The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Most viewers today will immediately associate “The Man Who Laughs” to The Joker the most notorious fictional villain of our time. That’s about the only legacy this forgotten silent movie has left today. That fixated grin is the only linkage to the joker, and in fact the movie has much more to offer still today.

Directed by Paul Leni and released in 1928, “The Man Who Laughs” is the last breed of its kind before we abandoned story-telling to visual and sound. Watching this film, you will have this constant bittersweet feeling that the late master is mastering the art to the limit within the limitation of the medium. The production is still a highly watchable and at time entertaining piece of movie making, beside its historical value. Leni even experimented with recorded sounds, such as the crowd’s noise and ambient sound of the parade.

Adapted from a novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo in 1869, the story starts with an English nobleman who has offends King James II, he is sentenced to death in the iron maiden, his son Gwynplaine is sentenced to be mutated and forever wearing a large grin on his face with the help of a surgeon called Dr. Hardquannone. Gwynplaine meets Dea a baby girl he finds in the midst of a snow storm, chances upon a good hearted showman called Ursus. Together the trio survives the hardship and makes a living out of the circus business with the famous gig of Gwynplaine the joker, who reluctantly displays his horrifying grin to put bread on the table.

Roger Ebert wrote in his 2004 review that “Movie villains smile so compulsively because it creates a creepy disconnect between their mouth and their eyes. Imagine, however, a good man, condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime.” The horror of this movie, unlike the title otherwise suggests, is not the horror commanded by the laughing man, but instead the horror that is enforced upon him. The film is essentially a bittersweet melodrama that is told in the best of the german expressionist style, that casts a strong contrast between the good hearted Gwynplaine and the horrific chain of events around him, with unseen horror lurking in the darkest of the shadow.

Conrad Veidt shines as Gwynplaine. He also played in other famous german expressionist silent movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He had to wear a monstrous denture that keeps his grin, in doing so, limits his mouth movement. The whole thing works because first it’s a silent movie anyway and the story telling relies on Conrad’s facial expression rather than words, and second Conrad’s acting with the eyes conveys unspeakable emotions that at time make his character more sympathetic than if we could hear him speaking.

I highly recommend this movie if you have 2 free hours over the weekend and would like to revisit the art of the silent movie. Movie making has gone from the story-telling, that works much like a novel, to a spectacle of sometimes grotesque visual and busy soundtrack. Not that silent movie making is in any way superior than the talkies, but if you want a good old analogue entertainment in which the creators must work much harder on the craftsmanship with wild imagination and creativity to surpass the limitation of silence, pick this up via the internet or watch below.


The Laughing Man” is directed by Paul Leni adapted by J. Grubb Alexander from a novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo.

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