In which it takes more than a joker to beat the odds.
The Man Who Laughs has grown steadily in stature over the last few years, reaching a point where it’s marketed as “the lost Universal horror classic”. Though it shares many connections with the hugely successful run of films that began in 1931 with Dracula, there’s far more melodrama than horror in the film.
The renewed interest and rising appreciation also stem from the film’s status as the inspiration for The Joker. Never far from the public consciousness, the joker has been front and centre in recent years with Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix taking the role in different directions.
Despite the many disagreements between them, all three men responsible for creating the Joker in 1940 point to a picture of The Man Who Laughs as their inspiration. It’s especially clear in the first few appearances of the character in Detective Comics and Batman where the resemblance is almost plagiaristic. The Dark Knightwould later use the idea of disfigurement by knife as a possible backstory for Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, the film follows the life of Gwynplaine, the heir to a murdered Lord who’s grimly disfigured on orders of King James II so that he might always smile. Abandoned in a snowstorm, he rescues a baby from the frozen arms of her dead mother and stumbles across the caravan of the philosopher Ursus.
Ursus raises the two children, making money by exhibiting Gwynplaine as The Man Who Laughs and having the girl Dea, who was born blind, perform his plays. The growing crowds make Gwynplaine a star, but his fame attracts the attention of the nobility and the Queen who seek to use his inherited title for their own ends.
Conrad Veidt is the film’s undoubted star, imbuing Gwynplaine with empathy, innocence and a delicate strength. His tragic fate, sealed as a child, powers his journey from sideshow attraction to peer of the realm. Wherever he goes, his face causes riotous laugher in those around him while we see the unending pain behind the smile. It’s the second iconic role of the decade for Veidt, who played the sleepwalking Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
It’s also the second iconic 1920’s Universal film from German director Paul Leni, who made The Cat and the Canary a year earlier but would sadly die in 1929 aged just 44. His expressionist background lends the film a stylised and gothic backdrop that, as Jim Knipfel writes:
“helped define the lighting, set design, and overall atmosphere of not only the straight horror films Universal would begin producing just a couple years later, but also the noir films two decades down the line.”
The Man Who Laughs has taken on an almost mythic status, with the incredible and enduring face of Gwynplaine – designed by master makeup artist Jack Pierce – still chilling viewers today. Though it leans rather deeply into melodrama at times, making it less of a horror classic than say The Phantom of the Opera, it’s a worthy addition to the seminal output of Universal Studios across the decade.