"The Man Who Laughs" (1927)

Produced by Universal Pictures
Directed by Paul Leni
Musical score and sound effects by Movietone
10 reels
Based on the novel "L'Homme Qui Rit" (1869) by Victor Hugo
New York premiere November 4, 1927, and general release in 1928.

Cast: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Josephine Crowell, George Siegmann, Brandon Hurst, Sam De Grasse, Stuart Holmes, Cesare Gravina, Nick De Ruiz, Edgar Norton, Torbin Meyer, Julius Molnar, Jr., Charles Puffy, Frank Puglia, Jack Goodrich, Carmen Costello and Zimbo (Homo, the wolf).


In "The Man Who Laughs," Conrad Veidt plays the role of a pathetic victim instead of his usual role as a villain. In this moving melodrama he had a dual role, starring as both Gwynplaine (The Man Who Laughs), and also as Lord Clancharlie, Gwynplaine's father, a Scottish nobleman who has rebelled against King James II (Sam De Grasse) in 17th-century Britain. As Lord Clancharlie is being placed for execution in the notorious "Iron Maiden," he asks what will be done with his son, Gwynplaine. King James' jester (Brandon Hurst) pulls his mouth apart in a grimace, and the king understands that the young boy with a beaming, angelic smile will be given to a notorious band of nomads, the Comprachicos.

The Comprachicos purposely disfigure the young boy by carving the corners of his mouth into a fixed, hideous grin. When the Comprachios are exiled from England, Gwynplaine is abandoned in the English countryside during a severe snowstorm.

Plodding through the storm, the youngster comes across a baby girl in the arms of her frozen and lifeless mother. Although the boy doesn't have any reason to perpetuate acts of kindness due to his practically shattered spirit, his heart goes out to this young child, and he rescues her. As he plods through the howling storm with the baby in tow, they are saved by a small traveling troupe of actors who are led by kindly philosopher, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Ursus is horrified when he sees Gwynplaine's disfigured face, and he realizes that the baby girl, Dea, is blind.

They are both adopted by the troupe, and years later Dea, (Mary Philbin) has grown into a beautiful blind girl. A romance of the heart, not of the eyes, develops between Gwyplaine and Dea. Gwynplaine, who has now become a famous performing clown, is finally happy, and fate steps in when Gwynplaine discovers he is heir to a peerage and is summoned back to London.

It is there that his life will take a fateful turn when the jester who had persuaded the king to disfigure Gwynplaine and the queen see an opportunity to discipline the queen's half sister Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova).

One of Leni's best

"The Man Who Laughs" is considered one of director Paul Leni's best films and is an excellent example of a UFA inspired gothic drama. Many consider "The Man Who Laughs" as one of Veidt's best performances, and the resplendent sets, expressive camera angles and exquisite low-key lighting (created by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton) make for a very enjoyable film.

Many Lon Chaney fans cite Conrad Veidt's role as Gwynplaine a masterpiece that rivals Chaney's performances. Lon Chaney would possibly have been the only actor who could have rivaled Veidt's performance of a tortured man with a heart-wrenching appearance. The movie was enhanced by a synchronized music track with a melody entitled "When Love Comes Smiling Into My Heart" that frequently was heard in the scenes in which Gwyplaine and Dea were together.

The reviews of 1928 were mixed:
Photoplay, May, 1928, diagnosed, "Draggy version of a classic that may interest the hounds of art. Conrad Veidt's acting is the high spot of the film."

Harrison's Reports, on June 9, 1928, declared " .... it is a wonderfully produced picture. Mr. Veidt does better work in it than Lon Chaney has 'ever' dreamed of doing."

The Variety film review of May 2, 1928, observed, "The Man Who Laughs" will appeal to the Lon Chaney mob and to those who like quasi-morbid plot themes. To others it will seem fairly interesting, a trifle unpleasant, and intermittently tedious."

Paul Leni

German-born Paul Leni (1885 - 1929) began his movie career as a set designer and a designer of posters for both films and plays before becoming a director in 1916. He continued to design sets and worked as an assistant director for E.A. Dupont and other German directors while directing his own films. He attracted attention when he directed "Backstairs" (a.k.a. "Hintertreppe") (UFA, 1921), and he then directed other intimate psychological dramas devoted to analyzing the demoralized lower middle class after the defeat of Germany in 1918. Leni directed "Waxworks" (Neptun-Film, 1924), which also featuring Veidt. Later, in 1927, along with Veidt and other film artisans, he joined the German invasion of Hollywood. He had been invited over by Carl Laemmle to direct films at the Universal Studios. The first and best of the films he made at Universal was "The Cat and the Canary" (1927), starring Laura La Plante and based upon the Broadway play. His second Hollywood film, "The Chinese Parrot" (Universal, 1927), which was a silent Charlie Chan feature starring Sojin, was a modest production. Then in 1928, Leni was given a large budget and directed his big hit, "The Man Who Laughs." His final film, a partial talkie called "The Last Warning" (Universal, 1929), was a takeoff of his successful "The Cat and the Canary." Again, the leading role was given to Laura La Plante. Soon after Leni completed the picture, he died tragically of blood poisoning.

Mary Philbin

Mary Philbin (1903 - 1993), one of the beautiful, lifelong bachelorettes of the silver screen, made all of her films during the silent era. A native of Chicago and a close friend of the Laemmle family, her success at sweeping the honors at beauty contests with her unparalleled looks landed her a contract with Universal Studios in 1921 at the tender age of 18. Her most famous films include "Merry-Go-Round" (Universal, 1923), "The Phantom of the Opera" (Universal/Super Jewel, 1925) and "Drums of Love" (D.W. Griffith, United Artists, 1928). Her last film was made in 1929 and called "The Shannons of Broadway" (Universal), which was produced in both a silent and sound version. After leaving films, she retired to quiet seclusion with her mother. Although she was a big star in Hollywood, it was not her desire to maintain many direct ties. The only industry contacts she kept were her devoted family friends, the Laemmles.

Olga Baclanova

One of the other seasoned performers was Olga Baclanova (1899-1974) born in Russia. She began her stage career at 16 with the Moscow Art Theater. While on tour to the United States with a Soviet company, she decided to remain in the United States. Veidt had specifically requested that Baclanova be given the role of the sultry and lascivious Duchess Josiana. She had important roles in numerous films, and surprisingly she is best remembered for her role in the horror classic "Freaks".

Sources: World Film Directors by John Wakeman
Conrad Veidt by Jerry C. Allen

copyright 2001 by John DeBartolo. All rights reserved.

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