Flicker Alley and Universal Pictures Present Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) The Tortured Smile “Hear how they laugh at me. Nothing but a clown!”

Words that come to mind when I think of The Man Who Laughs: beautiful, disturbing, hauntingly poetic, disquieting, dreamlike, tragic, memorable.

Flicker Alley & Universal Pictures have released all these visual thoughtscapes into one gorgeous pristine Blu-ray/DVD combo! It’s Paul Leni‘s visually arresting masterpiece restored to all its glorious original flavor and so much more! Thank you, Aurora, for giving me an opportunity to review it!

I have always been drawn to the tragic beauty of Victor Hugo’s classical romantic horror story The Man Who Laughs. Now a new generation of film lovers can experience the powerful visual poetry of director Paul Leni’s film starring one of the most enigmatic screen presences. Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine brings to life the kidnapped heir to an earldom who was hideously deformed into a perpetually smiling clown, baring a sad eternal grimace. It leaves us with the eternal question — what is the quality of beauty or ugliness? There is an aspect of Beauty and the Beast to the story. Mary Philbin portrays the innocent waif Dea with her long blonde mane of curls and to me, Conrad Veidt is the ONLY Gwynplaine who could have brought the pathos to that infamously hideous visage (though I do not see his eternal smile as hideous).

This remastering of The Man Who Laughs is part of Universal Pictures’ ongoing silent restoration initiative. The source of the restoration is a 35mm composite fine grain film reel from the Universal Pictures vault, created in 1954 from the original nitrate camera negatives. The restoration team stabilized and deflickered the film, repairing scratches, warps, and dirt. The final gorgeous 4k digital restoration was completed by NBCUniversal StudioPost and is accompanied by the extraordinarily evocative score, newly recorded by the Berklee College of Music Silent Film Orchestra

Conrad Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, is The Man Who Laughs. Veidt’s face is well known to most cinephiles, particularly for inspiring Bob Kane’s legendary flamboyant Batman villain, the Joker. Orphaned as a child, Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies, and King James II orders that his face be carved into a hideous grin as punishment for the sins of his father, the Scottish Nobleman Clancharlie. Alone after his disfigurement, he rescues a blind girl named Dea. They are taken in by Ursus and star in a traveling theatre troop. Dea and Gwynplaine fall in love. She can’t see her lover’s tormented smile. They enjoy years of prosperity until Gwynplaine is recognized by the surgeon who disfigured him and the malevolent court jester, Barkilphedro, who served under the patronage of King James II.

Much like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), I would imagine The Man Who Laughs (1928) would have been a very difficult picture to sit down and get comfortable with given the subject matter. As Kevin Brownlow writes the film is “far too unpleasant” for some.

circa 1928: Mary Philbin (1903 – 1993) with Conrad Veidt (1893 – 1943) in a scene from the film ‘The Man Who Laughs’, directed by Paul Leni for Universal. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As I’ve always been into Gothic classical horror and fantasy stories, while the narrative is no less disturbing to me, I’m incredibly drawn to Gwynplaine as a romantically tragic hero. He is not a monster or a freak. He is a victim of monsters and cold-blooded opportunists who forced him into a mold in which he had to rely on fate to be kinder to him later on in life than it was when he was a little lad. As a French romanticism writer, Victor Hugo wrote poetry and was struck with an acute social consciousness in tune with social misery and injustice. Gwynplaine is one of his tragic figures.

Because of the success of his Cat and the Canary a year earlier, Leni was entrusted to direct The Man Who Laughs. There were the elements of horror that were expected from Paul Leni, the concept of disfigurements, of children sold into slavery, and the torture chambers with its Iron Maiden. This is considered Paul Leni’s best American film.

Leni was a German director and set designer most known in the U.S. for his Waxworks 1924, The Cat and the Canary 1927, The Chinese Parrot 1927, and The Last Warning 1928.

The Man Who Laughs influenced director James Whale who acknowledged Leni’s innovative technique as a major inspiration for his The Old Dark House 1932, Frankenstein 1931, and Bride of Frankenstein 1935. It has been said that Leni had an ‘Intoxicating flair for the grotesque’. This was a moment in filmmaking when movie studios had a flair for extravagant stylized horror!

Camerawork & Cinematographer by Gilbert Warrenton. (The Cat and the Canary 1927, A Man’s Past 1927, Lonesome 1928, The Mississippi Gambler 1929, High School Hellcats 1958, Panic in the Year Zero 1962)  “smothered in décor and chiaroscuro and turned into an impressive recreation of the splendor and horror of 17th century London”-Carlos Clarens

“The highly sophisticated qualities of mise-en-scene, decoration, lighting and playing of German Expressionist cinema are effectively combined with the marvelous expertise, pace and attack of the best American films of the period: and The Man Who Laughs proved to be one of the most vivid and dynamic films to survive from the silent cinema.” –From the booklet, Kevin Brownlow

Warrenton uses expressive camera angles, along with moody and beautifully executed low-key lighting, and atmospheric backlit frames. Each shot is framed like an exquisite 17th-century Hogarthian painting, utilizing Leni’s background in German Expressionism, culminating in scenes of pageantry, the elegance of its set pieces and stylized grandeur, and at times uneasy gruesomeness.

For example, the opening shot of Barkilphedro coming into King James II’s bedroom from behind the wall of imposing religious statues is quite remarkable in its ability to draw you into the story swiftly as a dark fairy-tale once Barkilphedro creeps along the wall like a goblin in a nightmarish fever dream.

And there’s a moment Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt playing a second role) is being sent to the Iron Lady floats into the frame and the darkness closes in around him. The shot is set up with black empty space to devour him, it’s brilliantly executed. The Duchess Josiana’s room is cluttered like a den of sensual pleasures, and even her little monkey adds a touch of the bizarre.

