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.
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)
THE COLORFUL CASTING
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
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.”
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 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.