Rent The Man Who Laughs (1928)

3.8 of 5 from 85 ratings
1h 50min
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One of the most visually striking of all the later silent films, 'The Man Who Laughs' reunites German Expressionism director Paul Leni and cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton from their horror hit the previous year, 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927). Both films are often considered to be among the earliest works of legendary horror classics from Universal Studios, yet the undeniably eerie 'The Man Who Laughs' is more accurately described as a Gothic melodrama.
However, its influence on the genre and the intensity of the imagery - art director Charles Hall and makeup genius Jack Pierce would go on to define the look of those 1930's Universal horror landmarks - have redefined it as an early horror classic, bolstered by one of the most memorable performances of the period. Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, 'The Man Who Laughs' is Gwynplaine (an extraordinary Conrad Veidt), a carnival sideshow performer in 17th-century England, his face mutilated into a permanent, ghoulish grin by his executed father's royal court enemies. Gwynplaine struggles through life with the blind Dea (Phantom of the Opera's Mary Philbin) as his companion - though she is unable to see it, his disfigurement still causes Gwynplaine to believe he is unworthy of her love. But when his proper royal lineage becomes known by Queen Anne, Gwynplaine must choose between regaining a life of privilege, or embracing a new life of freedom with Dea. The startling makeup on Veidt was the acknowledged direct inspiration for The Joker in the 1940 Batman comic that introduced the character, and film versions of The Joker have been even more specific in their references to Leni's film. While 'The Man Who Laughs' contains powerful elements of tragedy, doomed romance, and even swashbuckling swordplay, its influence on horror cinema is most pronounced. Leni died suddenly at the age of 44 a year after this film (with Veidt also unexpectedly passing away too soon in 1943), and 'The Man Who Laughs' endures as one of the most haunting and stylish American silent films, made just as that era was coming to a close.
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Carl Laemmle
Victor Hugo, J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, May McLean, Marion Ward, Charles E. Whittaker
Classics, Drama, Horror, Romance, Thrillers
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Release Date:
Not available for rental
Run Time:
110 minutes
DVD Regions:
Region 2
B & W
Release Date:
Run Time:
110 minutes
English LPCM Mono, English LPCM Stereo, Silent
Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen 1.20:1
B & W
BLU-RAY Regions:
  • Kim Neman on Paul Leni: An Interview the author and horror expert
  • The Face Deceives-, a video essay by David Cairns and Nona Watson
  • Paul Leni and "The Man Who Laughs": a video essay by John Soister
  • Stills Galleries

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Reviews (2) of The Man Who Laughs

Terrific silent horror. - The Man Who Laughs review by NP

Spoiler Alert

The extent of initial brutality in this silent film is pretty shocking. There’s something deeply unpalatable about watching the early days of Gwynplaine’s (Conrad Veidt) tragic and troubled life, and the grotesque theatricality of the players only reinforces that. Truly, you needed to be made of stern stuff to watch this kind of film back in the silent era.

Silent films are very much an acquired taste, but I would suggest this is worth anyone’s time. My score is 8 out of 10.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

Silent Horror. - The Man Who Laughs review by Steve

Spoiler Alert

After Paul Leni arrived at Universal studios, the expressionist style of German horror began to be the standard in Hollywood too. The star of Leni's visually stunning German horror, Waxworks (1924)  was cast as his hero in The Man Who Laughs. Conrad Veidt is Gwynplaine, who was disfigured as a boy by the King. He must grow up with a hideous grin which masks his ceaseless misery.

Veidt  is heartbreaking as the suffering grotesque who joins the circus. The power of the  film, is the pathos of a man so mutilated he can never show how he really feels. The clown. Mary Philbin supports as a blind woman, fated never to see her own beauty. And because she can touch the lips of Gwynplaine, she is fooled that he's always happy.

Leni is brilliant at the visuals, but less gifted at narrative and while it looks like art, the film is slow. The expressionist sets of 17th century England are excellent. There isn't the social critique of Victor Hugo's novel, but it does expose the brutal oppression of the poor by the aristocracy, enabled by the King. Leni portrays the aristocrats as being as physically hideous as the members of the freak show the young outcast is exploited by.

There is something primal about the monstrous characters we encounter in silent horrors. They ask ask us to relive one of the terrible fears of childhood, that we ourselves are uniquely unlovable, and the love we need to survive cannot be returned. These roles are eternal, universal nightmares.

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