ORIGINALLY touted as Universal’s follow-up to the phenomenally successful The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, The Man Who Laughs ran into production problems that stalled it for several years.
Lon Chaney was lined up to star and Raymond Bernard to direct but issues with obtaining the rights to Victor Hugo’s novel meant the whole production had to be put on ice. By the time those issues were resolved Lon Chaney and Universal had scored an even bigger hit with The Phantom of The Opera and their interest had waned. By 1927 the film was ready to go and once again Chaney was lined up to take centre stage with Paul Leni in the director’s chair.
When Chaney pulled out late in the day, the central role of Gwynplaine – an aristocratic boy who’s in line to the throne but finds himself lumbered with a permanent Mr Sardonicus-style grin and forced to work as a clown in a travelling circus – was given over to the distinctive German actor Conrad Veidt instead.
Veidt had made his name as the sleep-walking star of the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and he brings all his mime skills to play here in a role that demands huge physical commitment. He cuts an unforgettable figure and he’s ably assisted by the likes of Mary Philbin who plays his blind love interest Dea.
The story that follows the young man as he makes his way back into court circles rattles along at an impressive pace and director Leni, who had already helmed the likes of The Cat And Canary before his career was cut criminally short by blood poisoning, makes sure there’s a malevolent and moody atmosphere from the off. Commercially speaking the film may not have set the world on fire but in terms of influence on the industry it had a huge impact.
James Whale admitted Leni’s style impacted on his game-changing Old Dark House (1932) and both Frankenstein (31) and Bride Of Frankenstein (35). Veidt was the major inspiration for future Hammer Dracula Christopher Lee and that evocative face make-up was openly lifted by Batman creator Bob Kane for the image of his Joker character.
Freshly released on Blu-ray by Eureka, the film still looks startling with a crisp black-and-white print and lively soundtrack and while some may find the staginess of the silent era hard to handle in 2020 there’s a freshness and genuine sense of uneasiness about this production that really makes it stand out.
A Gothic melodrama with slight horror overtones, it is still a hugely affecting slice of silent cinema at its most inventive. Veidt, who would die tragically young of a heart attack in 1943, is electric as the constantly grinning hero and Eureka have lavished on the extras to add to the allure.
From interviews and video essays with the likes of Kim Newman and Fiona Watson to a tidy collector’s booklet, this is the best way to sample a true silent movie delight in all its strange dreamlike glory.
World news – GB – Cult Movie: The Man Who Laughs influenced everything from Frankenstein to Batman