 1940s, whilst the physical appearance of the Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt) film’s the tragic hero whose face has been disfigured with a permanent and paralysed rictus grin, proved to be the inspiration for Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker, with the DC Comics superhero creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson all agreeing that they had Veidt in mind when creating their most enduring villain in 1940. In 2008, Christopher Nolan‘s film The Dark Knight further established the link between Gotham’s bogeyman and the carnival performer Gwynplaine by depicting The Joker‘s trademark smile as a result of a similar disfigurement. The trend to encourage some sympathy and/or backstory into the character – which arguably began with Alan Moore’s 1988 one-shot origins tale, Killing Joke – reached its zenith last year with the widely acclaimed Todd Phillips film Joker, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as a failed stand-up comedian whose mental breakdown and nihilist streak went on to inspire a violent counter-cultural revolution against the elite establishment of Gotham City. As a result, now is the ideal time to release The Man Who Laughs to Blu-ray via Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, allowing audiences to see for themselves these influences and examine them further.
Based on the 1869 novel by Victor Hugo of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame fame, The Man Who Laughs opens in the England of the 1680s. James II (Samuel de Grasse) sits on the throne and he passes sentence upon his political enemy, Lord Clancharlie (also played by Conrad Veidt), to a grisly death inside the iron maiden. Clancharlie’s infant son, Gwynplaine, does not escape the king’s wrath either; deciding that he must “laugh forever at his fool of a father”, the child-buyer – or comprachico, to use the term coined by Hugo – Dr. Hardquannone (George Siegmann) and the goblin jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) carve a permanent, freakish grin into Gwynplaine’s mouth.
When the comprachico’s are later exiled from the kingdom, Gwynplaine is cast out into the snow where he discovers Dea, a blind baby girl, whose mother has died of hypothermia. Together, these orphans are taken in by travelling quack Ursus (Cesare Gravina), a kindly soul who encourages Gwynplaine to no longer hide his disfigurement in shame, to accept it and make it work for him. Fast forward some years and both Gwynplaine and Dea (Mary Philbin, who famously stared opposite Lon Chaney, the man who turned down the lead role of Gwynplaine here, in the 1925 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera), performing as strolling players in Ursus’ carnival show, wending its way through 17th century England. As ‘The Laughing Man’, Gwynplaine commands great audiences and his fame does not go unnoticed by Barkilphedro who, now serving the court of Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell), discovers that Gwynplaine’s existence as the rightful heir to the Clancharlie estate could present a problem for its current owner, the vampish Duchess Josiana (Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova).
Eager to see this threat for herself, Josiana attends the freak show, but finds herself at odds with the jeering crowds who laugh at Gwynplaine, finding his disfigurement both fascinating and curiously attractive. At the close of the show, the Duchess requests Gwynplaine’s company in her room, whereupon she attempts to seduce him. Gwynplaine resists the vivacious noblewoman’s advances and flees into the night, for it is Dea who has his heart. Though the self-consciousness he feels about his physical features has always meant that he believed himself unworthy of her love, on that evening as he returns to her side, he allows her to touch his disfigured face for the first time. The blind Dea reassures him with the words “God closed my eyes so I could see the real Gwynplaine!” and the pair finally, fully accept one another. However, a happy ending is not forthcoming for our lovebirds yet and a royal spanner is thrown into the works when Queen Anne’s guards search the land with a warrant for Gwynplaine’s arrest. Forced to fake his own death, Gwynplaine leaves Dea and Ursus, rendering them heartbroken and ordered to leave England by Barkilphedro.
It is revealed that Queen Anne’s plan is for Gwynplaine to marry Josiana, thereby avoiding any claims upon the Clancharlie estate. To that end, the Monarch further entices the hapless and humble freak show star with a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords, but Gwynplaine cannot be bought. Confronting his tormentors, he turns on them to renounce his title and refuse a life with a woman he does not love. Cowed by the very disfigurement they placed upon him, Gwynplaine roars “God made me a man!” and, intending to live as a free man, he escapes the royal court after much swordplay to arrive at the docks just in time to board a ship with Dea and Ursus and embark on a new life overseas.
I do love The Man Who Laughs. The iconic image of the rictus grin plastered upon Conrad Veidt’s face has meant that it is a film often associated with the horror genre, but this is false as it doesn’t really fit such a category. Instead, Leni’s film is more akin to a mature fairytale; a gothic, rip-roaring melodrama that has lost none of its spellbinding power and heartbreaking pathos in the ninety-two years since its original release. As a child first seeing it, I was fascinated by Conrad Veidt’s performance, and the palpable tragedy and bitter irony of a man whose disfigurement means that his grin remains even when he cries. The scene where, facing the jeers of the assembled lords, Gwynplaine hides not his smile from them for once, but instead he chooses to hide his eyes so he can no longer see the real grotesquery that is on display, is one of the most potent moment in the whole movie. Incidentally, it is said that the extras playing the insensitive Lords were so moved by Veidt’s performance in that scene that they burst into a spontaneous round of applause once Leni called cut.
It’s a beautiful movie too, with the near-unprecedented $1 million budget and Leni’s impressionist skills as a filmmaker ensuring that every cent is right there on the screen, from Charles D. Hall’s lavish (though admittedly more Germanic than English) set designs to the incredible make-up work of future Universal Monsters supremo Jack Pierce, the man behind that smile. Performances are strong with Veidt rightly securing his place in cinematic history and Philbin doing admirable work in a role that could, in lesser hands, have been little more than a retread of her work opposite Chaney in Phantom of the Opera.
Available now on Blu-ray, The Man Who Laughs benefits from Universal beautiful 4k restoration job, making it look as fresh as the day it was released in ’28. Extras include an interview with horror expert Kim Newman, a brand new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson and a short documentary featurette on the film’s production, plus a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford, and Richard Combs.
BLU-RAY EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES
❉ Limited Edition O Card Slipcase (2000 Units)
❉ 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Universal’s 4K restoration
❉ Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (stereo) score by the Berklee School of Music
❉ Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (mono) 1928 movietone score
❉ A brand new interview with author and horror expert Kim Newman
❉ A brand new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson
❉ Paul Leni and “The Man Who Laughs” – featurette on the production of the film
❉ Rare stills gallery
❉ Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford, and Richard Combs
❉ Eureka Entertainment’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (Masters of Cinema). Available from 17 August 2020 for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK. Presented from Universal’s 4K restoration, as part of The Masters of Cinema Series, featuring a Limited-Edition O-Card Slipcase (First Print Run only]. Available to order from: Eureka Store | Amazon
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also contributing to the book Scarred For Life Vol II which looks at the inappropriate pop culture of the 1980s and should be out next year.