The Last Laugh

Note: The following originally appeared in Matt Wall’s classic monsters fanzine. Though no longer available, you can check out Matt’s work at

When Hollywood hits on a formula that works, it’s no secret that they will repeat it ad nauseum. This was just as true in the early days of cinema as it is today. After Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was a success, they couldn’t wait to get started on another Lon Chaney feature adapting another Victor Hugo novel featuring another disfigured hero. So anxious was Carl Laemmle to get started, he announced at the 1924 exhibitor’s convention in New York that the Man of a Thousand Faces’ next role would be Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. Upon returning to California, Laemmle was informed that the film rights were, in fact, not available for the story, as they were owned by a French studio, Societe Generale des Films. At Chaney’s insistence, his next feature for Universal became The Phantom of the Opera (1925). I suppose one Frenchman’s novel about a hideously deformed main character is as good as the next.
It would take a few years, but Universal would finally make The Man Who Laughs (1928), starring Conrad Veidt. These days Conrad Veidt is mostly known for rounding up “the usual suspects” and having a beautiful friendship with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942). Before that though, he was Cesare in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) (the inspiration for Edward Scissorhand’s look), Orlac in The Hands of Orlac (1924)(Edward Orlachands?), and Erik The Great, the evil magician in The Last Performance (1929) (Edward Slightofhand?). But he was more than the Man of a Thousand Hands. He was capable of projecting effective performances even when in heavy makeup, as he demonstrated in Waxworks (1924) as Ivan the Terrible and the lead in The Head of Janus (1920), a now lost reworking of the Jekyll and Hyde story.
Unlike Chaney, though, Veidt was not a makeup artist. The task of creating Gwynplaine’s permanent smile fell to Jack Pierce. You should probably already know what he is most famous for. I’ll give you a hint. It starts with an ‘F’ and ends with an ‘N’ and the middle is ‘RANKENSTEI’ and you really should already know this.
Another key figure to mention here is Paul Leni. Leni had collaborated with Veidt before on the aforementioned Waxworks, but more importantly to Universal, had scored a hit for them with his adaptation of The Cat and the Canary (1927). One of the pioneers of German Expressionism, Leni was able to “Americanize” the form and, in the process, created a dark and intriguing style that would inform the later Universal Horror canon. In layman’s terms, it’s really cool to look at his work.
Rounding out the creative team are the stunning Mary Philbin (The Phantom of the Opera, The Last Performance) and Olga Baklanova (Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)).
Now, if this were a review, I would start telling you a little about the plot and how great this film is. But this not a review, so if you want to know what happens, go watch it. Take my word for it though, it is a magnificent film.
The reason I am writing about it, is because some of you may have never seen it or even heard of it. A movie featuring so many great creative talents of the earliest days of horror, and it languishes in near obscurity. Why? Well, for one, it wasn’t packaged with the rest of the Universal Horror films to sell to television. In fact, it was the late 1960’s before anyone took an interest in it and 2003 before it saw a home release.
Another issue with the film is that it isn’t a proper “horror” film. It is a drama with some horrific elements (especially the first ten minutes). The same can be said of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, yet, I have Universal Monster figures of Erik and Quasimodo (my litmus test for monster-ism), but not Gwynplaine. He never made the leap from melodrama to monster.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Gwynplaine inspired another monster of sorts, when he served as the visual inspiration for Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker. Despite probably never seeing the movie, almost all Batman fans know that it was responsible for the look of Batman’s greatest nemesis (Incidentally, there is another clown in the film that is a dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming Joker, but that’s probably a coincidence). Could it be that the Joker has so dominated pop culture that there is now no room for his predecessor in the pantheon of Monsters?
Just to wrap things up: Tim Burton made a career of borrowing from Paul Lemi and the other German Expressionists. He swiped the look of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare for Edward Scissorhands (and himself throughout most of the 90’s). And he directed the Batman movie featuring the character that Lemi and Veidt helped inspire. Coincidence, or just Gwynplaine having the last laugh?

