Even casual horror fans are familiar with the silent Universal classics The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which starred the legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, Sr. in his two most iconic screen roles. The box-office success of those two films led the studio in 1928 to adapt The Man Who Laughs, a story by Hunchback author Victor Hugo, into one of their first sound productions, with music and sound effects (but no recorded dialog). While Chaney did not return for this one (he was under contract to MGM by that time), the lead role was taken on by another screen legend, Conrad Veidt – best remembered by horror fans as the creepy sleepwalker Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Just as in Hunchback, the title character here is not technically a “monster,” but a sympathetic figure who happens to be horribly disfigured... but like the grotesque Quasimodo, Veidt's protagonist Gwynplaine is chilling to look at, having been horribly maimed as a child in retaliation for his father's offense against England's King James II. He is taken in by a criminal named Ursus (Cesare Gravina) along with a young girl named Dea, and he later earns a living performing in plays which exploit his horrifying disfigurement, all the while concealing his feelings for the lovely Dea (played as an adult by Mary Philbin). It is eventually discovered that Gwynplaine is an heir to nobility, which sets a complex set of events in motion, including a romantic entanglement with a woman who finds his bizarre appearance strangely attractive.
Universal's co-founder Carl Laemmle sought out German director Paul Leni after seeing his 1926 expressionist thriller Waxworks (also starring Veidt), and sank over a million dollars into the production, which was a blockbuster-scale budget at the time. While it wasn't a huge hit like Phantom or Hunchback – the absence of Chaney might have played a hand in that – the film is still a landmark of gothic cinema, and was almost certainly an influence on the appearance of Batman's most notorious nemesis. One look at Veidt in his “Laughing Man” makeup, and you'll make the connection instantly: he's totally The Joker. It's also no coincidence that a 2005 spinoff of Frank Miller's acclaimed comic Batman: Year One bears the same title as this film.
The Man Who Laughs is available on DVD from Kino Entertainment. Here's a memorable scene from the film, depicting one of Gwynplaine's creepy stage performances...