Another incredible cinematic moment is little Gwynplaine wandering the cold countryside of Cornwall among the swinging corpses hanging from the gibbets. The whole scene is hallucinatory in the fashion of expressionist art. The Southwark Fair and the show with the theatre troop with Ursus’ storytelling’ theatrics is shot with flair. Warrenton knew how to utilize space to tell a visual story.

Art Direction Charles D Hall worked with the Universal art directors from Hunchback for the standing sets.

“The whole design was very strongly under the influence of Paul Leni. Charles D. Hall who later became very big with Frankenstein, Dracula and All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the art directors. The research was done so well that it had an ancient European ‘imprint’ You felt that it was barely 1600. Every costume was specially designed and carefully executed.”

Hall went on to design the sets for Dracula and Frankenstein at Universal. Joseph Wright, and Thomas F. O’Neill. The set design is resplendent, especially in King James II’s bed chambers with the wall of Religious Saints and secret passageways.

The 56 sets took eight months to design and build. The teeming Southwark Fair scene—the recreation of a famous London carnival of the 16th and 17th centuries, juxtaposes a mélange of freak shows, musicians, exotic animals, bear baiting, boxers and tumblers, included 1500 actors in period costume and 18 cameras.

The sets were by the brilliant Charles D. Hall, the designer of Frankenstein’s laboratory, the spooky staircase in Dracula, the creaking mansion in The Old Dark House, the Bauhaus nightmares of The Black Cat, and for Chaplin, the madly teetering cabin in The Gold Rush and the out of control factory machinery in Modern Times. His sketch for the scene where Gwynplaine is abandoned on a frigid rock is reproduced in the film almost exactly. There are many memorable aspects to The Man Who Laughs, but the production design is indispensable to the atmosphere of horror. -William K. Everson

There are hints of German expressionism.  “One Needs to grasp the full implications of this style The low ceilings and vaults oblige the characters to stoop, and force them into those jerky movements and broken gestures which produce the extravagant curves and diagonals required by Expressionist precept. A few years later Leni was to use the same attitude in The Man Who Laughs, made in America when his King of England creeps down a corridor accompanied by his sadistic jester.” –From The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner 

Film Editor Edward L. Cahn (Yes!, my favorite schlocky B director famously known for films like Creature with The Atom Brain 1955, The She-Creature 1956, Zombies of Mora Tau 1957, Invasion of the Saucer Men 1957, It!, The Terror from Beyond Space 1958, Curse of the Faceless Man 1958, Invisible Invaders 1959, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake 1959)


Interestingly, Conrad Veidt was Carl Laemmle’s first choice to portray Dracula in the film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, after Bela Lugosi emoted his bloody heart out on Broadway for 33 weeks.

Universal Studio made a big splash with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with Lon Chaney. According to Kevin Brownlow, director Rupert Julian said “Lon Chaney-or it can’t be done” before casting Phantom of the Opera. And there was the same sentiment about The Man Who Laughs as well. They had their minds set on casting Lon Chaney as Gwynplaine. The problem was that Universal had let Chaney out of his contract already, and while he was now under contract at MGM and could loan him out, he for some reason withdrew at the last minute.

Conrad Veidt in Lady Hamilton (1921).

And so Conrad Veidt wound up playing Gwynplaine, the role intended for Lon Chaney. Veidt had already established himself as one of the world’s top “tragedians” when Laemmle contacted him and got him interested in taking the role. “I rarely have had such a satisfying experience.” in a letter written to a German journalist during production.

Veidt had returned to Berlin after playing a role with John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue (1927). He worked with Leni on Waxworks (1924). Veidt was most known for his role in Robert Weine’s as Cesare the chilling somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and with this performance, he helped pioneer the horror film industry.

“No matter what roles I play, I can’t get Caligari out of my system”-Conrad Veidt

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) 1893 – 1943 Schauspieler, D in dem film ‘Der Student von Prag’ 1926 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Noah Beery and Conrad Veidt in King of the Damned (1935)

He was active in German Expressionist theatre and starred in The Hands of Orlac (1924) Waxworks (1924), The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), Dark Journey (1937) Blackout (1940), A Woman’s Face (1941), as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). He was targeted for death by the Nazis for his anti-Nazi sentiment he fled to England and fought with the Brits. He also donated his earnings to help with the Allied cause. Veidt was one of the stars who appeared in Casablanca (1942). Veidt would ironically play Nazis in several film roles.

He had the perfect demeanor to play the murderous sleepwalker, Cesare, in the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and soon would be called the “Man with the Wicked Eyes.”

Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) 1920 – Germany Director: Robert Wiene stars Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover.

When I think about how expressive Veidt is in The Man Who Laughs, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, or The Hands of Orlac, I turn to Eisner to describe it perfectly–

“A dynamic synthesis of their being, by concentrating their movements which are almost linear and which-despite a few curves that slip in-remain brusque, like the broken angles of the set; and their movements from point to point never go beyond the limits of a given geometrical plane.” — From Lotte Eisner The Haunted Screen

In this way, she is describing a type of ballet or modern dance that takes discipline and mindfulness. I thought by watching Veidt’s external reality in The Man Who Laughs that he truly expressed the journey of a tortured soul merely through his eyes, and his hands. This he learned from working in the German expressionist theatre and his time with Max Reinhardt’s theatre troupe.

