The Man Who Laughs (1928) is an American silent film directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name and stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine and Mary Philbin as the blind Dea. The film is known for the grim carnival freak-like grin on the character Gwynplaine's face, which often leads it to be classified as a horror film. Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film."
The Man Who Laughs is a Romantic melodrama, similar to films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The film was one of the early Universal Pictures productions that made the transition from silent films to sound films, using the Movietone sound system introduced by William Fox.
After Universal Pictures had large hits with Gothic dramas such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the company encouraged film producer Carl Laemmle to produce a follow-up in a similar vein. Laemmle decided to film Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs. The title role was originally meant for Lon Chaney (who starred in the previous Universal films), but he was under a long-term contract with MGM Studios.
Being of German ancestry, Laemmle had connections with the German film scene, which gave him an inside track when negotiating with some of Germany's filmmakers and actors. Laemmle had seen director Paul Leni's Waxworks (1926) and was impressed with the movie's sets and ominous stylistics. Laemmle chose Leni to accept the challenge of crafting the film adaptation. In addition, Laemmle pursued Veidt, who played a prominent role in Waxworks, to star. Veidt had also previously starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Baclanova's resemblance to modern singer Madonna in The Man Who Laughs has been noted by current critics.
Universal put over $1,000,000 into The Man Who Laughs, an extremely high budget for an American film of the time.