This is a Universal film produced by Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, whose son brought us the Universal Monsters. While it is a silent film, the soundtrack that accompanies it features synchronized sound in the form of wailing wind, sounds at a fair, and crowd sounds. The sound on this DVD is not in the finest condition and there is some degree of hiss, but the music on the soundtrack definitely has that Universal Pictures flavor. I found some of the sound effects to be a bit distracting (a lot of horns honking) and did not do much to enhance the action onscreen. It is as disappointing as the synchronized sound that was later added to Phantom of the Opera, and what you might expect from practitioners experimenting with a new medium.
Some of the intertitles have a decorative, flowery background. The film is based on a story by Victor Hugo and is directed by Paul Leni. It features Mary Philbin from Phantom, Conrad Veidt from Caligari and Olga Baclanova, who would later be known from her appearance in Freaks. Lon Chaney was intended for the part of Gwynplaine, but was working for another studio at the time. He would have been superlative, but Conrad Veidt proves himself more than adequate. I recommend checking out moviediva for some interesting background information on this film.
Comprachico surgeon mutilated his face with a permanent grin so he could forever laugh at his fool of a father. Lord Clancharlie is devastated by the news and is sent to the embrace of the Iron Lady, with his last thoughts for his poor little son. What a horrifying beginning!
King James decrees that all Comprachicos be banished from England, but they refuse to take Lord Clancharlie's young son with them as they want no victims along as evidence to convict them. Despite the protestations of the surgeon Hardquanonne, who argues that he is theirs by order of the king and could earn them money, they cruelly cast him aside, leaving him behind in the freezing snow as their ship sails away.
The young waif wanders below some gruesome gallows and follows footprints in the snow to a mother and babe. The boy reaches out and feels the mother's frozen face and recoils. The babe in her arms is alive and he gathers it in his arms and waves a farewell to its dead mother.
He comes to a wagon guarded by a barking dog, who wakes Ursus, the self proclaimed philosopher. He is surprised to see the young boy at his door and quiets his dog, Homo. The boy introduces himself as Gwynplaine and states that he is cold and hungry and Ursus waves him inside.
The boy's face is wrapped in a scarf and his frozen jacket bulges out as he seats himself by the cookstove where Ursus stirs a pot of mush. As he ladles some gruel in a bowl, Gwynplaine opens his jacket and removes the baby, laying it on the table. Ursus is surprised to see the baby and determines that it is blind by waving a hand over its eyes. He turns to Gwynplaine, who has removed his scarf, and tells the boy to stop laughing. When he repeats the instruction, Gwynplaine tells him he is not laughing. Ursus looks at him closely and discovers his grin is the work of the Comprachicos, and he draws the curtains across the window of his van, as Gwynplaine uses his finger to feed bits of gruel to the baby.
Years have passed and Gwynplaine is now a famous strolling player known as 'The Laughing Man'. He walks alongside the traveling van with Homo, as Ursus and the blind girl, Dea, ride inside. Dea reaches out the window to grasp Gwynplaine's hand lovingly.
As they enter a village, the children run ahead and joyfully announce The Laughing Man. The villagers go out to greet the wagon while one man reads a banner that explains how Gwynplaine was deserted at the age of ten by villainous Comprachicos on the coast of Cornwall and is now known as The Laughing Man. The man climbs onto the wagon to peer through the window as Dea talks to Gwynplaine as he regards himself in the mirror. Despite his wide grin, it is clear to see that Gwynplaine looks unhappy.
The man tells Ursus that he has a wonderful clown that is worth a lot of money. He goes on to explain that he also has freaks, and Ursus confirms that he is going to Southwark Fair too. The man introduces himself as Hardquanonne, who expresses a desire to get better acquainted with Ursus and his laughing man. The wagon drives off and the villagers excitedly wave farewell.
The well attended and noisy Southwark Fair has a ferris wheel, meat roasting on a spit, a tightrope walker, an elephant tamer, a fire eater, wild beasts, sword eaters, dwarves and Hardquanonne's five legged cow, among other oddities of nature. When Gwynplaine arrives, the crowd is drawn away from Hardquanonne's attraction. He calls his man over to deliver an important message to a Duchess.