Conrad Veidt Mary Philbin Erich von Stroheim and Paul at the premiere of The Man Who Laughs 1928

“It is precisely as if I am possessed by some other spirit when I enter on a new task of acting, as though something within me presses a switch and my own consciousness merges into some other, greater, more vital being.”-Conrad Veidt

“To play Gwynplaine was the dream of my boyhood. I have been fascinated by this character ever since I read Victor Hugo’s novel in high school. One has to feel pity for Gwynplaine, as he is mutilated, but the result of that mutilation -the laughing, grotesque face-looks funny. For a film actor, that presents an artistic challenge that could hardly be more complicated. So what did I have left as my main mean of communications? The eyes!” – Conrad Veidt

Film Review from 1928 — “…The picture is undeniably better than The Hunchback of Notre Dame…  Conrad Veidt’s impersonation of the laughing man is at least as good as anything Lon Chaney ever did with the aid of makeup. Baclanova’s portrayal of the loose duchess is without parallel and burns holes in the screen….” Motion Picture World 13 October 1928

Conrad Veidt not only plays Gwynplaine but also portrays his father the wild-eyed Scottish nobleman Lord Clancharlie who is sent to the Iron Lady by King James II and sentenced to death for political defection. His young son to suffer the sins of the father.

Universal Studios had their heyday with monsters at their studio with Frankenstein and Dracula beginning in the 1930s. But during the silent era, the big feature was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Here The Man Who Laughs lent primarily to the talents of an actor who could express himself through the art of pantomime as only Lon Chaney could have. The character of Gwynplaine cannot speak ordinarily or alter his intensely forged smile framed and accentuated by the use of lipstick around a wide mountain of grinning teeth. This would pose a challenging limitation to any actor. Conrad Veidt had already proven he had the essential force within him to limit facial expressions to convey his mood.

Veidt’s incredible command of just his eyes as the source of his power — the place where his identity springs from are extraordinary. He utilizes scarves and handkerchiefs, sleeves, and Dea’s hair to block anyone’s sight of his mouth. It’s a very thoughtful and purposeful mechanism but is not done in a way that is artifice. He uses his eyes to create the semblance that he is a complete man. This conflict is saddening to us as we gaze upon him and understand his inner pain. The only way he can become whole especially when he is closest to Dea is when he covers his mouth. Veidt is masterful at telegraphing his conflict to us over his outer reality and his inner desires.

Originally Charles Dullin was to play The Laughing Man and Edith Jehanne was to play the beautiful blind girl Dea in the French version of the film, they were not known actors in the U.S.

The American version of the film also considered featuring Ernest Torrence as Gwynplaine and Mary Philbin who had wonderful success as Christine Daae in Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera in 1925, she was perfect to play the lovely Dea.

The original choice for the seductive Duchess Josiana was French actress Arlette Marchal who had been suggested by Gloria Swanson after they worked together on Madame Sans-Gene 1925– but Olga Baclanova was chosen for the sensual Duchess Josiana sister to the wicked Queen Anne. American audiences never seemed to warm up to the glamorous Baclanova. Historian Kevin Brownlow tells a very interesting story about interviewing her in New York in the 1960s as part of his essay in the wonderful booklet. About she got started here in the States, her work on Freaks, and a few other funny tidbits.

Olga Baclanova is well known as the treacherous Cleopatra in Freaks (1932). Here she is with Harry Earles as Hans. Ironically starting out in the film a beautiful flying peacock until she dared call Han’s beloved family “dirty, filthy freaks” and that she’d never be one of them. Well, that peacock became a non-coherent chicken lady and in fact did become one of them, poetic justice! While Baclanova adored The Man Who Laughs she despised her work on Tod Browning’s film referring to it as her béte noir.

One of the minor ‘ooh ahh’ shocks that draws to the film was the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Baclanova’s naked arse as she rises out of her bath. Her naked tuckus is shown through the keyhole in the European version of the film but her bare arse is obscured in the American version by the towel. Nudity was shown in pre-Code films up until the early 1930s.

The rest of the players

Cesare Gravina as Ursus the Philosopher…

Brandon Hurst (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1920, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923, Love (1927), House of Frankenstein 1944)is absolutely wonderful as the sinister Barkilphedro the goblin Jester who is perhaps one of the most photogenic and the most complex if not the most diabolical and sinister of all the characters in this dark fairy tale. He is like the boogeyman.

Josephine Crowell as Queen Anne, Sam De Grasse as King James II, Stuart Holmes as the buffoon Lord Dirry-Moir, George Siegmann as Dr. Hardquanonne the head Comprachico surgeon, Nick De Ruiz as Wapentake, Edgar Norton as Lord High Chancellor, Torben Meyer as The Spy, Julius Molnar Jr. as Gwynplaine as a child, Charles Puffy as Innkeeper, Frank Puglia as Clown, Jack Goodrich as Clown, and the star of the film–Zimbo as Homo the Wolf.


The great Jack Pierce was responsible for Gwynplaine’s make-up. Pierce was chosen with the tremendous undertaking of replacing the remarkable artistry of Lon Chaney.  The idea was to create the look on Veidt’s face of a “death’s head rictus grin.” It predated the grueling makeup hours that Boris Karloff would have to undergo for Universals Frankenstein’s monster! But Jack Pierce was the man to create the sympathetic anti-heroes!

“We had to have a mouthpiece made” said Andrew Marton, assistant director, “that kept Veidt’s cheeks in this horrible position . He was so ill from this. Day after day his muscles and his skin was stretched-he became sore in his mouth, and he was suffering. He was a marvellous actor, but no actor, no matter how good he is, can surmount a grimace that is imposed on him from the word go.”

Gwynplaine’s grotesque grin was achieved with a prosthesis. Veidt wore a set of dentures with metal hooks that pulled back the corners of his mouth. One can imagine how much pain he was in! He couldn’t speak with the prosthesis in his mouth. There’s only one scene in which he did not wear the prosthesis and that’s when he is ravished by the Duchess Josiana.

