The Man Who Laughs

Victor Hugo’s story is not meant to be a horror story.  It is considered a Romantic melodrama, in the same vein as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s masterwork.

A few months back, a film site posted something on social media that got my attention.  It shocked me, and has since haunted me.  It was a movie still from the 1928 silent film, The Man Who Laughs.  It seems to be vaguely somewhere back there in my memory, but I had let it drift away from further thinking until that moment when I saw it roll by in the news feed.

When we think of the scariest characters in filmdom we often think of Michael Myers, the possessed Regan, Norman Bates, Mr. Hyde, or The Prince of Darkness.  Those were my own choices until I was reminded of Gwynplaine, in The Man Who Laughs.  The expressions on his face are surreally bizarre—especially his persistent, unsettling, grin.

Victor Hugo’s story is not meant to be a horror story.  It is considered a Romantic melodrama, in the same vein as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s masterwork.

Why does Gwynplaine, played brilliantly by Conrad Veidt, have this macabre carnival side-show grin?  The plot of the story is thus:  King James II sentences his enemy, Lord Clancharlie to death in the 1690s.  Not only is Clancharlie executed by the gruesome Iron Maiden, his young son is disfigured by an evil doctor at the order of King James II.  The king wants an awkward grin to be frozen on the face of son, Gwynplaine, forcing him to laugh forever at his fool of a father.

Gwynplaine is deserted by society and during his time of abandonment, he discovers a blind baby girl, Dea.  She has also been abandoned but they are fortunate to both be taken in by mountebank Ursus.

As adults, the two fall in love.  Gwynplaine is a sideshow attraction in a carnival because of his appearance—Dea, played by Mary Philbin, cannot see him and thus loves him anyway.  She doesn’t understand why he remains distant, but it is because he does not feel worthy of her because of his disfigurement.

A new monarch comes to the throne—Queen Anne.  A jester in her court who was present when Gwynplaine’s father was killed is certain he was cheated of his rightful standing because of the king.  The jester finds records that back this up, and Queen Anne grants Gwynplaine his inheritance, his peerage, and a seat in the House of Lords.  There is a catch.  He must also marry Josiana who is trying to retain the estate, which has been under her control.

Gwynplaine rejects the aggressive advances of Josiana, renounces his title, and escapes with guards in hot pursuit.  This calls for some impressive swordplay by the actors—to the delight of movie audiences.  Gwynplaine makes it to the boat docks where Dea and the Ursus are waiting.  They are able to sail away from England in the nick of time.

The Man Who Laughs was an early Universal Pictures production, directed by Paul Leni.  It was originally released in 1927, but it was pulled so that a Movietone sound-on-film system could be added.  It was released again in 1928 with a title song and the musical film accompaniment.  The theme song is, “Love Comes Stealing.”

The eerie images of Gwynplaine served as inspiration for the 1940s comic book foe of Batman, The Joker.

As of this writing, The Man Who Laughs (110 minutes) can be viewed on You Tube.  I hope to view it soon at the town library where I can see it on a larger screen.  I don’t think they would want me to bring popcorn.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of The Scavenger’s Song. Please click HERE to find he book on Amazon.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts