The Man Who Laughs (1928) is an American silent film directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name and stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine and Mary Philbin as the blind Dea. The film is known for the grim Carnival freak like grin on the character Gwynplaine's face which often leads the film to be credited to the horror film genre. Film critic Roger Ebert stated "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film."
The Man Who Laughs is part of a genre of Romantic melodrama, similar to films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The film was one of the early Universal Pictures productions that made the transition from silent films to sound films, using the Movietone sound system introduced by William Fox. The film was completed in April 1927 but was held for release in April 1928 with sound effects and a music score that included the song "When Love Comes Stealing" by Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, and Erno Rapee.
The homeless Gwynplaine wanders around in a snowstorm and discovers an abandoned baby girl, the blind Dea. The two children are eventually taken in by Ursus, a mountebank. Years pass and Dea and Gwynplaine fall in love but Gwynplaine refuses to allow himself to marry her because he feels his hideous face makes him unworthy. The three earn their living through plays based upon the public's voyeuristic fascination with Gwynplaine's mangled facial features. Their travels bring them back into the path of the deceased King's successor, Queen Anne. Here, Queen Anne's jester, Barkilphedro, discovers records which reveal Gwynplaine's lineage and his potential inheritance of his father's position in the court.
Gwynplaine's deceased father's estate, currently owned by the Duchess Josiana, is in her possession, and Queen Anne decrees that the royal duchess must marry Gwynplaine, the rightful heir, to make things right. Josiana, who has seen Gwynplaine's act, arranges a rendezvous, and is at the same time sexually attracted to and repelled by the "Laughing Man" image. Gwynplaine, made a Peer in the House of Lords, refuses the Queen's order of marriage and escapes, chased by guards. He finds Ursus and Dea at the docks, sailing from England under banishment, and joins them on the boat. The film thus leaves off the tragic ending of Hugo's original novel, in which Dea dies while the group is sailing away from England, and Gwynplaine drowns himself.
(The scenes featuring Olga Baclanova as Duchess Josiana were rather daringly suggestive for the time, and included brief glimpses of nudity in a bathing scene, though these were trimmed for the American release.)
Being of German ancestry, Laemmle had connections with the German film scene, which gave him an inside track when negotiating with some of Germany's filmmakers and actors. Laemmle had seen director Paul Leni's Waxworks (1926) and was impressed with the movie's sets and ominous stylistics. Laemmle chose Leni to accept the challenge of crafting the film adaptation. In addition, Laemmle pursued Conrad Veidt, who played a prominent role in Waxworks, to star. Veidt had also previously starred in the classic of German expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Universal put over $1,000,000 into The Man Who Laughs, a very large amount of money to use on an American film at the time.
Although actor Kirk Douglas was long interested in producing a remake, The Man Who Laughs has only been refilmed once in the sound era, as L'Uomo che Ride by Italian director Sergio Corbucci in 1966. Corbucci, however, changed the setting from Queen Anne's England to the sixteenth century Italian court of the Borgias.