Man Who Laughs, The (1928): Paul Leni’s German Expressionist Gothic Drama, Starring Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt (Masterpieces)

German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni directed The Man Who Laughs, a gothic romantic drama, based on adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.

The Man Who Laughs
The Man Who Laughs - 1928 theatrical poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

It stars Mary Philbin as the blind Dea and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine.

The film is known for the grim carnival freak-like grin on Gwynplaine’s face, which often leads it to be classified as a horror film.

The Man Who Laughs is similar in theme or scope to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and Dracula (1931).

The film was one of the early Universal Pictures productions that made the transition from silent to sound films, using Movietone sound system introduced by William Fox.

Completed in July 1927, the film was held until October 1928, when released with sound effects and musical score that included the song, “When Love Comes Stealing”, by Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, and Ernö Rapée.


In 1680s England, King James II sentences his political enemy, Lord Clancharlie, to death in an iron maiden. Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine, is disfigured with a permanent grin by comprachico Dr. Hardquannone, so that he will “laugh forever at his foolish father. When the comprachicos are exiled, Gwynplaine is deserted in the snow.

He discovers a blind baby girl named Dea, whose mother has died of hypothermia, and together, they are taken in by the mountebank Ursus.


Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, claims that the (smiling) Joker was inspired by the character in Leni’s movie.


Directed by Paul Leni
Produced by Paul Kohner
Screenplay by J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Based on The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Music by Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Cinematography Gilbert Warrenton
Edited by Edward L. Cahn, Maurice Pivar

Production and distribution: Universal Pictures

Release date: October 5, 1928 (NYC Premiere) November 4, 1928

Running time: about 110 minutes (10 reels)