“Wearing dentures to give him a blinding set of piano-key set of choppers (framed by a lipstick mouth)added to his prominent nose, heavy eyebrows and nest of hair, Veidt is an unforgettable sight. (Metal hooks on the dentures pulled the actors lips into a laughing rictus)” – From John Dileo 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery

Veidt’s acting is mostly with his lyrical hand movements and his eyes, which transpires empathy and is one of the most heartbreaking visceral performances in cinematic history. Jack Pierce’s makeup helps to heighten the dramatized sense of fable with Gwynlaine’s deep-set piercing eyes, which are captivating and entrancing. Veidt had already been considered one of the great ‘tragedian’ actors Pierce using dark eye shadow helps to deepen the well of his sadness from where the tears spring. Through only the use of his eyes and his facial expressions we manage to understand the layers of emotions he is experiencing on his journey through his ordeal. Great gentility pitted against self-hatred then spirited courage, self-sacrifice, and soul searching. As John Dileo says,

“this is stylized acting simultaneously marked by bold operatic strokes and subtle graduations of feeling resulting in a Chaney worthy turn of significant pathos. It is especially chilling to see him to watch him cry ;the upper half of his face in torment and tears while the lower half frozen in maniacal glee.”

Oddly enough this was the third story in a cycle of Gothic historical, romantic tragedies eloquently macabre with themes of love and disfigurement adapted at major motion picture studios. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928)

IMDb not-so-fun facts:

Gwynplaine’s fixed grin and disturbing clown-like appearance was a key inspiration for comic book talents writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson in creating Batman’s greatest enemy, The Joker.

The process of carving a victim’s face to look like it is smiling broadly has come to be known as a Glasgow Smile or a Chelsea Smile after organized-crime rings in those two British cities used such mutilation as a terror tactic.

The Comprachicos, a Spanish term meaning child buyers, was coined by Victor Hugo for his novel this film is based upon. According to Hugo they could change one’s physical appearance through various methods such as physical restraints, muzzling their faces to deform them, slitting their eyes, dislocating their joints, and the malformation of their bones.

One wonders if director William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus in 1961 was a much more exaggerated version, a more grotesque visage, and not the sympathetic character of Gwynplaine. This might have been something Castle thought about being a classic horror fan who loved his gimmicks.

Guy Rolfe stars as Mr.Sardonicus (1961) in William Castle’s film based on writer Ray Russell’s novel. The film co-stars Audrey Dalton and Ronald Lewis. 

In recent years, in the contemporary horror genre assailed by rampant body violation and disfigurement (torture porn), there’s a host of horror films that include faces slashed from ear to ear but don’t give reference nor credit to Hugo’s character. The slashed face is common in 21st-century films, yet Gwynplaine is the earliest archetypal Gothic figure as a tragic hero. The true-life Black Dahlia murder in the 1940s is the next time a face is literally slashed from ear to ear. And we see this sardonic grin outside of horror films, in V for Vendetta (2005).

Ironically, Frankenstein’s monster and Gwynplaine have been the two classical figures in Gothic horror literature, and film adaptations are not unlikely due to the contributions of Boris Karloff and Conrad Veidt’s striking and soulful performances of their characters. It consistently breaks my heart every time I re-watch their presence on screen. Gwynplaine’s face is unusually arresting and his expressive eyes are absolutely heart-wrenching. It’s evocative without a word spoken. Perhaps the only comparison to this is Lon Chaney Sr.’s Quasimodo. Each is similarly tied to the other as tragic, misunderstood, as either an error of nature or a trespass of man on nature. They are prisoners in their bodies, hated by outsiders, in love with women they wish they could have, and all gentle souls within, and we ache for them to be released. As Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, asks, “Why did you create me?” And just as Gwynplaine cannot change his immortal grimace we cannot look away from him but embrace him as a whole man.

The striking coincidence that the great Jack Pierce did the time-consuming painstaking makeup for Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, years after creating the eternal smile on Conrad Veidt’s face is not lost on me. I find it a quite natural succession of events.


The magnificent costuming with historical accuracy for the time period designed by Vera West and David Cox adds to the atmosphere and pageantry of the extravagant beauty of the picture.


The Berklee College of Music Silent Film Orchestra’s collaborative efforts brought Hugo’s story, Leni’s direction, and the actors’ performances to a whole other level of feeling. Lyrical, playful, dynamic, ominous, or poignantly beautiful. The music uses strings, woodwinds, piano, flutes, tympani, harps, and bowed upright bass to represent certain characters in the film, brilliantly accentuating the scenarios and each scene’s moods. Dea and Gwynplaine’s lover’s theme is particularly poignant.

As a musician, I recognized the musical themes of the motifs used. The theme for the lovers — Gwynplaine’s and Deas, symbolizes their immortal love. As Sonia Coronado explains in her informative essay (another extra included in the lovely booklet that comes with the Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD) the scoring was divided into seven reels, 15 minutes each as the film is almost 2 hours. They had a list of themes representing each main character. It’s extraordinary how an entire class of music students took their own sections of music and came together at the end to piece the fabric of the full story like a tapestry. That confluence works so beautifully. One complete score was written by seven composers.


In the 1920s Universal Studios was trying to compete with the more successful studios of the time period. Paramount and MGM had higher budgets. Universal needed something impressive to rescue their studio. Something on a grand scale, like the success they had with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with Lon Chaney. Chaney started his career in 1912 at Universal as a stagehand and an occasional extra, ultimately becoming The Man of a Thousand Faces, doing over 150 roles with his extraordinary makeup treatments. The President of Universal, Carl Laemmle, along with Duc’d’Ayen representing La Sociéte Générale des Films decided to collaborate on a Franco-American co-production of The Man Who Laughs based on Victor Hugo’s harrowing and horrifying novel about a young boy whose claim to nobility is stolen and his face mutilated in an eternal grimace as revenge for the sins of the father. This production was done in the ‘Super Jewel’ unit of Universal, devoted to higher budget films they wanted to make spectacles.

The studio had a strong response to their 1926 release of the French-produced Les Miserable (1923), Victor Hugo’s best-loved work. To the executives at Universal, the character of Gwynplaine had much in common with that of the other Hugo character, Quasimodo, played by Chaney in Universal’s success of 1923.

