Joker Veidt: He who laughs last, laughs best
Despite the fact that my fiancé has drawn a hell of a lot of comics, we are not superhero people. We are, however, silent movie people, and apparently we weren’t the first to notice that the grotesque, prosthetic smile once worn onscreen by German actor Conrad Veidt looks an awful lot like the Joker. As is the case with many comic book characters who grow into icons and major, recognizable properties, there is much back-and-forth about who was really responsible for creating the Joker. But since it is referenced in the title of a 2005 Batman comic, I feel pretty okay saying that it is generally thought that the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs was an inspiration for the look of the Joker when the character first appeared in 1940.
Mostly the dispute is not over whether or not The Man Who Laughs was brought up, but at what point. And the argument I think is less over whether Veidt’s portrayal of Gwyneplaine in the silent film was an influence, but more so who gets to lay claim to the creation of the Joker character. Batman creator Bob Kane says he and co-creator Bill Finger invented the character and used The Man Who Laughs as an influence, whereas artist and Robin co-creator Jerry Robinson says that The Man Who Laughs was not brought up until after he first did a Joker card sketch. Regardless of who is right, both parties cite that the likeness of Veidt’s grinning Gwyneplaine was referenced in some capacity before any of the comic pages for Batman #1—the issue The Joker first appears in—were drawn. So for the purposes of the character’s first printed appearance, yes—The Man Who Laughs was at least mentioned, and stills of actor Conrad Veidt in makeup were possibly passed around among the people above at ye olde’ DC headquarters.The Man Who Laughs is an incredible American silent film (one of my favorites) by German director Paul Leni, and an adaptation of the also fantastic as well as unbelievably depressing and sad novel of the same name by Les Miserables author Victor Hugo. In the story, the cheeks of a seventeenth-century English child named Gwyneplaine are sliced to give the effect of a perpetual grin, a punishment by King James II, who has already had the child’s father executed. Gwyneplaine’s disfigurement is carried out by “Comprachicos”: gypsy surgeons who operate on children and then use them in freakshows (the word “Comprachicos” was concocted by Hugo from the Spanish word “Comprapequenos” which means, “child-buyers”).
Most of the movie focuses on adult-Gwyneplaine, played hauntingly by German actor Conrad Veidt. The actor was already a legend for his appearances in other silent films like the 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a still from which was used on Bauhaus’ 1982 “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single, which you will probably recognize if you’re over thirty like I am), The Hands of Orlac (1924), Waxworks (1924) and many others. Veidt himself is a fascinating man as well as a gifted and enigmatic performer, who staunchly opposed the Nazi regime and fled Germany with his Jewish wife in 1933, relocating to the United Kingdom. Ironically, because of his accent, Veidt often ended up playing Nazis in later talkie films, including Casablanca (1942), one of the last movies he appeared in before his untimely death at age 50. Veidt also played what is thought to be the first gay character written for the screen in the 1919 German film, Different from the Others.In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt wore a mouth prosthetic complete with an array of teeth and a wide gumline, a plate much larger than his own, and hooks (yes, hooks) which held the extreme, exaggerated smile in place. The prosthetic was created by Universal Studios makeup artist Jack Pierce, who later collaborated with Boris Karloff on the makeup for the original Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1931), and who also designed The Wolfman (1941) makeup. The prosthetic is said to be patterned after one worn by Lon Chaney Sr., who had originally been chosen to play Gwyneplaine, but who was under contract with MGM and also was shying away from makeup-heavy roles at that time. Really, it’s difficult now to imagine anyone other than Veidt as this gentle, tragic, ostracized and persecuted character. Because Veidt could not move his mouth at all while wearing the prosthetic (or in some scenes, his mouth is covered by a scarf), he gives his entire, transfixing performance using only his eyes and brows. The effect is heartbreaking. And the prosthetic was reportedly very painful to wear.
One can’t deny the striking resemblance of the Joker to Veidt’s Gwyneplaine in The Man Who Laughs. The frozen, disturbed, unwelcoming grin is obvious, but also the pallor, the hair and shape of the hairline, as well as the dashing actor’s strong, distinguished nose. But the similarities between these two characters end with appearances as Gwyneplaine—a misunderstood monster and result of grievous classism—is the good guy, and not the villain.