Opens in flashback with our laughing boy’s rebel father being executed by the king, with the weirdly powerful court jester Barkilphedro (literary-horror regular Brandon Hurst) in attendance. The kid’s face was carved by the “Comprachico” clan headed by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann of the 1921 Three Musketeers, dead of anemia before this movie’s release). As they’re sailing away, banned from England for various crimes and/or xenophobia, the boy runs off, rescues a blind infant from the arms of her frozen mother, and stumbles into door of Ursus The Philosopher (Cesare Gravina, would appear in The Wedding March the same year and retire a few months later).
Years later, he is Laughing Man Conrad Veidt (practically a silent horror superstar, having starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac), on sideshow tours with the beautiful blind Dea (Phantom of the Opera star Mary Philbin) and their father-figure Ursus (this must’ve proven more lucrative than philosophy). But when they run into Hardquanonne, he uses the laughing man’s existence to blackmail a duchess who lives on the land that Conrad rightfully owns. I would’ve thought if you’re a rebel who is personally murdered by the king, your property is forfeited, but I guess not!
The plot gets silly here – Conrad gets an invitation from hot young party girl Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, wicked star of Freaks), hopes she’ll be in love with him, because that would prove he’s worthy to marry his true love Dea, but as Josiana gets him alone, she receives a note from the queen saying she must marry the Laughing Man in order to keep her land and title, and Josiana reacts by laughing hysterically then hugging her monkey. Conrad is arrested, then instated in the House of Lords the next day – meanwhile his circus family is banished. I can’t tell if the royals are toying with Conrad or if they’re just dense, because everyone throws a fit that he won’t stop smiling, so he flees the castle and makes it to the boat to join Dea and Ursus.
Based on a Victor Hugo novel, remade by Sergio Corbucci in the 1960’s, and again this decade with Depardieu as Ursus. Leni was apparently a talent, followed this with The Last Warning then died of an infected tooth. Conrad, who spoke no english at the time of filming, is terrific. Watched in the dying days of SHOCKtober in honor of this year’s Golden Lion winner at Venice.