The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Horrorific content by TE Simmons on December 08th, 2021 | Movie Review | Classic Horror, Romance, Drama

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It’s about a man with a facial deformity and a beautiful blind woman who loves him.

The Man Who Laughs was directed by Paul Leni (Waxworks) and stars Conrad Veidt (the student in The Student of Prague, Rasputin in Rasputin, Demon with Women and Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Mary Philbin (Christine in The Phantom of the Opera), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra in Freaks), Cesare Gravina (the Soothsayer in Madame Butterfly), Brandon Hurst (Franz Listz in Suez), and Zimbo (in his only credited role) as Homo the Wolf.  

Can a man love a woman who is blind to his ugliness?

The Man Who Laughs Review

The Man Who Laughs is based on the 205,000-word Victor Hugo novel L’Homme Qui Rit (1869) which was subtitled “A Romance of English History.” It is indeed a romantic film; the lovers are Gwynplaine and Dea. It’s also a bit of a monster film insofar as Gwynplaine suffers from a rictus grin – a sustained spasm of the facial muscles caused by strychnine poisoning, tetanus, or death by hanging. In the film, Gwynplaine’s permanent smirk is the result of 17th century medical malpractice. And Dea is “the blind maid.”

The Man Who Laughs is also a sort of a monster of a film insofar as it was stitched together like a creature in a lab, part talkie, part silent film. The Jazz Singer had been released by Warner Brothers one year earlier, revolutionizing film with its cued incidental dialogue. It’s considered the first talkie. Universal Studios put the brakes on the release of The Man Who Laughs in order to incorporate some talkie elements – synchronizing certain sound effects and one song, resulting in a sort of hybrid talkie-silent creature.

The Man Who Laughs owes certain legacy elements to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, inspired by another Hugo novel, which Universal had released in 1923. Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs was a much less successful novel than The Hunchback or Les Misérables. And it had already been made into a film version twice before, by the French in 1908 and by the Germans in 1921. But both The Hunchback and The Man Who Laughs involve deformity and deep sympathy for the man who suffers it.

At the heart of the film is the sideshow. Gwynplaine and Dea are displayed right alongside the 5-legged cow. Clowns and barkers entice the marks in. But what is the nature of the transgressive clown who cannot remove his grin and the maiden who is blind to it? In a climactic scene in the House of Lords, Gwynplaine uncovers his grin and turns the balaclava which had hid his mouth into a blindfold for his own eyes. In doing so, he seems to gain a better sense of sight.

In the end, this is a film far more about performance than romance. Dea is the sweetheart at the heart of the narrative. She is splendid. Though blind, she is the only character with unimpaired vision.

Worth Watching?

The Man Who Laughs is most definitely worth watching. It exceeds The Phantom of the Opera.

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