Let me just quickly say that there are two absolutely powerful moments in The Man Who Laughs. My two favorite scenes are:

1st — When Gwynplaine goes to Duchess Josiana’s bedchambers to be seduced. Perhaps what made this scene so believable is something I read in Kevin Brownlow’s booklet where he talks about interviewing  Ogla Baclanova, and how she particularly liked Veidt “He was so adorable. We had a love scene on the bed-excuse me! I was crazy about him.” Apparently, she wasn’t acting…

2nd — One of the most poignant and well-orchestrated sequences is when the Theatre troupe of clowns try to pretend that there’s an audience waiting to see The Laughing Man, the show must go on, trying to prevent Dea from learning that Gwynplaine has been taken to the torture chamber until Barkilphedro shows up and announces that he’s dead. For the actors, it is what is not said, and how the scene manages to come together that is superbly coordinated.

It is 17th Century England, the Age of Discovery, the Age of Treachery. The opening room is lined with two rows of Gothic imperial religious carved statues. One with a secret passage that the malevolent Barkilphedro can slip in and out of like a goblin from the realms of Hell. He comes to incite hatred in the already wicked King James II who lies in his bed.

As I tell part of the story, I am using images taken from an older copy of the film so the quality of my images is nowhere near as beautiful and pristine as the Flicker Alley remastering! Don’t worry, as I tell part of the story, I will not give away the ending of this masterpiece!

The architecture of the wall Saints frown down upon him appropriately as they glower at the goblin-like Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) the malevolent jester creeps like a fiend into the bed chambers “All his jests were cruel and all his smiles were false.” Barkilphedro’s maniacal exaggerated smile is antithetical to our protagonist Gwynplaine’s grotesque unfortunate forced smile.

The jester tells King James they have captured the Scottish nobleman Clancharlie, now a rebel and political defector of Gwynplaine’s father, who refused to kiss the King’s hand.

Two of the King’s men bring the wild and disheveled man into the bed chambers to meet with the wicked King and his loyal minion the evil Barkilphedro. He asks about his poor little son whom he has come back for, “So, the proud rebel who refused to kiss our hand returns from exile to kiss the Iron Lady.”

The title tells us that “Comrachicos are gypsy traders in stolen children practicing in unlawful surgical acts whereby they carve the living flesh of these children and transform them into monstrous clowns and jesters. Therefore all comprachicos are hereby banished from England under pain of death.”

King James II is led by his evil jester Barkilphedro to the manacled Lord Clancharlie (also Connie Veidt), Gwynplaine’s father. Veidt is masterful at conveying his suffering through those expressive eyes of his, face smeared with dirt and sweat. He has returned from exile to find his little son. But now the King has sentenced him to death in The Iron Lady.

Barkilphedro tells him that his son is alive, but he motions to the King with a funny facial gesture making a false smile with his two fingers, but the King does not understand him at first. It is a queer moment, a creepy and odd darkly spirited piece of acting which does not go over as humor but as sadism.

Finally, Barkilphedro explains,  “A Comprachico surgeon carved a grin upon his face so he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.” And the King tells the suffering Clancharlie who hears this horrifying news “And they paid my Barkiphedro well for the little fellow!”

Then Gwynplaine’s father goes to the instrument of torture to die alone in the darkness. The scene is framed like an exquisite night terror. Director Leni and Cinematographer Warrenton create a stark black space of dread with the Iron Lady at the center of the dreamlike sequence as Clancharlie (Veidt) is closed inside to die a horrible death.

Clancharlie goes to his death hearing how is son has been disfigured by the monsters. Worse than death he must suffer knowing this horror upon horror of how his little boy is out there somewhere mutilated and alone.

The surgeon Doctor Hardquanonne insists “Bring that boy back!” another says, “We want no victims to convict us of our trade” But he means money to them, according to the ruthless Hardquanonne.

It is decreed by the King that the Comprechicos are banished from England so they begin to scramble to board their ships and leave the coast of Cornwall. The little boy Gwynplaine whose face is covered is left behind while a storm is raging.

The camera focuses on the Comprechico’s faces, demonic, cut-throat, conniving, reptilian gargoyles, hatred carved in stony glances. They convey the threat of menace.

Gwynplaine wanders lost in the cold snowy coast of the Cornwalls, his coat much larger than his little body, a scarf covering his slashed face, long blond hair, a little imp. Stolen from his rightful place as heir, a nobleman, and a King’s fortune.

He stands alone, and as the ship takes off, his adventure begins. He comes upon the nightmarish landscape of corpses swaying like phantoms from the gallows in the frozen lonely unforgiving night sky.

Gwynplaine comes upon a beautiful woman seemingly asleep,  until he feels her face and realizes that she is frozen to death. She is holding a small infant swaddled in wool blankets.

Gwynplaine takes the poor child and holds it to himself and begins to wander once again. He comes upon a door of The Green Van and knocks. “Who disturbs the rest of Ursus–the Philosopher?” Ursus (played by the marvelous Gravina) opens the door to his caravan and lets little Gwynplaine inside.

There is a large pot of gruel cooking on the fire. Gwynplaine takes the small baby from under his coat and lays her out. Ursus eyes open wide “What!!! are there two of you!!?” He looks at the infant and realizes that she is “blind!”

At first, Gwynplaine covers his eternal grin with his little boy’s hands but we can see a bit of that infernal smile. Ursus turns to look at him, “Stop laughing… Stop laughing I say!!!”  Gwynplaine tells him, “I’m not laughing”  Ursus is horrified once he realizes what he sees, he clutches the poor boy’s head, stroking his hair, “Comprachicos!!!!” the kindly Ursus strokes his face.

Ursus is there to be a father figure in Gwynplaine and Dea’s life and to help them on their journey.

Gwynplaine is a boy filled with kindness, tenderness, and light. He dips his fingers into the porridge and then feeds Dea, and then takes little spoons fulls for himself. There begins a musical-themed motif for Gwynplaine and Dea that will play throughout the story. Poignant and heart-wrenching at times.


