Cinema Fearité presents 'The Man Who Laughs'
Before there was The Joker, there was 'The Man Who Laughs.'
Todd Phillips’ Joker has been lighting up the box office, and for good reason; it’s a terrific movie. So, it’s as good a time as any to take a look at one of its biggest influences. We’re not talking about Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, or even Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. This week, Cinema Fearité is going to check out the inspiration for the character of The Joker, the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs.
Set in seventeenth century England, The Man Who Laughs begins with King James II (The Birth of a Nation’s Sam DeGrasse) capturing and executing his political enemy, Lord Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). But the King does not stop there; he also has his surgeon Dr. Hardquannone (George Siegmann from The Cat and the Canary) disfigure Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine, with a permanent grin so that he will “laugh forever at his fool of a father.” Gwynplaine is then exiled in the snow and left for dead. While wandering, Gwynplaine finds a blind baby girl named Dea in the arms of her frozen mother. Both Gwynplaine and Dea are saved from death and taken in by a freak show entrepreneur named Ursus the Philosopher (The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Cesare Gravina).
Years later, the adult Gwynplaine (also Conrad Veidt), billed as “The Laughing Man,” is the star of Ursus’ travelling sideshow. Gwynplaine and Dea (The Phantom of the Opera’s Mary Philbin) have also fallen in love, Dea not being able to see her lover’s disfigured face. King James has also been replaced on the throne by Queen Anne (Intolerance’s Josephine Crowell), who, upon discovering that Gwynplaine is alive, realizes that the estate of Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova from Freaks) rightfully belongs to him. This sets in motion plans that include everything from marriage to murder in order to strip Gwynplaine of his rightful inheritance.
The Man Who Laughs isn’t so much of a horror movie as it is a romantic thriller, similar to The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The screenplay, credited to J. Grubb Alexander (Svengali) but written with uncredited help from a handful of other writers, was based upon the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo (who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables). It was an American production, but director Paul Leni (Waxworks) used a combination of his usual German actors and players borrowed from silent film legend D.W. Griffith. So, The Man Who Laughs winds up as a crazy mishmash of influences, melding German expressionism with French classicism, British design with American storytelling.
Anyone who sees The Man Who Laughs can instantly recognize the inspiration of Conrad Veidt’s Mr Sardonicus-like ear-to-ear grin on the Joker. Although accounts vary as to whether it was Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, or Bill Finger who came up with the character for D.C. Comics, the fact that Finger first produced a still of Veidt from The Man Who Laughs to spark creativity is not disputed. And the influence is clear, especially on older Jokers, such as the Cesar Romero image that is so closely associated with the beloved “Batman” television series of the sixties. Robinson claimed that the similarity is incidental, while Finger and Kane tended to acknowledge the debt. It’s a classic case of the chicken or the egg, but at least in the D.C. Comics camp, it’s two against one.
So the story of The Man Who Laughs isn’t very horrific, but the imagery in the movie very much is. Paul Leni lets his spooky impressionist flag fly. Along with American cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton (with whom Leni worked on The Cat and the Canary a few years before), Leni combines the angular shadows of the German silent horror movies with the soft-focus romanticism of the American melodrama. The visuals are just as dark as the movie’s themes, with every corner teeming with hanging and creeping shadows. Gwynplaine is the “horrifically scarred” lead, but the other characters are just as grotesque, and Warrenton captures the ugliness of his ensemble with unflinching accuracy. Even the title cards seem moody and ominous in The Man Who Laughs.
The Man Who Laughs was made in the transitional period between silent and sound films, and it was released originally as a silent, then re-released with a non-sync soundtrack. The score of the movie was stitched together from pieces of music by composers like William Axt (The Thin Man), Sam Perry (The Phantom of the Opera), Erno Rapée (Faust), and Gustav Borch (a piece that was repurposed for White Zombie). An instrumental Rapée tune from Robin Hood called “When Love Comes Stealing” even became the film’s theme song when lyrics were written for it by wordsmiths Walter Hirsch and Lew Pollack.
But even more important than the music, at least from a cinema history standpoint, is the sound. Leni inserted crowd noise into the film, so the audience in the theater could hear the jeers and laughs as Gwynplaine experiences them onscreen. There are even distinct chants of “Gwynplaine! Gwynplaine!” that are audible in the chaos. For audiences that were used to seeing movies accompanied only by live music, this was stunning. Not exactly Dunkirk levels of auditory discomfort, but still unsettling to 1928 viewers.
Many versions of The Man Who Laughs have been made over the course of cinematic history, from a lost 1909 French version to a 2012 Belgian Gérard Depardieu vehicle. But one look at Conrad Veidt in this 1928 adaptation will show where any Joker, from Mark Hamill to Jared Leto, got his maniacal look.