The Man Who Laughs (1928) was directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni known for such films as Waxworks (1924) and The Cat and the Canary (1927). The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name and starred Mary Philbin remembered best for her role of Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Conrad Veidt a German actor best remembered for his roles in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Casablanca (1942).
After its success with Gothic dramas such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal Pictures was eager to continue the string of hits. Producer Carl Laemmle had Lon Chaney in the lead role as Gwynplaine, but Chaney was under a long-term contract with MGM Studios at the time so the role was awarded to Conrad Veidt who had already appeared in several German horror films and would later be considered for the lead in Dracula (1931).
The screenplay was adapted from Victor Hugo's novel of the same name by Joseph Grubb Alexander who wrote 98 films between 1916 and 1932, Walter Anthony a former dramatic and musical critic for San Francisco Morning Call, Mary McLean and Charles E. Whittaker.
Taking place in England in the year 1690, The Man Who Laughs (1928) revolves around, Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman Lord Clancharlie, who offends King James II. The monarch sentences Gwynplaine's father to death in an iron maiden and has a permanent smile carved on Gwynplaine’s face, condemning him "to laugh forever at his fool of a father." The now homeless Gwynplaine discovers an abandoned baby girl, the blind Dea, during a snowstorm and recuses her. The two children are taken in by a charlatan, Ursus. The trio earns a living by producing plays that highlight Gwynplaine's disfigurement. Gwynplaine falls in love with Dea (Mary Philbin), but refuses to marry her because he feels his hideous face makes him unworthy.
To achieve Gwynplaine's grotesque grin Veidt was fitted with a set of dentures that had metal hooks to pull back the corners of his mouth. Creating Gwynplaine's grin was the first of major assignment for makeup artist Jack P. Pierce. Pierce would go on to create all of Universal’s classic monsters including Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Dracula. Gwynplaine’s appearance is credited with being the inspiration for writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson in creating Batman's greatest enemy, The Joker.
Universal put over $1,000,000 into The Man Who Laughs (1928) an extremely high budget for an American film of the time. Released on November 4, 1928 with sound effects and a music score that included the song "When Love Comes Smiling" by Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack and Erno Rapee the film opened with lukewarm reviews. Despite the sound effects and musical score and its enormous budget The Man Who Laughs (1928) proved to be a financial disappointment. The sound era had begun and audiences seemed to have lost all interest in silent films.
Although void of any supernatural elements The Man Who Laughs (1928) is often considered a horror film due to its dark theme and expressionistic style. This film would mark the end of Universals dark melodramas from the silent era and the beginning of the studio’s classic horror film period.