Ursus walks in on Gwynplaine blissfully caressing his face with Dea's long golden locks. He begins to rehearse and Ursus interrupts him, questioning his rehearsal, and promising to cure him of his lovesickness by ensuring the two will be married before they leave the fair. Ursus leaves and Gwynplaine hides his grin behind his book while the astute Dea asks why he draws away when the subject of marriage comes up. He tells her he has no right right to love her and she declares that her life belongs to him as she embraces him. The crowd sees them embracing and the people laugh hysterically while the mortified Gwynplaine hides his grin. He remarks on how they laugh at him and that he is nothing but a clown, while Dea tries to comfort him.
Hardquanonne's man brings his message to Duchess Josiana but is turned away. Barkilphedro, who we are informed has prospered even after the death of King James, pulls up in a carriage, and when the man complains he can't get his message through, allows him to enter the gates with him. They enter the palace together and approach the door of the Duchess, who is bathing. Barkilphedro allows the chinless man to get an eyeful of the bathing Duchess through the keyhole, while he surreptitiously takes the message and reads it.
Barkilphedro enters the room where the Duchess is partially wrapped in a towel. He turns and feigns respect for her modesty and she laughs at him.
She is going through her messages on a platter and he tells her the Queen is inflicting a concert on the court, but the Duchess is uninterested and implores him to speak instead of the latest scandal. He tells her there is one that is quite close to her, and she asks if it involves her beloved Dirry-Moir, as she walks over to a portrait of a foolish fop on a chain that hangs on her mirror. She swings it around and comments that her betrothed is too stupid to be part of an interesting scandal.
He tells her she'll be interested but that the Queen must hear it first. She entices him by exposing her leg and when he kneels down to enjoy the view, she uses it to knock him down, and her monkey follows up by smacking him in the head with an apple. He goes to leave and she yells after him. Before parting, he reminds her that an apple is what got Eve into trouble.
Outside the door, he clutches Hardquanonne's message to his chest and smiles. He goes to the royal chamber where the concert is in progress and informs the Queen that he's got great news that has to do with the insolent Duchess. The queen glances at the foppish fiancee, who's grinning like an idiot. She changes his expression by calling him over to tell him that his betrothed needs to learn manners and that she insults them with her absence. He offers to go get her and she gives her permission. He pokes his finger into a yawning royal's mouth on his way out.
Barkilphedro shares the message with the Queen, and when she bolts upright, all the court and musicians also stand. She gestures to the musicians to sit and continue playing, which they reluctantly do, as does the court, with eyes rolling. Although loud groans were not added to the synchronized sound track, you can practically hear them anyway. He asks if she would reward him if he should find the heir. She suggests he should succeed in finding him since she still has the Iron Lady. He leaves and she stares unhappily at the empty chair where the Duchess should be seated.
We find Duchess Josiana dressed as a commoner and milling with the common folk at the Southwark Fair. She is being pushed into an archaic merry-go-round seat and groped by a group of inebriated louts, while seemingly having the time of her life, as her skirts fly up as the merry goes round.
A man approaches Hardquanonne about the letter sent to the Duchess, and he tells him he has the proof. He and another man lead him into an alley between the tents and several others await to beat it out of him. The man tells them to take him to the torture chamber and hands the proof to Barkilphedro in his carriage.
The clowns go behind the curtain to tell Gwynplaine he's getting famous and the crowd is bigger than ever. He appears downcast as the crowd clamors for him. Gwynplaine hides his grin and approaches the luminous Dea. She happily throws her arms about him and tells him it's wonderful he makes them laugh even when he is sad. As she caresses his face, he takes her hand before it reaches his carved grin and holds her dearly.
The Duchess seems a little tipsy as she carouses with her gang of drunkards. As they head for the tent of The Man Who Laughs, a man in a mask shows up and intercepts them, revealing himself to be her betrothed, Dirry-Moir. He tells her the Queen is raging and she needs to get to the concert. Her guy pals suddenly realize what's going on and angrily claim they saw her first and attempt to mount an attack against Dirry-Moir, but to our surprise he begins to take them out one by one, to the delight of Josiana. She breaks away and runs to her coach where she transforms back into a Duchess, and instructs the driver to take her to the Royal Palace.
The royal court seems to be overcome by ennui as Josiana bursts in, smiling and bejeweled in her satiny gown. She curtsies to the queen, who makes no secret of her displeasure and departs, while Barkilphedro reassures her that he is always near her, before he also leaves. As the royal court and musicians exit, Dirry-Moir arrives, and he accuses Josiana of letting the ruffians at Southwark take more liberties with her than he is allowed. She brushes him off, saying she does what she pleases, and that she's planning on returning to see the laughing clown.