JAFMP Universal: Episode 3

This episode I am joined by Mike from The Corpse Cast to discuss the Paul Leni classic The Man Who Laughs. Revel in my drunken gushing over how much I love this film starring Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin.

JAFMP Universal Episode 2

This episode, I am joined by Vaughn from Motion Picture Massacre to discuss The Phantom of the Opera from 1925, starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. It may make me rethink how much I drink while recording, or at least my decision not to bother with editing the content, but hopefully it’s an educational and enjoyable listen.


Note: This blog post is way “off brand” for me. I am posting it unedited on the off chance it may help someone who suffers from depression. You are not alone.

I wake up.  I remind myself it is Tuesday.

Tuesday.  One day down this week.  Only six more to go.  Not that it matters.

My wife left the television on when she left for work.  Again.  I hate the morning news shows.  They are talking about something banal.  How in the hell can people be so happy at this time of day, while having conversations that are so damn pointless.  I find the remote and shut those assholes up.  I stare at the ceiling for a while, until the monotony of the task is overwhelming.  Christ, I’m not even out of bed yet and I am already bored.

I stumble to the medicine cabinet.  Pills.  Pills to stop the throbbing in my back.  Pills to stop the burning in my leg.  Pills to keep the blood moving through my veins.  Pills to stop the raging in my head.  Pills, pills, pills.

I take my phone off the charger and collapse on the couch.  Time to see what is going on in the world.  I scroll through Facebook.  Virtual outrage.  Virtual laughter.  Virtual tears.  Requests for virtual thoughts and virtual prayers.  None of this seems real.  People just sharing the best and worst of their lives, while the rest of the time their lives are as boring and trite as my own.  This is not social media.  This is virtual reality.

My Google Assistant chimes.  It’s time to take my medicine.  Didn’t I already do that?  Should I take the pills just in case?  No, that might kill me.  I don’t want to die.  I want to live.  Neither seems to be happening today.  I finally remember that I did take my pills and that it is Tuesday. 

I go to the kitchen and stare at the inside of the refrigerator for a while.  I am hungry, but I still haven’t done the dishes from yesterday.  It hardly seems worth the effort.  I’ll just have a cigarette. 

I go outside and smoke.   Then I go back to the refrigerator.  Then I go back to the porch for another cigarette.  Then I go back to the kitchen and think about doing those dishes.  I go smoke another cigarette instead.  I hate smoking.   I hate the taste of it.  I hate the shortness of breath I get playing with my grandkids.  I light another one.  Maybe I do just want to die, but like everything else I am just not in any hurry.  Like the dishes.  I should wash those.

I go back to the couch instead and get back on Facebook.  Someone posted something funny.  I reward the effort with a virtual smile.  I can’t summon a real one, but nice effort, Virtual friend.

If I am not going to be happy, I might as well be productive and unhappy and those dishes are still waiting for me.

“OK, Google.  Good Morning,” I say to the little speaker in the kitchen, the trigger to give me today’s weather, news, and tell me what else I am supposed to be doing today.

“Good Afternoon,” the box replies.  “It is Tuesday…”

Afternoon?  What the hell happened to this morning?  And what the hell happened to Monday?   Shit, I need to take my afternoon pills.

The phone rings.  It’s an automated call from my doctor’s office.  I accidentally-on-purpose forgot to go to therapy yesterday, the voice on the line reminds me.  What was yesterday?  I remind myself that today is Tuesday, yesterday was Monday, and it really doesn’t fucking matter because I didn’t leave the house yesterday and I won’t again today and I won’t again tomorrow.  Do I want to reschedule my appointment?  I don’t know.  Maybe someday.

