The first I knew of this film was when I found out that Conrad Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, was the inspiration for the look of The Joker in the Batman comics. I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since, and today I finally took the 1 hour 50 minutes it takes to watch this silent romantic melodrama.
The Man Who Laughs is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, set in England around 1690 it tells the story of the son of an English Nobleman. The Nobleman has offended King James II and is sentenced to death by Iron Maiden, before being put to death the King tells him of the fate of his son. He has been sent to a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone who has disfigured the boy so that his face is locked in a permanent grin.
As a boy, Gwynplaine ends up homeless and comes across an abandoned baby, Dea. He takes her and finds Ursus who takes them both in and raises them. Over time Gwynplaine falls in love with the blind Dea and she with him, but his appearance makes him feel unworthy of her.
Together they put on shows and the crowd love to laugh at Gwynplaine’s clown like face, he becomes a tremendous success. But he is a sad and distressed man, only happy in the company of the blind Dea.
Gwnplaine’s father’s estate is currently owned by Duchess Josiana, when Dr. Hardquannone comes across Gwynplaine he writes to the Queen telling her that the rightful heir is still alive. Queen Ann decrees that the rightful heir be restored and marry Josiana. Gwynplaine is made a Lord and ultimately refuses the Queens desire to see him married to Josiana and runs back to his beloved Dea.
The film was directed by Paul Leni, a leading figure in German Expressionist cinema and The Man Who Laughs was his third film for Universal Studios. He would go on to make one more film before his death in 1929.
The film is interesting, incorrectly believed to be a horror film because of Veidt’s appearance, it’s actually a romantic tale about how love is something more than physical attraction. It seems a little cliched now to state that it’s also the tale of a clown who is crying on the inside, but it really is and it’s something that’s conveyed by Veidt’s amazing performance in every close-up of his eyes. It’s Veidt that shines in the film, not that the other actors don’t make an impact, but the character of Gwynplaine is so striking, and Veidt so expressive in the way he shows the inner turmoil of a disfigured man that everyone else appears ordinary in comparison.
The film was originally criticised for being too dark and too expressionist, if anything I think it’s not expressionist enough. With a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the fractured mind of The Somnambulist is shown in the distinctive set design, in comparison The Man Who Laughs is too everyday. It would have been interesting to focus on Gwynplaine more and see the world from his perspective. I am biased though, too dark and too expressionist are criticisms I’ve never thrown at any film.