Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: The Man Who Laughs
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
We’ll start today by looking at one of the more obscure entries, the 1928 horror melodrama The Man Who Laughs. This silent film is based on a novel by the same name written by Victor Hugo, who is best known in America for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, both of which have been adapted into other media multiple times. The Man Who Laughs is the story of a young man who is the victim of a horrific bit of facial surgery, resulting in a permanent open-mouthed smile. That might sound familiar…
Well, that’s no mistake. Bob Kane has confirmed that actor Conrad Veidt’s appearance in The Man Who Laughs was a major influence in the creation of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, who is perhaps the most famous comic book villain of all.
According to Kane:
“Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. [The Joker] looks like Conrad Veidt — you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, by Victor Hugo. Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.”
The title of the Hugo novel would be appropriated by DC comics for a 2005 Batman story about the caped crusader’s first encounter with the Joker.
Conrad Veidt was already a successful film actor when he was cast as the title character Gwynplaine, having appeared in a long string of German films, including the very famous expressionist horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
The part of Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs was initially intended for Lon Chaney, who had risen to stardom in the preceding years in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney was unavailable, however, so the German Veidt was cast instead. This was one advantage the silent era can claim, with spoken lines communicated by printed cards, foreign and non-English speaking performers could easily be used with little to no trouble. Veidt would eventually flee from Nazi Germany in 1933 with his Jewish wife, but due to his German heritage often found work playing Nazis in British and American productions. This would include a role in another classic of cinema, the Bogart giant Casablanca (1942), in which Veidt played Major Strasser.
Here’s a lousy little Youtube clip of him in the film.
It would be his second to last film credit, with a featured appearance alongside Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford in the following year’s Above Suspicion. He would, unfortunately, pass away at the rather early age of fifty, collapsing on a golf course in Los Angeles with a heart attack only a few weeks after shooting on Above Suspicion had wrapped.
The Man Who Laughs opens as a truly chilling horror film, with a nobleman who has been troublesome to King James II brought before the monarch and sentenced to death. When he asks what has become of his little son, he is informed that a surgery has been performed on the child so that he may “laugh forever at his fool of a Father.” The man is then placed in an “iron maiden” as the scene fades to black. It may be no surprise that James II is portrayed as such a vindictive and sadistic villain when you consider that he was the last Catholic monarch of England and Hugo was a well known critic of the Catholic church.
From that point forward, the film plays more as a melodramatic romance and social commentary, with the dark stylings of German expressionism helping to maintain the tome set by the opening scenes. Like in many early Universal “monster” movies, the central character who embodies the horror is a sympathetic outsider, with Gwynplaine depicted as lovesick victim, using his deformation as a sideshow clown who draws very large audiences. The movie seems to play this idea at both ends, with characters both bursting into laughter at the sight of him and reacting with terror depending on the circumstances. He stands as the personification of the sad clown trope, right up there with Pagliacci.
If you have a taste for the shadows and thrill of expressionism I would definitely recommend this 1928 version of The Man Who Laughs. Just remember that you will, in fact, be called upon to read title cards from time to time.
Posted on July 2, 2016, in Movies, reviews and tagged Building My Movie Posters Puzzle, Conrad Veidt, Movie Posters, The Man Who Laughs, Universal Pictures, Victor Hugo. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.