Weekend Review: The Man Who Laughs

Fans are counting down to Batman: The Dark Knight, which features the latest take on Batman’s most notorious adversary. As long-time readers of DC know DC’s lawyers frequently deny, the Joker’s physical appearance was based directly on that of Gwynplaine, hero of this 1928 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel.

Click here for a look at Veidt as Gwynplaine.1

Cast and Crew

Director: Paul Leni
Writers: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Victor Hugo (original novel), et al.


Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine
Mary Philbin2 as Dea
Olga Baclanova as Duchess Josiana
Brandon Hurst as Barkilphedro
Cesare Gravina as Ursus
Stuart Holmes as Lord Dirry-Moir
Julius Molnar, Jr. as Young Gwynplaine
Sam De Grasse as King James II
Josephine Crowell as Queen Anne
Zimbo as Homo3

Full cast and crew details may be found at the imdb.

Available at Amazon


In 1690, James II of England executes a noble couple who have offended him and arranges to have their son mutilated. Years later, he returns to court to seek redress, leaving behind the blind woman who loves him.

High Point

The film is a melodrama and an adventure, though also often classified as horror because of some frightening scenes, Veidt’s disturbing rictus, and a nightmarish visual style. The film’s imagery, stagy but effective, includes expressionistic landscapes, grotesque comprachicos4, swinging gallows, and a stunning Southwark Fair.

Low Point

The story is fairly convoluted and features melodramatic twists that will not be to the taste of many modern viewers.

The Review

Originality: 3/6 This film adapts a novel that had already appeared on the silver screen twice– though Leni’s version is the only one popular culture recalls.

Effects: 6/6: See “High Points.” Sometimes the artificial style of the past proves more effective than modern technological creations.

Story 4/6 The film dispenses with the original ending, but holds generally true to the novel. It’s a story that, but for the identity of the author, would most likely be forgotten.

Acting: 5/6 The acting is silent melodrama, but well-done. Veidt conveys emotions beautifully despite his fixed grin. Also memorable is Olga Baclanova’s Duchess, a Restoration villain filtered through the Hollywood Scandals.

Production 5/6.

Emotional Response: 4/6.

Overall: 4/6.

In total, The Man Who Laughs receives 31/42.


1. DC borrowed the title directly for this graphic novel The film also plays a role in Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

2. Mary Philbin is best-remembered for her role opposite Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, and the hermitical life she lived after cinema’s silent era ended.

3. Two things can distract present-day viewers: Olga Baclanova, in certain scenes, resembles uncannily Madonna, and the wolf’s name, in certain lines, evokes unfortunate laughter:

Be quiet, Homo!

The name is, in fact, a Hugoian play on homo homini lupus: man is a wolf to man.

4. I’ll save you the google. The comprachicos are the child-stealers of folklore, who supposedly mutilated youngsters in order to display them as sideshow freaks.