Paramount’s Smile, in theaters Sept. 30, is the latest fright flick to benefit from a sinister grin. But the granddaddy of all scary smile films dates back to 1928, when Universal Pictures released The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of the 1869 Victor Hugo novel.
The studio had success with another Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which it had adapted into a Lon Chaney showcase in 1923. Chaney would physically transform once again into a deformed gothic antihero — this time, Gwynplaine, a nobleman’s son who is hideously disfigured when the king orders a permanent smile carved into his face. But the project was sidelined because of a rights issue, and Chaney instead made 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, based on the 1910 Gaston Leroux novel. That film was a hit, too, so Universal chief Carl Laemmle resurrected Laughs for its next “super-production.”
To direct, he chose Paul Leni, a German Expressionist who’d impressed with the 1927 silent horror film The Cat and the Canary, about an escaped lunatic who stalks an heiress in her late uncle’s mansion. (That film established the tone for much of the classic Universal horror to come.) To play Gwynplaine, Leni cast fellow German Conrad Veidt, best known to American audiences as Cesare, the sleepwalker roped into committing murders in 1920’s The Cabinet 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’d designed the sets for Phantom, oversaw production design (and went on to art direct Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931). Jack Pierce created Gwynplaine’s horrific smile; he would also devise the iconic makeup for Frankenstein, 1932’s The Mummy and 1941’s The Wolf Man.
Originally released as a silent film, Laughs was later adapted to the new Movietone sound-on-film system, which gave it a synced score and sound effects. While it did not match the commercial success of Hunchback or Phantom, Laughs‘ legacy lives on: The creators of the Joker credited the Batman villain’s look to a film still of Gwynplaine.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.