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PAUL LENI RETURNS behind the camera to direct the latest horror movie outing for Universal, following on from The Cat and The Canary, but once again, this movie feels more like a melodrama than an out and out horror.

That’s not to take away from the strength of the story which once again focuses on the plight of its main protagonist, a theme that runs strongly through the Universal movies of this time. 

It’s based on a Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Evidently another inspiration to the producers at Universal and perhaps the reason this movie was greenlit following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The protagonist this time around would be Gwynplaine, a man who carries a freak-like grin due to Dr. Hardquannone’s surgery permanently scarring his face.

It is an act that is carried out by the order of King James II and the final result of this permanent smile was said to be the inspiration behind one of Batman’s notorious villains, The Joker.

The Man Who Laughs mainly centred on Gwynplaine’s plight and the torch he carries for the blind Dea, played by Mary Philbin.

By a strange turn of events it is uncovered that Gwynplaine is owed inheritance through his lineage and is urged to marry in order to restore the proper ownership of the estate.

Ultimately though, he would turn his back on his fortune in favour of love.

It’s a beautiful story and you can tell that it was wielded by a master in his field. Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine with a certain amount of ease and bodies the pain and torture held within with a simple look or gesture of his eyes.

Veidt himself had made a name for himself 8 years early with the silent horror masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari. He would go on to feature in The Thief of Baghdad and Casablanca before passing away at the age of 50.

His performance in The Man Who Laughs stands strong in the Universal Horror canon and deserves its place alongside the movies that the production company was making at the time and had a significant impact on the movies that would follow.

Significantly this is only 4 years away from Bela Lugosi stepping into Dracula’s shoes and making cinema history.

  • Paul Farrell