The Man Who Laughs could almost be called “The Movie That Inspired The Joker.” When Conrad Veidt put on the white makeup while sporting the ghoulish smile that was imposed upon him by a cruel king when poor Veidt’s Gwynplaine was just a boy, I thought “Whoa. He does look like The Joker.” This trivia nugget aside The Man Who Laughs is equal parts horror film, tragic drama, action and adventure movie. Gwynplaine is a monster, yet he is also rather sympathetic, a man who was abandoned and yet saved the life of the lovely Dea, who is blind and therefore cannot see his awful face. However despite his grotesque appearance, Gwynplaine is loved by Ursus, the man who took Dea and him when he was just a child and Dea was a baby. At the same time Ursus is responsible for featuring Gwynplaine in a traveling act, although he does indeed care for the young man and Dea, treating them as his children.
The man responsible for the creation of Gwynplaine as a human freak, the sinister and evil Barkilphedro, discovers that the so called “Laughing Man” is still alive and is also the heir to his late father’s estate. The beautiful yet cruel Josiana, who admires and then mocks Gwynplaine, realizes too late that she must marry him to keep his father’s holdings. The horror elements here are rather strong: Gwynplaine inspires both pity and disgust, and can be considered an early inspiration for the Universal Monsters creatures such as Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Creature From The Black Lagoon.
At the same time the last act is completely action packed, as there is a foot chase, a sword fight, and a desperate bid for freedom all contained in the last 30-40 minutes. The 1920s had other movies similar to this one where they were both horror and suspense, with dashes of adventure thrown in. Particularly the classic The Phantom of the Opera, another movie where a disfigured man loves a woman. That movie is rather different than this one, however, and yet both are great examples of silent Expressionist cinema’s contributions to the world.