Gwynplaine wears makeup as a clown to hide his hideous perpetual grimace. Dea grows into a beautiful young woman. The two young Gwynplaine and Dea fall in love, yet Dea has never seen Gwynplaine’s face. He becomes known throughout England as The Laughing Man as they travel the countryside.


The music score plays carnivalesque music as if there’s a Freak Show in town. The sign tells the story “The Laughing Man is Coming!” “Deserted at age 10 off the coast of Cornwall on Jan 29, 1690.”

Meanwhile, Dea is talking to Gwynplaine as he gazes at himself in the mirror, his heart breaking he closes the mirror. The symbol of the theatrical comedy/tragedy masks on the mirror panel has been part of Gwynplaine’s adult life.

The mirror is an iconographic symbol Leni uses fluently throughout The Man Who Laughs. We often see Gwynplaine gazing at the mirror or Dea reflected in a mirror. We know Gwynplaine has two faces the one inside himself and the visage he has been forced to show since a little boy. The one people see. But Dea also has a face she must use inside herself that she uses to visualize Gwynplaine. The mirror is symbolic of the duality of sight both characters use to see themselves. In this way, it is Hugo’s tragic romantic fairytale. The reflection is duality. The inner face.

Back at the traveling show, Ursus is taking the coins outside the little Green Van passing thru the village the people looking on in wonder happy to greet The Laughing Man. The surgeon who gave him the grimace, the nefarious Dr. Hardquanonne recognizes him. A cunning and evil look that washes over his face. There is purpose and money in his mind. Hardquanonne tells Ursus “You have a wonderful clown-he’s worth a lot of money” I too have freaks–a pig with two snouts and a cow with five lets.”  To Ursus, his son is not a freak.

Ursus doesn’t realize that Hardquanonne is the one who made Gwynplaine like he is, and that he is a dangerous man. Ursus asks him “You’re going to Southwark Fair Too?” he nods. “My name is Hardquanonne, I shall get better acquainted with you and–your laughing man.” Ursus continues to greet the villagers who have come to see Gwynplaine.


The scene at the fair is incredible. There is a carnival ride that is an architectural marvel. There is so much in this scene to look at– movement and celebration and wonderful painted art to designate the featured attractions. There are high wire walkers, and the fireproof man, fire eaters, and ferocious beasts like Thomas Dale not 3 feet high 30 years of age, and sword swallowers. Harquanonne is there but the big attraction is the one stealing his audience– the Laughing Man, the very ‘freak’ he created. He watches as the people rush away from his main attraction money-maker to see his mutilated boy.

Hardquanonne grabs a grotesquely gaunt fellow “I want you to deliver a message to the Duchess- “It’s important…” He has recognized his gruesome creation and he wants to set the wheels in motion. A little plot of blackmail, to let the Duchess know that Gwynplaine is in her midst and seeking his rightful inheritance. The gaunt fellow goes to the gates of the palace but they will not allow him entrance.

Meanwhile, the evil Barkilphedro has also prospered since his work under King James II. He meets the gaunt fellow at the gate and brings him into the palace. It is there he discovers Harquanonne’s letter, while the clumsy oaf plays the voyeur through the ‘infamous keyhole scene’ as the Duchess Josiana bathes, her splendid naked form glistens in the pool. Barkilphedro reads the scandalous letter, which reveals that Gwynplaine is Clancharlie’s son the rightful heir to the estate. The Queen will be all too happy to make her beautiful sister Josiana miserable by restoring Gwynplaine the Mountebank’s claim to his heritage and forcing her lascivious sister to marry this hideous clown.

Director Leni makes us voyeurs as well, with Josiana this is the second time now that we gaze at Josiana through the spectrum of a voyeuristic mechanism. The keyhole and at the fairgrounds, when she was changing clothes we see her long naked legs through the window of the carriage. Leni is always placing Josiana in a sexualized position to accentuate how wild and antithetical she is to the innocent Dea.

The scene switches to Gwynplaine smelling Dea’s hair, her long mane of blonde curls enveloping his face can hide his eternal tragic smile. Ursus sees how love-struck poor Gwynplaine is with Dea, “I’ll cure you of this love-sickness- you shall be married before we leave Southwark Fair!” Suddenly the tone of the scene turns sad and Gwynplaine continues to hide his smile from us with his book.

Dea touches his shoulder. “Why do you always draw away from me when Ursus speaks of Marriage?” She is so beautiful. We see his pain through that forever grin, as he gazes at her, so deeply in love. She cannot see how he sees her. “Dea, I haven’t the right even to love you.” “Gwynplaine, my life belongs to you.” “You would marry me then, my Dea-without seeing me?”


Conrad Veidt uses facial expressions and his hands masterfully. He is beautifully expressive in every single scene. He had years of experience working in the German expressionist theatre, in pantomime and mastering his body language. Veidt has one of the most expressive cinematic faces.

While Lon Chaney with his fierce inner brand of self masochism had been considered for the role, I truly feel that Veidt is the ONLY one who could have brought the finely tuned sympathetic Gwynplaine to life on the screen ‘to date.’ In my mind HE will always be the only Gwynplaine.

After all the years of treachery and evil Barkilphedro has still managed to prosper after his patron King James II died. His musical theme, the mischievous oboes summon his introduction and the coming of the Duchess with her little sidekick monkey.

The Man Who Laughs with all its tragic grotesque themes is threaded with dark humor. When Barkilphedro tries to fondle the Duchesses’s leg and kiss her foot, she pushes his ghoulish form off of her, her little monkey throws an apple at his head. He warns her “An apple got Eve into trouble too” He begins to read the note from Harquenonne about the coming scandal, all the while the wheels turning in his head how he can turn it to his advantage.


