Based in England in the late 1690s, we are introduced to King James II and his psychotic jester. A Nobleman has insulted the king and is swiftly executed via the infamous Iron Lady. Before his demise, the nobleman learns that his only son, Gwynplaine, has been captured and delivered to the monstrous Comprachico surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone, who has surgically disfigured the child's face into a horrific and permanent grin.
On a cold evening, young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.) is seeking shelter when he finds a dead woman clutching a still-living, blind infant. He takes the baby girl with him and seeks help at the nearest house, that of Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Ursus quickly sees an opportunity to use the disfigured boy to make money.
Years pass and the now adult Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) is making a relatively good, but unhappy, living as a sideshow attraction known as "The Laughing Man", with Ursus and the captivating and kind hearted, blind girl, Dea (Mary Philbin). Gwynplaine has fallen in love with Dea, but although Dea returns his feelings and Ursus has offered to marry them, Gwynplaine does not think his grinning visage is worthy of such a beautiful creature.
On their travels, Gwynplaine's noble heritage is discovered and Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) decides that the raunchy, badly behaved Duchess Josiana (Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova) should marry Gwynplaine as the true heir to his father's estates. Things do not go well, as you can imagine.
This film is wonderful. It is shocking and dark with such a horrific premise. The styling of the "Laughing Man" character is very ahead of its time with impressive prosthetics and makeup. He portrays a grotesque yet sympathetic character.
The silent era of films created such beautiful and disturbing films. If you have not seen one yet, I would recommend starting with The Man Who Laughs due to its beautiful score by Ernö Rapée, Lew Pollack and Walter Hirsch (which you will recognise as having been sampled for some of the Batman movies), clear imagery and acting, relatively fluid plot and swashbuckling scenes.
The Man Who Laughs was also the key inspiration behind the Joker character from Batman and Rob Zombie also has a track named in the character's honour.
[Image: Universal Pictures]