One of the things that has long irritated me about descriptions/summaries and reviews of the 1928 Universal Picture The Man Who Laughs is that it is often dubbed a horror film when it is not, even by 1920s standards.
There are reasons, I suppose, that so many people classify it as horror. The number one reason being the grotesque Glasgow Smile permanently fixed on Gwynplaine’s face. Another good reason would be the use of shadows and grim scenery that are often so prominent in German Expressionist films of the era.
However when one watches The Man Who Laughs, they soon find out that it is not really a horror picture at all. It is, in fact, a drama—a love story, even.
Why The Man Who Laughs is Drama, Not Horror
I suppose my 21st century politically correct sensitivity gets the best of me when I become irritated at the idea that a person disfigured through no fault of his own is now considered one of the many icons of early horror.
Fun Fact (many of you may already know): Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the character Gwynplaine in this film was the inspiration (at least looks-wise) for the Joker character in The Batman comics.
Gwynplaine is a tender and sensitive figure, not a scary and evil creature that inflicts harm upon others. Just because he is somewhat frightening to look at does not mean he is a frightening person. He cannot help the way he looks.
This is in stark contrast to characters, such as Max Schreck’s blood-sucking Count Orlok in the 1922 German expressionist horror classic, Nosferatu.
Gwynplaine does not intend any harm to anyone. He only wants to be loved and accepted—especially if that love and acceptance comes from the beautiful blind girl Dea, whom he found as an infant in the snow. While he craves Dea’s attention, which she willingly gives him, he feels that he does not deserve her love because of the way he looks.
His permanent smile and the way people point and laugh at him embarrasses him, and often brings him to tears.
Does that look like the description of a “horror” character to you?
The film highlights the early twentieth (and earlier) fear that some people had of physically and mentally handicapped people. And the story, which was adapted from the often overlooked Victor Hugo Novel, The Man Who Laughs, is actually quite sympathetic to those with disabilities.
The next time (or the first time) you watch The Man Who Laughs, do not watch it as the horror classic that it has often been dubbed as; instead, watch it as a beautiful, heart-wrenching drama and a love story between two beautiful, but “different” romantic leads.
Have you seen The Man Who Laughs? Do you feel that it is often misclassified as horror when it should be classified as drama? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.