(Viewed 07/14/2015, available on YouTube.)
I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting into with this film. A black and white picture of Conrad Veidt with a painfully grotesque smile and desperate eyes was posted online next to an illustration of Batman’s Joker. “The Man Who Laughs – inspiration for the Joker!”
I’m a sucker for a dramatic photo. And for Batman.
The Man Who Laughs turns out to be a gorgeous 17th century period piece filmed on the eve of the sound age and the Hays Code, based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel. The Laughing Man himself, Conrad Veidt, is well known for his other roles in movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca, and I’m sure that you’ve all heard of this film already and that I’m behind the curve on this one. The 1928 Universal Pictures movie is a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a swashbuckler, and a thriller. The story follows a man who, kidnapped and mutilated as a child to punish his father, lives as a performer until his lost identity catches up with him and drags him into a world of intrigue. There is not a speck of realism to be found and it’s completely delightful.
Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the mutilated clown Gwynplaine is a fantastically overwrought exploration of existential crisis. Mary Philbin’s portrayal of the literally blindly innocent Dea is one of the most beautiful presentations of spotless femininity that I have ever seen on film (helped no doubt by constantly luminescent lighting). Olga Molnar presents a contrasting and archetypically vampy performance of the Countess Josiana: beautiful, sexual, powerful, and cruelly self interested.
The Man Who Laughs is a fun watch, and as a (mostly) silent film it will require your actual attention and a modicum of active investment. I found the pacing quick enough and the story engaging enough to keep me interested without much effort. The visual lushness of the movie makes it a treat to watch. I would consider this movie to be a fairly accessible silent film for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the world of pre-sound movies, and should go on your list if you’re interested in pre-Code movies, German Expressionism (even though it’s an American film), or visual inspirations for the Joker.