The Man Who Laughs
Directed by Paul Leni
Starring Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova
A man is brought before the King
And is told of his own son’s kidnapping.
For this man’s crime of refusing to kiss
The hand of his monarch, his punishment is
That he shall never see his son again,
And that his son’s face has been carved into a permanent grin.
The jester had hired some Gypsy pros
Who were known as the Comprachicos.
These evil people were experts at
Crippling children in such a way that
New freaks were created, sought-after things
That could be molded and sold to entertain kings,
And nobles and circuses and carnival men—
Anyone who needed a new specimen
Who looked odd and different, perhaps in his shape,
Twisted, unnatural, hidden by cape.
Missing some limbs? Sell to a beggar.
This stunted child will never get bigger.
This one has taken the shape of a vase,
And this one was somehow born with claws.
This one looks melted. This one looks stretched.
This one looks two-faced. This one looks scratched.
This one’s head has some very straight sides.
This one’s cranium is not very wide.
This one looks feral, frightened and wild—
Who will pay the most for this child?
The King kills the rebel, and decides sometime later
To criminalize the Comprachios’ disgusting behavior.
“Leave England or die!” his edict read,
So they left in a hurry—namely, they fled.
They left the rebel’s son behind,
In the snow, abandoned, as their one last crime.
The disfigured young child wanders amidst
The hanged rotting criminals serving justice.
He sees a young mother, frozen to death,
Still clutching her child to her now lifeless breast.
The baby still lives, so he takes her along,
Continues on his journey long,
And knocks on the door of a man gone to bed,
Who welcomes the children and ensures they are fed,
But the e’er smiling child soon gets on his nerves.
“Stop laughing!” he shrieks, but he very soon learns
That the boy isn’t laughing. His grin isn’t real.
‘Twas carved into his face with the meanest of zeal.
He pities the children, in spite of the digger—
One child disabled, the other disfigured.
The baby, he learns, has eyes that can’t see.
She later receives the name of Dea.
The boy, with grin so very plain
Was given the name of Gwynplaine.
Fast forward some years and they’re all grown up.
Their pet wolf, Homo, is no longer a pup.
The trio make money by putting on shows,
Reveling in the life that they chose.
To the Laughing Man, all the commoners flock,
And they all get to laugh after their first little shock.
They get more and more famous, till everyone hears,
Even their enemies, whose spies use their ears.
Gwynplaine is in love with the fair maiden Dea,
And luckily, she also loves he,
But, being blind, she cannot see his mouth,
Which is something he hides, and he deems it uncouth.
He feels that due to his hideousness,
He has no right to love this dear friend of his.
Enter the Duchess, a spoiled young girl,
And the Gypsy whose past would make pig butchers hurl.
Despite common sense, the Gypsy returned
To the very country from which he was spurned,
And recognized the Laughing Man’s chin,
Because it was he who had created that grotesque grin.
The Gypsy wanted money, the Duchess some fun.
One tried some blackmail, and the other, some sun.
The blackmail failed, the Gypsy was imprisoned,
And the Duchess snuck out after the Queen had risen—
A Queen who had invited her to a concert,
An engagement she was very well able to skirt
By being at a carnival instead of at Court,
And she did this too freely, without an escort.
There, she saw posters for the Great Laughing Man,
And resolved to see him that night, with his fans.
So during the ugglesome torture of the Gypsy,
She entered the theatre, where some people were tipsy.
She watched his act, but she wasn’t amused
And sent out a message that at first confused,
Then gave hope to the curious Laughing Man,
Who traveled to see her that night, in her tram.
She tried to seduce him, but she then got a letter,
That altered her life, and not for the better.
It appeared that her title and wealth was transferred
From the estate of Gwynplaine onto her.
Thus, if she wanted to hold onto her things,
She should marry Gwynplaine, and the problems it brings.
In utter shock, she began to laugh,
And a disappointed Gwynplaine returned to his staff.
He put Dea’s hand upon his face,
And she was surprised when her hand touched that place,
But her love for him transcended all faults,
And so he proposes, but it looks like he bolts.
When Gwynplaine goes missing again the next day,
And no one can find him, search though they may,
His troupe is exiled for owning a wolf,
And they have to leave England and Great Britain both.
Gwynplaine is brought before the Queen,
Who makes him the lord that his father had been,
But he rejects the peerage and puts up a fight,
And flees from all of the English knights.
The jester pursues him, wearing a magnificent coat,
And Homo, the wolf, soon rips out his throat.
Gwynplaine escapes with his loved ones, hooray!
He lives to smile another day.
The story was good, but how was the feature?
Did it manage to capture the pitiful creature,
And give the audience horror, thrills and suspense?
It certainly does, but that’s just my two cents.
Nearly ninety years old, this film still feels alive.
I give it five stars out of five.