The Duchess is being courted by the foppish Dirry-Moir, an awful boor and painted slob. Queen Anne is a miserable woman jealous of her beautiful and lascivious younger sister Josiana and surrounded by her court of equally sorrowful submissives. There is a concert she has planned for that evening’s entertainment. But the beautiful Duchess Josiana doesn’t show. Her chair is empty, embarrassing the Queen, and bringing about her ire. Barkilephedro knows he will be duly rewarded by the Queen if she can restore Gwynplaine to his title and marry her sister off to a hideous clown as revenge. The monstrous Barkilphedro delights in the torture of all kinds. Physical mental and emotional. He is a fiend. Hurst plays him to the hilt as he prances around with the precision of a devil. This cruel plot will serve Queen Anne nicely to humble her sister Josiana indeed.

“It would be better for you to succeed for I still have the Iron Lady.” –Queen Anne tells Barkilphedro sharply.

The entire imagery from Leni’s elegant vision of classical horror to Hall’s set design. And the keenness of casting wonderful faces even of the uncredited actors fills the screen with splendid metaphysical poetry in every segment of the film. So carefully thought out and beautifully executed by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton. Each sequence has an enchantment about it.

In the meantime, Barkilphedro also tells the Queen of the Mountebank heir and the blackmailing attempt. The Queen in a rage sends Barkilphedro to squash the blackmailer. And so Hardquanonne is taken to a torture chamber where he is not seen again but is forced to sign a confession that Gwynplaine is in fact the heir to Clancharlie.

The dark and gritty evil-doings of a great classical horror story as the Queen’s men in dark cloaks grab Hardquanonne in the back of his 5-legged cow exhibit off to her dungeon to be tortured.

Duchess Josiana decides to miss the concert and go slumming it with the real folk in the village. Josiana walks among the crowds of people, enjoying herself and the air is electric with excitement. The drunken men have been pawing at Josiana, trying to take remove her clothes and touch her luscious breasts. She laughs at the whole game of it. Dirry-Moir spots her, accompanied by a few lady friends of his own! He tells her that the Queen is raging at her absence at the concert.

“Hey, we saw her first!”

Josiana quickly changes her street clothes in her carriage and heads back to the palace to catch the concert which by now has ended. The Queen is furious. She goes to her bedchambers to dress for the evening show of The Laughing Man. Barkilphedro comes there to stir up trouble and perhaps get a whiff of her intoxicating perfume!

“Bother her concert tell me the latest scandal.”

Barkilphedro kisses Josiana’s foot but she pushes him away on the floor. Her pet monkey laughs and throws an apple at his head knocking him down on the floor as he smirks from the pain. While this not only added whimsy to lighten the mood of the film it’s also useful in its symbolism. The apple is used as an allusion to Josiana as Eve, who will eventually nearly? become Gwynplaine’s downfall. Just as in the seduction scene, she moves her body much like a serpent, sensually wrapping herself along Gwynplaine’s body seductively. Barkilphedro portends as much when he tells Josiana that Eve’s fate came by way of an apple.

Later, at the theatre… She is seated up on the balcony in her exquisite Vera West creation. The crowd below grows impatient to see the man behind the curtains, calling out for the Laughing Man. Gwynplaine sits behind the curtain for a still moment, tears beading up in his eyes, his sadness trapped behind that infernal visage that belies his heart. Dea wants to touch his face but he covers his mouth he embraces her. She tells him how he makes people laugh even when he himself is so sad. The scene as he prepares before the show as Dea helps with his makeup as he holds her hands to his cheek is so moving. She sees him, the way he truly is. beyond the surface, his beautiful soul and kindness were tortured by the cruelty that was done to him as a child. She strokes his hair.

Josiana sees Dea and is immediately jealous of her beauty.

Ursus announces the show is beginning.

Gwynplaine doesn’t want to be a clown.

Gwynplaine comes out from behind the curtain. He has made his entrance. The crowd goes wild. Josiana sees him. She is mesmerized. The audience laughs with him. Josiana begins to get a strange look on her face. Almost orgasmic. (Olga Baclanova is extraordinarily sensual, her eyes are engrossing like a tiger on the hunt.) He sees her and suddenly he’s not laughing along with the grimace, he feels self-conscious of the hideous gash from ear to ear. He covers it with his sleeve. He too is mesmerized by this woman. Then suddenly he begins to laugh again, with the crowd, laughing with them. Josiana stands up, angry and feeling rejected by him. She has flirted with him, making eye contact, and most of all… she did not laugh at him and it was he who laughed at her. She leaves the theatre.

Ursus mentions the beautiful lady in the audience Dea asks and seems curiously sad. “What a lucky clown you are you don’t have to rub off your laugh.” says a fellow clown. Gwynplaine is thinking about Josiana. A beautiful girl who saw what he looked like and still seemed attracted to him. He touches his lips thoughtfully. He sits by the mirror. He takes a towel and mimics wiping away his eternal tragic smile.

Gwynplaine gets passed a note. “I am she who did not laugh. Was it pity or was it love? My page will meet you at midnight.”

He is filled with a new sensation. He tells Ursus “A woman has seen my face and yet may love me… if such a thing is possible then I have the right to marry Dea.” Ursus tells him, “Forget such nonsense Dea loves you–and she’ll never see your face.” Gwynplaine goes to burn the note but can’t. He steals away to meet up with the page. Dea calls out, then reaches out for him, and wanders the little Green Van. She smells the note, picking up on Josiana’s scent, her perfume. Gwynplaine gets into a carriage. Dea goes out into the night, sits, and cries, calling for Gwynplaine with her dog Homo who puts his head in her lap.

