Hollywood Flashback: ‘The Laughing Man’ was the first to make smiles creepy
from Paramount Smile, in theaters September 30, is the latest scary movie to benefit from a sinister smile. But the granddaddy of all creepy smile movies dates back to 1928, when Universal Pictures released The man who Laughsan adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.
The studio had success with another Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he had adapted into a showcase of Lon Chaney in 1923. Chaney would once again physically transform into a deformed Gothic anti-hero – this time Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman who is horribly disfigured when the king orders a permanent smile engraved on his face. But the project was shelved due to a rights issue, and Chaney instead directed 1925’s The Phantom of the Operabased on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. This film was also a hit, so Universal head Carl Laemmle resurrected Laughs for his next “super-production”.
To direct, he chose Paul Leni, a German expressionist who had impressed with the 1927 silent horror film. The cat and the canary, about an escaped madman who stalks an heiress at his late uncle’s mansion. (That film set the tone for much of Universal’s classic horror to come.) To play Gwynplaine, Leni cast fellow German Conrad Veidt, better known to American audiences as Cesare, the trained sleepwalker to commit murder in the 1920s. The Office of Dr. Caligari. The budget for Laughs was $1 million ($17 million today), making it one of the most expensive films of its time.
Charles D. Hall, who designed the sets for Phantomoversaw production design (and transitioned to direct art Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931). Jack Pierce created Gwynplaine’s gruesome smile; he will also design the iconic makeup for Frankenstein1932 The Mummy and 1941 The werewolf.
Originally released as a silent film, Laughs was later adapted to the new Movietone sound-on-film system, which gave it a synchronized score and sound effects. Although it did not match the commercial success of Hunchback Where Phantom, Laughs‘The Legacy Lives On: The creators of The Joker attributed the look of the Batman villain to a Gwynplaine film.
This story first appeared in the September 28 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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