The Man Who Laughs

Gwynplaine, “The Laughing Man,” walks with a kerchief over his face like he’s afraid to catch what other people are carrying. This is the truth, of a sort – he fears to catch their laughter, in that way that people laugh most at things that horrify them (watch a horror movie in theaters if you don’t believe me). The harsh angles and shafts of shadow in The Man Who Laughs describe Victorian England by way of German art: the result is a state of perversion, where Americans made up like Brits revel in the horror of their Expressionistic surroundings. And in the middle of it is the truth of the film’s upbringing, a film made from a Frenchman’s text through Hollywood by German acquaintances. The result is one of those multicultural marvels like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and The Third Man, a film with so much cultural texture that it becomes its own style. Many would call it Expressionistic, but how much of that involves swashbuckling? The Man Who Laughs is patterned off itself, or perhaps, off its man.

Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) was carved into a clown by street performers. He always appears to be laughing, though he’s in great pain (there’s some truth to this: the device holding Veidt’s teeth apart was excruciating after long shoots). He is like Expressionism itself this way: in the fanciful way that it slants its surroundings and propels flights of stairs into dreamy nowhere, it acts whimsical in its horror, like a man who can’t do anything about his sadness but shape it into laughter (Tim Burton doesn’t pervert Expressionism when he makes it funny: he understands it). Veidt, who had already played the haunting sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, made his face synonymous with silent film with The Man Who Laughs: images of his maddening grin and crying eyes filled the spreads of my film history books long before I ever saw the movie. Since his ability to move his mouth is limited (though not gone: at times, it is twisted in physical pain or softened with the pain of affection) Veidt has to talk all through his eyes. As he was for me in those history books, seeing the film now he seems like silent film itself reduced to its essential ingredients. Norma Desmond said, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” Veidt didn’t need faces. He had eyes.

When the onlookers see him in his traveling theater carriage caressed by his blind co-star Dea (Mary Philbin) they scream with laughter. See how Veidt transitions the focus of his emotions. As we’re trying to read that devilish grin, his hands go to conceal it; his Expression shifts to his eyes and we can see his tortured sadness. Philbin, who had played Christine in the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, knows how to appear in the presence of a monster: her widened, shocked arousal in Phantom seemed almost accidental; here, it is unmistakable. Her talent is reversed: while she acted horrified at the sight of disfigurement in Phantom, as the blind lover in The Man Who Laughs, she is tasked with seeing Veidt fully, in all his tormented pity, and to appear as though she’s looking at a prince in her own mind. When Gwynplaine finally allows her to touch his smile, her eyes brighten with fear before they become spiritual and complacent: “God has taken my eyes,” she says, “so that I may see the real Gwynplaine.” Perhaps an even better demonstration of Veidt’s power is a story from the set, during a scene in which Gwynplaine is brought before the House of Lords and pleads for his freedom while the onlookers laugh. Supposedly, the extras (a talented bunch for a film so sensationalized) broke down into applause after seeing Veidt’s appeal. In this kind of film, the kind in which torture devices may actually be inflicted on the actors to distort their face, in which people are rent and stripped down and disfigured by performing them (read about Lon Chaney’s painful self-disfigurements in both Phantom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Veidt may really have become Gwynplaine, to them.

The film’s most disturbing scene is fittingly its most sexual (Expressionism has always done this – observe the assault on innocence in Nosferatu or the guilty mingling in Caligari – but not usually this melodramatically). Gwynplaine’s presence is requested by the beautiful duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova). When he arrives, he sees her sprawled on a luxurious couch, eyes closed but only to delay the pleasure of seeing her beautiful beast. When she looks at him, her chest heaves; she’s magnetized to his smile in the particular way a fetishist preys on their desired object. Though he hopes that she has the ability to love him after seeing his grin (therefore, he thinks, he will earn the right to love Dea) she loves it precisely because of how horrible it is. Based on their negative response, critics at the time might have offered Josiana as a corollary to the public, who were not only intrigued by monsters but attracted to them (Hugo’s tragic book gets stamped with a Hollywoodized ending, so that we may love our monsters forever).

Even with Veidt’s startling performance, The Man Who Laughs probably wouldn’t retain the power to excite or impress without director Paul Leni’s eye for composition. He knows how to turn spaces into nightmares by focusing on what is concealed around them, as in an early shot of an iron maiden torture device seemingly wafting into view out of the shadows, or in the simplest shot of a carriage on the open road, turned into a forbidding odyssey by light alone. The sound offers little help: The Man Who Laughs is one of those handful of movies tentatively shouldered with sound effects in the era when silent films already completed were still being released after the introduction of sound (basically 1927-1929). So The Man Who Laughs contains sound effects of the roaring crowds and of bells ringing, which add nothing and take nothing away. A “title song” called “When Love Comes Stealing” seems to usher in Hollywood’s chintzy thirties a few years ahead of schedule, colonizing even images that belong in a horror movie into schmaltz. Leni doesn’t really make a horror film, but he makes a romance feel like one (and that’s honestly pretty scary). It's no secret that The Man Who Laughs inspired Bob Kane to draw the Joker into his Batman comics, and I think the best superhero villain owes his heart to Veidt; the character transcends being merely a monster because of where he came from. Leni's film also predicts the surreal romances like Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, and I’m grateful that Cocteau saw the poetry in it: he extrapolates the spaces into the only story he needs, removing the swashbuckling, the chase scenes, the unnecessary chatter, and the kisses. He leaves only the faces, and the shadows.

The Man Who Laughs is daring (censors feared it at the time, critics negated it, and the common response was similar to the crowd’s on seeing Gwynplaine’s grin: something that acts so innocent and yet appears so horrifying must be perverted work). Their surprise is understandable: there’s a small amount of unheard-of nudity, spied through a keyhole, and a seduction scene in which a beautiful British noble sexually assaults a wary monster. It’s something we would accept willingly today; our cravings have produced a tragic pretty-boy Phantom, a sweet-hearted Hunchback, a King Kong who makes it to third base, and a Gillman who goes all the way. Many of us are already at Josiana’s level of creepy devotion. The Man Who Laughs remains a hallmark of monster love, not because the women were so eager for it, but because the monster never did believe he deserved it. He remains proof that our hearts tame monsters like our whips never can. Joan of Arc’s eyes will always be the best in silent cinema. Gwynplaine gets a well-deserved second. I don’t think he’d accept being praised even if I gave it to him.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Paul Leni

J. Grubb Alexander

Walter Anthony

Mary McLean

Charles E. Whittaker

Victor Hugo (book)

Gwynplaine Conrad Veidt
Dea Mary Philbin
Barkilphedro Brandon Hurst
Duchess Josiana Olga Baclanova
Ursus Cesare Gravina
Lord Dirry-Moir Stuart Holmes
King James II Stuart Samuel de Grasse

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