Back at the fair, the enthusiastic crowd begins filling seats to see L'Homme qui rit. The Duchess arrives, this time dressed in her finery, and being afforded a seat in what serves for a balcony, as the crowd applauds her. Gwynplaine begins applying his makeup, as Dea stands by. Ursus runs up to inform him that a great lady, who he's sure that is nothing less than a duchess, is attending the performance.
He goes out to announce to the crowd that he wrote the play in the manner of Shakespeare, only better. As it begins, it seems that trolls are onstage and Gwynplaine's character, whose mouth is covered, attempts to battle them. The lovely Dea appears and they all bow down to her. The curtain closes on all the characters but Gwynplaine, as the Duchess watches intently. A clown appears with Ursus onstage, and the clown removes Gwynplaine's cloth to display his huge grin, as the crowd begins to laugh. The Duchess is not laughing, however. Gwynplaine works the crowd, but as he peers up at the Duchess, he feels the need to cover his grin, while she raises her mask to her face, as her chest heaves. They both uncover their faces, and the Duchess gets up to leave.
Backstage, Ursus says the show was a success and asks if he saw the beautiful lady in the box. Dea asks Gwynplaine if she was that beautiful. He doesn't respond, and she turns and leaves. One of the clowns is cleaning his face and commenting on how lucky Gwynplaine is since he doesn't have to rub off his laugh. Ursus turns to look at the numbnut who would make such a callous remark as he leaves. Gwynplaine fingers his uncontrollable grin. Some ladies appear outside the tent and hand him a letter written on the back of the flyer for his show from the Duchess.
When Ursus enters, he tells him that a woman has seen his face and yet may still love him. Ursus looks disturbed, and Gwynplaine adds that if it's true, then he has the right to marry Dea, which changes the expression on Ursus' face to one of pleasure. Ursus doesn't get it and tells him to forget it, that Dea loves him and will never see his face. Gwynplaine goes to burn the letter and then stops himself.
A leg clad in stockings descends the steps of the traveling van, and Dea hears and calls out to Gwynplaine. Homo also hears and follows, while Ursus sleeps soundly. He sends Homo back to watch over Dea, and goes with the page that the Duchess has sent. Dea finds the note on the bureau and smells perfume on it. She goes outside the van and calls for Homo. He finally comes running to her and tries to take the letter from her hands, as her blind eyes tear up and both lady and canine appear quite forlorn.
The page brings a blindfolded Gwynplaine to a door, and a maid escorts him to the lady's bedchamber and removes his blindfold and leaves. The Duchess is draped across her bed, clad in negligee and sultry look with eyes closed and lips parted. Gwynplaine walks over to her bedside and takes a long look at the most exposed skin on a female that he's ever seen. She opens her eyes and seductively snakes her arms around his neck, and he appears quite fearful as she puts her face close to his. When she kisses him on his covered mouth, he is enthralled. She exposes his grin and looks pretty turned on as she stares at it. She goes to kiss him again and he retreats and covers his mouth. The Duchess clings to him, attempting to pull his hand away from his mouth and refusing to let him go, as her bedchamber bell rings.
She gets up and retrieves a scroll from a mechanism in the wall. She opens it and reads a message from the Queen, telling her that the heir to Lord Clancharlie's estates has been identified and that the rightful heir is Gwynplaine. She looks up at him astonished and she reads on to find out that the Queen annuls her betrothal to Dirry-Moir and decrees that she marry Gwynplaine so she can share the heritage she is about to restore to him. She looks at Gwynplaine and begins laughing. His face crumples and he brings his hands up in front of his face. Her laughter turns to sobs, and he dashes from her room as she cradles her monkey and cries.
Gwynplaine returns home and is greeted by the faithful Homo, in whom he confides that she laughed like all the others. He finds Dea sleeping outside the van with the perfumed note of the Duchess clutched in her hand. Gwynplaine removes it and tears it up. She wakes up and begins feeling his face as an operatic voice begin singing "When Love Comes Stealing," making me wish the film was truly silent. The instrumental version would have provided a more romantic effect as Gwynplaine removes the covering on his mouth and brings Dea's fingers up to feel his grin. She tells him that God closed her eyes so she could see the real man. He is thrilled and they lovingly embrace. He picks her up and carries her inside, as father Ursus and brother Homo greet the happy couple. Ursus happily claps his hands, while Homo joyfully returns to gnawing a bone underneath the van.
