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Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 Silent Classic Film with Far Reaching Influence

It’s been nearly a hundred years since the American film version of Victor Hugo horror classic The Man Who Laughs premiere on April 27, 1928 at the Central Theatre in New York City. While the early reception of the film was termed “mediocre” and a “travesty of cinematic methods”, the influence of the main character, Gwynplaine is undeniable in even in many of today’s art forms.

When we look at The Man Who Laughs, we immediately understand its magic on creators of comic books, cartoons and anime series, as well as live action films.

In the film, Comprachicos are illegal surgeons who carved unnatural smiles onto the faces of kidnapped children making them into grotesque clowns and jesters.  Gwynplaine was one such child, the stolen son of the rebel, Lord Chancharlie, who himself was put to death in an ‘Iron Lady’ for taking up arms against King James II  in 17th century England.

The Man Who Laughs is a sad tale, a silent tale of love hard won.

Years later, Gwynplaine pursue of happiness is again betrayed by his childhood, creator Dr Hardquanonne, the Comprachico that changed his destiny, the former but still evil and cruel court jester, Barkilphedro, and the spiteful Queen Anne.

With all these nemeses plotting against him, will poor Gwynplaine survive these newest cruelties and become heir of the Chancharlie estate and happily marry his childhood love, the blind Dea?

As for clown like faces, Lord Dirry Moir, the Duchess Josiana betrothed looks just as much like a jester when  he prostrates before Queen Anne.

 Stuart Holmes as Lord Dirry Moir

Dea quote sums up Gwynplaine emotional existence.

 Mary Philbin as Dea

It’s wonderful how my

Gwynplaine makes the

people laugh ___ even

when he is sad.”

What makes Gwynplaine so endearing, in spite of  his nefarious smile, is that everything he feels is reflected in his eyes and body posture. This is a man that has known great emotional pain and only wants to be loved for who he is regardless of how he looks but must stand up and overcome those wanting to use him for their own good. There is no misunderstanding of the expressions of love, sorrow, bewilderment and happiness on Gwynplaine face.

 Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine

From many, including me, Gwynplaine, The Man Who Laughs, is the real inspiration for the creation of the DC Comics’ Joker. We have to admit that there is a resemblance in their facial features that is wickedly similar. However that is where the resemblance ends.

Where Gwynplaine is a kind and tormented man who wishes only to be loved for himself. The three characters below lack his humaneness.

The Joker is and always will be Batman’s greatest nemesis. The evil of the Joker is one that began long before he fell into a vast of toxic waste. He began as a small time crime punk who wanted to be more. He only realized his goal after waking up as a grotesque man with an evil grin and an equally evil mind.

Bleach animated character, Mayuri Kurotsuchi the Captain of the 12th Division in the Gotei 13 and 2nd president of the Shinigami Research Institute. Although a soul reaper, he often shows signs of the mad scientist beneath his fixed grin.

Then there is the unforgettable Ryuk, a Shinigami God of death from Death Note. His only mission is to bring about chaos and death, as much death as possible and then devour the human that he needs to finish his goal with the use of a supernatural notebook.

Here within the Joker, Mayuri Kurotsuchi and  Ryuk, the Shinigami are the seeds of Gwynplaine, The Man Who Laughs, and there are many more out there.

The Man Who Laughs

Directed by Paul Leni

Produced by Paul Kohner

Screenplay by J. Grubb Alexanderm Walter Anthony, Mary McLean and Charles E. Whittaker

Based on The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo

The Man Who Laughs (1928) - Trailer
A tribute to Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928)


Conrad Veidt      

Mary Philbin

Brandon Hurst

Olga V. Baklanova

Cesare Gravina

Stuart Holmes

Samuel de Grasse

George Siegmann

Josephine Crowell


Stuart Holmes as Lord Dirry Moir

Mary Philbin as Dea

Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine

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