I find myself on the front porch with another cigarette in my hand as I end the call.  I feel bad for my therapist.  I wonder for a moment which is worse, me showing up or me not showing up.  Surely she can’t enjoy my company any more than I do.  Maybe she is one of those people that enjoys what she does.  I wonder what that’s like.  I wonder if she is a closet sadist, reveling in the misery of her clients.  Schadenfreude.  No, she is a good person.  I am not, I assume, since I am being cynical about the person that is trying to fix me.  I feel bad for her for having to listen to me feel bad for myself.  I guess I did cut her a break this week.

Shit.  The dishes.  I wash the goddamn dishes.  I am really hungry now.  Not starving—I despise hyperbole—just really hungry. 

The Google Home reminds me to take my afternoon medicine.  Did I already do that?  I know I thought about it, but did I?  My back is killing me, so I must not have.  I take some more pills.  I feel like I need them.  Interactions be damned.

Back to the sofa.  I turn on the television.  There’s two hundred channels of nothing on.  Maybe I will watch a movie.  Twenty minutes later and I can’t decide what I am in the mood for.  Do I want to laugh?  Not really.  Do I want to think?  Too much effort.   Do I just want to see shit blow up?  Sounds good.

I pick some stupid action movie.  Ten minutes in it is white noise, and I have no idea what is going on.  I turn the television off.

I notice the clock.  The kids will be home soon.  So will the wife.  I need to accomplish something.  I rush thru a few chores.  Damn, look at me almost be proactive and productive.  Finally, some momentum!  Even if it is only borne of a fear of having to answer the question “What did you do today?”  Someday I will have a decent answer to that question.  For now, my only response is dread.

And now, finally, some free time.  I should probably write something. 

But, right now I am hungry.  Still.  Just in time to ruin my dinner, I fix an egg sandwich.  I realize it’s same thing I ate yesterday.  And the day before that.  And the day before that.  It’s Tuesday, the same as Monday, and nothing is changing.  Then I rewash the frying pan.

The family will be home soon.  I cook dinner.  I decide not to wash the pans again.  I will do it tomorrow.  Tomorrow.  Already starting off the same as today.  The same as yesterday.

My wife calls on her way home to tell me about her day.  It has been miserable.  One thing we have in common, we do not suffer assholes and idiots lightly.  Seems like the only thing anymore.  She will tell me about it again when she gets here and that’s okay.  That’s why I am here, or so I tell myself so I have some purpose.

She will go to bed early.  I will try to write.

And so I sit, staring at the damn blank screen.  The cursor mocks me.  This was the dream, all those years ago.  I would turn words into magic.  I would pour out my inner voice onto the page and it would scream to the world.  Instead, all my inner voice is doing is reciting Elton John lyrics for some reason.  Rocket man.  Burning out a streak up here alone.   Over and over and over until I want to scream.  After a few hours, I give up.  I am going to fucking bed.  Maybe tomorrow I will be able to concentrate.  I remind myself that today is Tuesday and one day is already gone and six more just like it to go.  Shit.  Tuesday is gone.  Wasted.  Five more tries this week.  Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday.  Damn you, brain.

I am back in the bathroom, facing my biggest choice of the day.  My back is screaming but so is my brain.  Which is going to keep me awake tonight?  One pill for the pain, one for the brain.  Now I am singing White Rabbit in my head.  Concentrate, damn it!  I can’t take both pills.  The doctor says my heart will stop if I do.  Choose.  Pain or brain.  Or choose the third option.  If I can’t live, really live, why not die? 

Brain it is.

I stare at the ceiling until the monotony of the task causes me to roll over and go to sleep.  Before I drift off, my brain is desperately clinging to consciousness by singing The Kinks.  Lost between tomorrow and yesterday.  Between now and then.  Back where we started.  Here we go round again.  Day after day I get up and I say, I better do it again. 

I hope that’s enough to get me through Wednesday.

JAFMP Universal Episode 1

Hey, kids! JAFMP is back with our look at the history of Universal Horror. This is an overview episode so you can find out what to expect from the new show. Also, a quick look at the 1913 Universal adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.