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The many echoes of classic horror movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’

It’s not Joaquin Phoenix’s The Joker. It’s Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine from 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs.” 

"The Man Who Laughs" defies genre: part melodrama, part romance but most now consider it a classic horror movie thanks to the grotesque grin carved into Gwynplaine’s face and the spooky cinematic atmosphere. Known as the “Laughing Man,” he tours the countryside as a clown with a traveling show that includes his love interest, a blind woman. 

His character is more sympathetic than the permanent creepy clown grin conveys at first glance. Gwynplaine doesn't feel worthy of love as he is constantly laughed at and mocked on stage and off.

The movie was originally intended to be a follow-up vehicle for Lon Chaney after his blockbuster “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” but because of schedule and rights issues, Veidt took over instead. 

Villainous Veidt

Veidt is not as well-known to modern audiences, but he made more than 100 films, many times taking on villainous portrayals. 

The German-born actor starred in such classics as 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” 1924’s “Waxworks” and 1926’s “The Student of Prague.” Audiences today might recognize him as Major Strasser in “Casablanca,” one of his last roles. Many of Veidt’s early movies are today lost films.

Veidt gets much praise for his work in the movie (deservedly so), but co-star and top-billed Mary Philbin holds her own. Philbin was no stranger to acting alongside horror characters: She shot to stardom in 1925 playing opposite Chaney in “Phantom of the Opera.”

Almost a ‘lost film’

“The Man Who Laughs” could be considered a “lost film” that was found. The movie was an American commercial and critical failure in its initial release (it did find success with European audiences, though).

The Library of Congress restored and preserved the film in the 1960s, piecing together the movie from various prints. 

Because of that, the film was largely forgotten until the last few decades, and many now regard it as one of the finest silent movies ever made. 

The book “American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films” describes the movie’s place in cinema history:

"Paul Leni’s “The Man Who Laughs” is likely the Stuttgart-born director’s masterpiece and one of the cinematic glories of the American Silent Era. It is easily on par with the title most often acclaimed as Hollywood’s greatest silent film – F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927) – and only the fact that it was nigh impossible to view Laughs until relatively recently has prevented it from being recognized as one of the most exquisitely realized American silent films. 

Ironically, these films were helmed not by Americans but by German expatriates; coincidentally, both Leni and Murnau would die young and unexpectedly. Neither man would live long enough to see the artistic advances that the cinema (and the horror genre) would make from the earliest days of his pioneering efforts."


In its immediate aftermath, “The Man Who Laughs” directly shaped Universal’s “monster movies,” with key crew and designers from the 1928 movie working on horror classics such as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” This was, for example, makeup artist Jack Pierce’s first “monster” job at Universal. 

Decades later, Veidt’s look would influence The Joker in the Batman comic, and a 2005 graphic novel’s title (“Batman: The Man Who Laughs”) is a wink to the original silent movie. That in turn helped influence the 2019 big screen hit “The Joker” with Phoenix in the character's look and movie's overall mood and tone.

Watch at the Internet Archive or buy on DVD