The Man Who Laughs, released 27 April 1928, was the third Hollywood film for both German director Paul Leni and wonderful actor Conrad Veidt. Universal Pictures gave Lon Chaney, Sr., a contract to play the lead role of Gwynplaine, but failed to acquire film rights to Victor’s Hugo’s least-successful novel from Sociéte Générale des Films. Lon’s contract was amended to release him from this obligation, and let him name its replacement (1925’s The Phantom of the Opera).
By the time studio boss Carl Laemmle returned to The Man Who Laughs, Lon was under contract to MGM.
Lord Clancharlie is sentenced to death in an iron maiden by King James II in January 1690, and his son Gwynplaine has a permanent grin carved into his face by a Comprachico surgeon. Shortly afterwards, all Comprachicos are banished from England for trading in stolen children and performing unlawful surgeries transforming children into monsters.
Gwynplaine, who’s been with them since his capture, is ordered left behind. Dr. Hardquanonne, who performed the macabre surgery, demands he come with them, but another Comprachico says they want no victims to convict them of their trade. Dr. Hardquanonne says Gwynplaine is theirs by the King’s orders, and means money to them, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.
While Gwynplaine, his grin covered by a scarf, is wandering in the snow afterwards, he finds a woman frozen to death and saves her baby. Gwynplaine stumbles across Ursus, a philosopher, and his trained wolf with the unfortunate name Homo (dog Zimbo). Ursus is annoyed to be disturbed, but ultimately invites Gwynplaine into his little green van.
Ursus is stunned anew to discover there are two of them, and quickly determines the baby is blind. He thinks Gwynplaine is laughing about this, but soon realises this was done by Comprachicos.
Many years pass, and Gwynplaine is now a successful travelling performer, The Laughing Man. Who should Ursus meet during one of these stops but Dr. Hardquanonne!
Also rather predictably, Gwynplaine and the blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love.
Dr. Hardquanonne has a message delivered to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, who played the two-faced Cleopatra in Freaks). It first gets to Barkilphedro, the jester who kidnapped Gwynplaine and had him mutilated all those years ago. He shows it to Queen Anne.
After Josiana attends Gwynplaine’s show, she has a message delivered to him, saying she was the one who wasn’t laughing, and that her page will come for him at midnight. Gwynplaine is thrilled, and tells Ursus if a sighted woman might love him, he may now have the right to marry Dea. He’s always felt unworthy of her love.
Josiana puts the moves on Gwynplaine, which thrills him. During their meeting, Josiana reads a letter from the Queen, saying Lord Clancharlie’s heir, whose estates she now enjoys, has been found and identified as Gwynplaine. Her betrothal is thus annulled, and she must marry Gwynplaine, who’ll be restored to his heritage. Josiana breaks out laughing.
Gwynplaine returns home to find Dea asleep outside the wagon, where she was waiting up for him. The letter from Josiana is in her hands, which Gwynplaine rips up. He now realises Dea truly loves him, since she’s never laughed at him and accepts him just as he is.
Gwynplaine is arrested in the morning, and Ursus follows him. Ursus is told not to wait, since those who enter Chatham Prison never return, but he’s undeterred.
The Queen tells Barkilphedro Dr. Hardquanonne died in Chatham Prison, and his confession proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Gwynplaine is indeed Lord Clancharlie’s son. It grieves her to know Josiana must marry a clown, but after Gwynplaine is released, he’ll be made a Peer in the House of Lords.
Ursus tells all the other performers Dea must not know, and that the show must go on. More trouble comes when Barkilphedro interrupts the show to inform Ursus he’s banished from England, and lies Gwynplaine is dead.
Will Gwynplaine escape marrying Josiana and find Dea and Ursus in time?
This film had a budget of over $1,000,000, and was a huge success. Opening night proceeds went to American Friends of Blérancourt. Many critics, however, panned it, finding the subject matter too dark and depressing, and feeling the German Expressionistic style didn’t evoke 17th and 18th century England. As recently as the Seventies, many critics still hated it, but today it’s rightly recognised as a beautiful masterpiece.
Like many films of the late silent era, TMWL is a hybrid, with a synchronised sountrack, sound effects (including crowd noises and the calling of Gwynplaine’s name), and a song, “When Love Comes Stealing.”
The themes, style, and set designs were major influences on Universal’s classic horror movies of the Thirties.
And, of course, Gwynplaine’s exaggerated grin was The Joker’s genesis.