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In an effort to top the critical and financial success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, studio head Carl Laemmle recruited two influential artists of the German Expressionist school: actor Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and director Paul Leni (Waxworks). The shadowy exteriors, the carnival setting, the demonically misshapen "hero" made The Man Who Laughs something entirely new to American cinema -- the foundation upon which the classic Universal horror films would be built.
Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a nobleman's son who is kidnapped by a political enemy, and then is mutilated by a gypsy "surgeon" who carves a monstrous smile upon his face. Finding shelter in a traveling freakshow, he falls in love with a blind girl (The Phantom of the Opera's Mary Philbin), the one person who cannot be repulsed by his appearance. As years pass, the hand of fate draws Gwynplaine back into the world of politcal intrigue. He becomes the plaything of a jaded duchess (Freaks Olga Baclanova), and his enemies renew their efforts to control him.
*This Kino on Video edition was restored by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna at the laboratories of L'Immagine Ritrovata. The original Movietone soundtrack has been newly restored by Universal Studios.
It's not often that one gets a chance to discover a great silent movie in good condition. The Man Who Laughs is a superior costume drama with macabre overtones; it's an excellent example of the artistic silent cinema that was wiped out by the coming of sound. Direction, design and acting are superb. Conrad Veidt's performance is the equal of Lon Chaney and the film as a whole much more satisfying than Universal's earlier Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. - DVD Talk