Gwynplaine is taken to Duchess Josiana’s bedchambers. She is lying on an elaborate bed in black lace lingerie that barely covers her curvy sensual body. She reaches up for him. Drunk with lust and desire. Gwynplaine is frightened innocent and aroused, never having known of the sexual pleasures of a woman. Josiana is aggressive and seductive. Powerful like a giant serpent she moves along his body climbing up she presses her mouth to his through his scarf. This is a very provocative scene for a 1928 Pre-Code film. The eroticism between Josiana’s desire for Gwynplaine who is somehow an ‘other,’ almost castrated as a boy when his face was slashed, brings a heightened sense of the bizarre to this ritual of pleasure because she is turned on by his difference.

Though it is her way to seduce him, I believe she truly does fall in love with Gwynplaine, only to be rejected when he misinterprets her laughter. But I digress.

She pulls the scarf down and kisses him full on the mouth without any hesitation. He covers it with his hand, but she pulls his hands away. Olga Baclanova is perfection at playing a vamp. She is the embodiment of corrupted beauty. Suddenly a bell rings and she gets a note from her sister Queen Anne about the scandal. He covers his mouth again. Now she looks curiously at the note and at Gwynplaine.

It is Informing her that there is a Mountebank, a rightful heir — Gwynplaine son of Clancharlie known as  The Laughing Man — Anne R (The Queen) says she shall marry Gwynplaine as he is about to have his heritage restored and she will share it. Josiana smiles ironically. Because she has fallen in love with this man anyway. So while her wicked sister the Queen may think she is forcing something hideous on her, this is something that she would revel in.

The thought makes her laugh, and laugh with glee, but in that moment, Gwynplaine mistakes her amusement as her laughing at him, and he runs away in agonizing shame, believing it to be a cruel seduction and a trick. Josiana is left wounded, crying alone holding her pet monkey close to her. Gwynplaine has misunderstood her emotions, and she has lost him forever.

The gaze, the seduction in the film has been flipped. In a period romance, a man would be undressing the virgin who is covered up like an artichoke un-layering her garments uncovering her to reveal her naked body and her vulnerability to the anxious lustful awaiting man.

Here it is Gwynplaine (the man) who is the ‘innocent’. He is covering up and it is Josiana (the woman) ‘the experienced’  seducer who is leading him to take his layers off his mouth, his mouth which represents his manhood. Or a symbol that has become his manhood in The Man Who Laughs. Therefore the gender dynamic has been flipped. The woman is undressing the male and taking his virginity.

Josiana is a very sympathetic character at this point in the film. I feel for her, because she truly tried to reach out, and with her sight fell in love with Gwynplaine even with his face frozen in an infernal grimace in time. I ached for her at that moment, I truly felt her pain and her longing. But she will grow bitter with rejection and come back around to being as heinous and vindictive as all the other outsiders. The only characters who truly matter to me in this fable of Victor Hugo — are our wonderful little family — Ursus the philosopher, Dea, Homo the wolf, and our sufferer protagonist Gwynplaine!

Gwynplaine finds Homo the Wolf “She laughed, Homo, like all the others!”

This is where I’m going to end the film so that you can enjoy exploring it for yourself. I’m not giving away the unforgettable ending.

One thing though-One of the most extraordinary scenes later in the film is when Dea and Ursus seem lost and he spins himself around arms up in the air questioning the fates. Dea rises from her chair still unaware of Gwynplaine’s supposed? death. “It must be time for the performance.” The clowns watch her. “How can you tell Dea and break her heart?” “Dea must not know.” “The performance must go on.”

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. The way it is constructed, the blocking is a beautiful dance. The small theatre company of clowns try to mimic a large audience who have come to see the show. It’s heartbreaking As the theatre troupe begins to panic and scurry around the house the tiny group of them making noises, like an abandoned hive of bees — pretending it’s a packed house yelling for the Laughing Man, while Dea seems confused they cannot possibly pull this deception off. The few clowns begin to call out “Gwynplaine.” It is obvious that Dea can sense the ruse. Ursus goes out on stage ‘You shall see my mystery play. “It is called ‘Chaos Vanquished’–it ends in light and laughter.” Dea begins to cry.

There are the few clowns out by the empty seats jumping up and down as the fake audience, such a sad pathetic display to keep Dea from knowing the truth. It’s poignant and unnerving. It is so painful to watch but a beautifully done scene, agonizingly orchestrated to perfection. The idea the chaos will be ended and light will out is something we all hope for from this ordeal.

The Man Who Laughs is a fairy tale. Almost a tale of opposites. Dea who is blind can see everything. Gwynplaine who has a transfixed smile is eternally sad because he cannot be loved by the one girl he is so truly in love with. Barkilphedro is a joker but he is deadly serious and when he touches your life there is nothing light-hearted about him, though he also wears a hideous smile. Josiana is incredibly sensual but she is so lonely and without love, except for her monkey!

Thank you to Aurora at Once Upon a Screen for the opportunity to guest post at one of the coolest blogs in town!

The Blu-ray/DVD includes exquisite extras, including: 

*”Celebrating Univeral’s Masterpiece”-A visual essay by film historian and author Kevin Brownlow

*Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs -A visual essay by film historian and author John Soister, on Leni’s work at Universal during this period

*Rare Image Gallery-A slide show presentation of vintage promotional materials and production stills

*Optional Audio Track-The film’s original 1928 Movietone score is presented here as a secondary audio track

*Notes on the New Score-A short essay by composer Sonia Coronado of the Berklee School of Music on their new score for The Man Who Laughs

The booklet included with Flicker Alley’s The Man Who Laughs BluRay has stunning photos and an essay by film historian, writer, and documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow that includes thoughtful and witty anecdotes and backstories about the film. There’s also a short essay by Sonia Coronado from the Berklee School of Music Orchestra on how their collaborative efforts manifested a striking film score filled with magic that tells Hugo’s story perfectly.

This is your EverLovin Joey sayin’ keep smilin’ it don’t cost ya anything at least I don’t think it costs you nothin’ See ya soon my friends!

One thought on “Flicker Alley and Universal Pictures Present Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) The Tortured Smile “Hear how they laugh at me. Nothing but a clown!”

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