Their happiness is short lived as agents of the Queen come to inform Gywnplaine that he is under arrest, and as he's taken away, he tells Ursus not to let Dea know. Ursus goes back inside to tell Dea that they have business at the Inn and he follows as Gwynplaine is taken away to Chatham Prison. Ursus waits outside the prison and a passerby tells him not to wait as those who go in never come out, but he waits nevertheless. In the morning, a death knell rings and a coffin is brought out, leading him to believe that Gwynplaine is dead. He is devastated.
He returns to the troupe and somberly informs them that the show is over and he enters the performance room grief stricken. He suddenly thinks of Dea, and as he turns to look at Gwynplaine's name written on a pole, begins to sob.
The sinister Barkilphedro pokes his head in between the curtains of the Queen's throne room where she is seated at a desk. She informs him that the confession of Dr. Hardquanonne before his death at Chatham Prison proves that Gwynplaine is Lord Clancharlie's lost son. She laments that poor Josiana must marry the laughing clown to retain her fortune. A messenger brings a scroll and says that Gwynplaine is still a prisoner but will be made a Peer in the House of Lords the following day.
Dea appears drawn and unhappy as Ursus seats himself beside her wide eyed in shock. He is unable to tell her of Gwynplaine's death and when she says it must be time for a performance, he decides to enlist the help of the troupe to fool her into believing that the performance is continuing with Gwynplaine. It's another moment of irritation with the synchronized sound as multiple voices cry out for Gwynplaine, in an attempt to sound as though a crowd has gathered for the show. It's difficult to determine whether Dea is truly fooled, especially when Ursus bursts into tears and clutches his heart as he announces The Man Who Laughs and she tears up.
As she takes the stage, a masked Barkilphedro enters with a group of the Queen's men to read from a scroll, telling Ursus that he is banished from England and must leave the next day. Barkilphedro lowers his mask and announces with a smile that Gwynplaine is dead. Dea bursts into tears and slowly collapses to the stage, cradled by Ursus and surrounded by the performers.
A bewigged Gwynplaine rides in a coach through a village with a chatty Barkilphedro at his side as they are accompanied by many riders calling to make way for a Peer of England. Ursus' van carries a distraught Dea as they make their way to the London docks. As the the van passes by the coach, the wheels become interlocked and the two vehicles are stuck together. When Barkilphedro sees that it is Ursus, he goes to Gwynplaine and asks if he minds walking the rest of the way. Dea steps out of the van and Homo, who has caught Gwynplaine's scent on the coach leads her by the skirt in his direction.
The lords in the House of Peers are outraged by the admission of a clown, and pass out his past performance flyers. Ursus returns to the van and finds Dea gone. She is with Homo at the House of Peers, where guards outside block her entrance. Homo adamantly holds her there. The Queen enters the House as fanfare announces her. The lords seat themselves and Gwynplaine is brought before her with mouth covered. He kneels down and reveals his grin to her, but covers it to bow his head to her ring.
Dirry-Moir is passing by in a conveyance and notices Dea and Homo standing next to the House. He strolls up to them and Homo bares his fangs at him as he remarks that they have forgotten about er but that he'll bring her to surprise Lord Gwynplaine and overwhelm the Queen. Realizing he is not dead, Dea agrees to go with him, but Homo is held at bay by the guards. Barkilphedro sees them passing by as Dirry-Moir leads her to the chamber door.
Inside, the peers welcome the newly recognized Lord Clancharlie while issuing the Queen's decree that he marry Duchess Josiana. Gwynplaine looks all about him as the lords begin whispering to one another. He uncovers his grin and they claim he laughs at the Queen's command and house of lords, and they all begin to laugh at him. Outside the door, Dirry-Moir convinces Dea that Gwynplaine is inside as evidenced by the sounds of laughter. He opens the door to go in, but before she can follow, Barkilphedro grasps her hand and leads her away.
Gwynplaine is mortified by the laughter in the house and tears begin to fall from his eyes. Barkilphedro drags Dea outside and she passes out on the steps as Homo runs to her. She is gathered up and handed to Ursus, who carries her to the van. Inside the chamber, Gwynplaine's tears turn to an expression of rage and he protests the Queen's decree, claiming he will not be forced into a hateful marriage. They ask how he dares to refuse the hand of the Duchess, calling him a clown, and he responds by saying that a King made him a clown. The lord says the Queen graciously made him a lord and he must obey her command, but he says that while she made him a lord, God first made him a man.
