The Man Who Laughs (1928 film)

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The Man Who Laughs
Theatrical poster
Directed by Paul Leni
Produced by Paul Kohner
Screenplay by J. Grubb Alexander
Walter Anthony
Mary McLean
Charles E. Whittaker
Based on The Man Who Laughs
by Victor Hugo
Starring Mary Philbin
Conrad Veidt
Brandon Hurst
Olga V. Baklanova
Cesare Gravina
Stuart Holmes
Samuel de Grasse
George Siegmann
Josephine Crowell
Music by William Axt
Sam Perry
Ernö Rapée
Cinematography Gilbert Warrenton
Edited by Edward L. Cahn
Maurice Pivar
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • April 27, 1928 (1928-04-27) (NYC Premiere)
  • November 4, 1928 (1928-11-04)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent
English intertitles

The Man Who Laughs is a 1928 American silent film directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name and stars Mary Philbin as the blind Dea and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine. The film is known for the grim carnival freak-like grin on the character Gwynplaine's face, which often leads it to be classified as a horror film.[1] Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film."[2]

The Man Who Laughs is a Romantic melodrama, similar to films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The film was one of the early Universal Pictures productions that made the transition from silent films to sound films, using the Movietone sound system introduced by William Fox. The film was completed in April 1927 but was held for release in April 1928, with sound effects and a music score that included the song, "When Love Comes Stealing," by Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, and Erno Rapee.

Conrad Veidt's character Gwynplaine has been known as an inspiration for the Joker, Batman's nemesis.

Plot summary[edit]

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."[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

The film leaves off the tragic ending of Hugo's original novel, in which Dea dies while at sea and Gwynplaine drowns himself.




After Universal Pictures had large hits with Gothic dramas such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the company encouraged film producer Carl Laemmle to produce a follow-up in a similar vein. Laemmle decided to film Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs. The title role was originally meant for Lon Chaney (who starred in the previous Universal films), but he was under a long-term contract with MGM Studios.[4]

Being of German ancestry, Laemmle had connections with the German film scene, which gave him an inside track when negotiating with some of Germany's filmmakers and actors. Laemmle had seen director Paul Leni's Waxworks (1926) and was impressed with the movie's sets and ominous stylistics. Laemmle chose Leni to accept the challenge of crafting the film adaptation. In addition, Laemmle pursued Veidt, who played a prominent role in Waxworks, to star. Veidt had also previously starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).[4]

Mary Philbin, who had played Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), was cast as Dea.

Olga V. Baclanova's resemblance to modern singer Madonna in The Man Who Laughs has been noted by current critics.[5]

Universal put over $1,000,000 into The Man Who Laughs, an extremely high budget for an American film of the time.[4]

Critical reception[edit]

Initially, the critical assessment of The Man Who Laughs was mediocre, with some critics disliking the morbidity of the subject matter and others complaining that the Germanic looking sets did not evoke 17th century England.[4] In recent times, the assessment has been more positive. Critic Roger Ebert declared it "One of the final treasures of German silent Expressionism."[2]

Although actor Kirk Douglas was long interested in producing a remake, The Man Who Laughs has only been refilmed twice in the sound era. L'Uomo che Ride by Italian director Sergio Corbucci was released in 1966, changing the setting from Queen Anne's England to the 16th century Italian court of the Borgias.[6] In 2012 a French language adaptation that was more closely based on the novel and starred Gérard Depardieu and Christa Theret was released. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 100%, based on 14 reviews, with a rating average of 8.4/10.[7]

Influence on other works[edit]

Veidt's character has been listed as one of the inspirations for Batman's nemesis The Joker.[8][9] There is even a Batman graphic novel called Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005) in homage of this film.

Home media[edit]

In 2002, Kino Entertainment released the film on a Region 1 DVD .

See also[edit]


  1. ^ PopMatters Staff. "PopMatters: The Man Who Laughs". Retrieved 2007-01-11. 
  2. ^ a b Roger Ebert. "Roger Ebert: Great Movies: The Man Who Laughs". Retrieved 2007-01-11. 
  3. ^ a b c The Man Who Laughs (1928; DVD, Kino Video, 2003).
  4. ^ a b c d James Newman. "Images: The Man Who Laughs". Retrieved 2007-01-11. 
  5. ^ Euker, Jake (February 7, 2004). "Review: The Man Who Laughs". AMC. Retrieved August 23, 2011. 
  6. ^ Hans J. Wollstein. "The Man Who Laughs > Overview". Retrieved 2007-01-11. 
  7. ^ "The Man Who Laughs (1928) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  8. ^ "How the Joker Works". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 19 April 2016. 
  9. ^ Pam Keesey. "The Man Who Laughs (1928) - The Man Who Laughs: A Forgotten Masterpiece -". Retrieved 19 April 2016. 

External links[edit]