Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well. A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios. His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit. Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44. Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him). Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess. Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold. Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.
Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm. In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’sWay Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grimSparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still living, blind infant daughter, Dea. Gwynplaine takes the babe in arms and finds sanctuary for them both.
Years later, Gwynplaine is the freak star of a traveling sideshow. The grown-up Dea (Mary Philbin of 1925′sPhantom of the Opera) is in love with Gwynplaine and is, incredibly, unaware of his deformity. Eventually, Gwynplaine discovers his noble heritage and, now that the political tide has turned, he is tempted by rank and the possibility of a duchess for a wife in Olga Baclanova (of 1932′s Freaks).
If Veidt’s Gwynplaine seems eerily familiar to contemporary viewers, that may be because he was (reportedly) a considerable influence on The Joker as created by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson (although even the late Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the arch villain seems comparatively one-note when experiencing Veidt as the original role model). Like Lon Chaney (who was Veidt’s only real competition in the field), the actor willingly endured excruciating physical pain to realize his role.
Veidt is supported by an excellent cast. Philbin evokes a vivid pathos as the loyal Dea (that pathos may have been a genuinely latent quality, given that she was, like Jackie Coogan, a young star who was victimized by mercenary parents who milked her for all she was worth). Baclanova is also superb as the bewitching and genuine temptress who is erotically fascinated with the freak. She nearly leads Gwynplaine astray in a smoldering (for its time), emotionally complex, and fetishistic scene which could have made Tod Browning smile. Baclanova’s acting as the Duchess surpasses her later role for Browning in Freaks, and we can readily identify with Gwynplaine’s conflict of loyalty.
Like a true expressionist master, Leni utilizes multifarious compositions to convey human angst, pity, fear, torture, eroticism, and aspiration. The film’s only real flaw is the studio-mandated happy ending, which does not entirely convince. Amazingly, this was the only compromise made by Leni; otherwise, The Man Who Laughs may be the most genuinely authentic German Expressionist film made in the good old U.S.A. It often seems like a melodramatic Rafael Sabatini tale filtered through an expressionist lens. It is a psychologically interior film, simultaneously unsettling and mesmerizing. The history of essential silent cinema cannot be discussed without its inclusion.