Dirry-Moir calls to make way for a Peer of England as Gwynplaine departs the House. Josiana bolts up angrily, commanding them to seize him for insulting the Queen of England. While the lords begin to stand, nobody seems to be in a hurry to go after Gwynplaine. He passes Barkilphedro in the hall and tells him that he is going back to his people and that Barkilphedro should go back to the Queen for his reward. One of the Queen's men tells him to stop and when he begins to go anyway, he is blocked by guards. He surprises them by knocking them down and throwing himself out a window, losing his horrible wig on the vines he climbs down outside the tower.
He runs through the village and as the people realize it's their Laughing Man, the crowd runs after him. He goes to their performance area and sees their names crossed off. He asks where Dea is and is told he may find them at the docks as they were ordered to leave England. A coach carrying Barkilphedro and all the guards ride up and find Gwynplaine, but the crowds hold them off as he makes his escape across the rooftop.
Barkilphedro spies him and a swordsman goes to stop him, but after a quick play of swords, Gwynplaine is victorious and the swordsman falls. As he tries to get away, Barkilphedro sees that he is trapped and orders the guards to the tower. The desperate Gwynplaine flies from the tower to the adjacent lodging, barely catching the ledge of a window. He begins to lose his grip and looks down at the swords upraised below, ready to impale him if he should fall, and manages to raise himself up with the aid of the occupants, and makes his getaway in the streets.
Ursus is at the docks with Homo, and a man carries Dea to the ship they board and lays her down. Realizing where Gwynplaine is headed, Barkilphedro orders his coach to the docks. The ship is unmoored as Gwynplaine continues to make his way to the docks with Barkilphedro in hot pursuit. He sees the ship and calls for Dea. Homo hears him and begins barking. He calls again more loudly and Homo goes to the ship and dives in the water. Gwynplaine sees him and calls to him.
Barkilphedro arrives at the docks and orders a search. Gwynplaine gets into a rowboat. Barkilphedro sees him and goes after him, but is prevented by a snarling Homo who lunges at him and latches onto his throat. After a brief struggle, they both fall into the water and while the sinister Barkilphedro slowly sinks below the surface, Homo begins dog paddling after Gwynplaine in the rowboat. Regrettably, the operatic singing begins once again.
Gwynplaine rows up to the ship, calling loudly for Dea, and as Ursus holds her, she hears him and lays back down. Gwynplaine climbs over the ship and is greeted by a shocked and delighted Ursus as he embraces his dear Dea. The shipmates help Homo over the side and he runs over to join the happy family reunion and the ship sails off to the sunrise of a new day.
This film seems to feature opposite pairings, the most obvious being Barchilphedro and Gwynplaine. Here we have two clowns who both wear perpetual grins that can often hide their true nature and feelings. The former jester, Barchilphedro, is a troublemaker and we are informed at the beginning of the film that "all his jests were cruel and all his smiles were false." Gwynplaine also has a false smile, but it hides his sadness. He believes his grotesque appearance makes him unworthy of Dea's love. He thinks that if a sighted woman can love him in spite of his deformity, then he can accept that Dea can love him, and is not just hindered by her blindness.
While Ursus is the warm and caring father figure, Queen Anne is the cold, aloof mother figure. Dea is the sweet natured, loving girl exuding innocence, while Josiana is the lustful, excitement seeking seductress. Josiana is fixated on Gwynplaine's appearance and offers him her body, but Dea loves him for who he is, and offers him her heart and soul. I might think that Dirry-Moire and Homo are alike in being faithful, though Dirry-Moire's faithfulness to the Queen and Josiana is self serving, while Homo is faithful to serving and protecting his human family, though it could be that I'm stretching things a bit at this point.
We also see a contrast between the aristocracy, quietly sitting bored and still, listening to polite orchestral music, while the lower classes are exuberant and boisterous at the fair, feasting and laughing and enjoying themselves.
Then there is the dual nature of laughter. When Gwynplaine performs, the crowd's laughter is joyful and he thrives on it, as it allows him to feel that he is able to do something good for people. The difference is exemplified when he exposes his grin to the House of Lords and the laughter is derisive and mocking, which angers him, and it shows the worst in people.
This is one time where I'm glad for a happy ending. That is not the way it turns out in Hugo's novel, where Dea dies, Gwynplaine throws himself into the sea, and an unconscious Ursus awakens to find Homo at the rail, howling. Hugo's ending may be more potent, but it's hard not to want these long suffering characters to finally enjoy some peace and happiness. There is quite a bit of depth to this movie to contemplate and I suspect I'm only scratching the surface. This is a film that begs for repeat viewing, which would likely elicit further insight. It is beautifully filmed, and really deserves a quality restoration and proper score.