The Man Who Laughs

Banned from England, the Comprachicos, the child-buyers, have fled the country, leaving behind the mutilated child Gwynplaine who wanders through the snow where beneath the gallows, the bodies blowing in the unceasing wind, he finds a crying blind baby in the arms of her dead mother. Seeking shelter, he and Dea are taken in by Ursus, a self-proclaimed philosopher, who raises them in his caravan.

As a grown man, Gwynplaine performs as “the man who laughs,” the most popular attraction of the travelling carnival freakshow, using his appearance to entertain crowds both fascinated and horrified, but offstage he is reserved and sensitive about his appearance, too shy to even let Dea touch his face, for she remains unaware of his deformity which Gwynplaine believes would lead her to reject them.

A life existing on the edges of society but not a part of it, they are content with their small lot until the meddling Barkilphedro discovers at Southwark Fair that Gwynplaine is the son of the late Lord Clancharlie, rightful heir of the lands currently held by the ambitious Duchess Josiana who would be left penniless should he claim his title and place in the House of Lords unless she could contrive to marry him, securing and even elevating her position.

The era of talking pictures having begun in 1927, The Man Who Laughs continued the tradition of the grand productions of silent cinema but upon release in 1928 it was already overshadowed despite the advantages it carried, adapted from the novel L’Homme qui rit by Victor Hugo whose Hunchback of Notre Dame had been a huge hit for Universal in 1923, with some of the sets even reused from that production.

That film starring Lon Chaney in the title role and originally suggested for The Man Who Laughs, instead Gwynplaine was played by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s Conrad Veidt under makeup designed by Jack Pierce who would later transform Boris Karloff for James Whale’s Frankenstein, primarily dental plate, false teeth and concealed hooks which distorted Veidt’s mouth, painful to wear and dominating his appearance yet not his performance; when hidden beneath hands or scarf when Gwynplaine transforms into a subtle and sympathetic man of yearning and disappointment.

The tale of a clown whose laughing appearance is a horrific lie penned by the man who wrote Les Misérables, there is ample opportunity for Mary Philbin as Dea to look tearful and distraught, while Brandon Hurst is wily and manipulative as Barkilphedro and Olga Baclanova is wanton and uninhibited as Duchess Josiana, and in his casting director Paul Leni consciously portrays the royal court as inbred and degenerate as the freaks whom they cruelly mock.

A melding of German expressionism into what would become the Universal Horror sequence now released on Blu-ray as a 4K restoration with two soundtrack options as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, the influence of The Man Who Laughs goes far beyond the limited success it enjoyed upon original release, Veidt’s appearance and performance as Gwynplaine having inspired the design of the Joker and Joaquin Phoenix’s most recent portrayal of Batman’s grinning nemesis.

Accompanying the new edition are a conversation with Kim Newman and two video essays, John Soister discussing Universal’s legacy of literary adaptations and Leni’s work within the genre and David Cairns and Fiona Watson offering a comprehensive analysis of the production and the themes of the tragic melodrama and the many creatives involved in it.

The Man Who Laughs will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 17th August