How a 1928 German silent film inspired the character of the Joker

By: H&I Staff     Posted: October 4, 2019, 1:52PM    Tags: Did you know?

Image: The Everett Collection

Batman is celebrating his 80th birthday. The Caped Crusader made his debut in 1939 — but, in a way, the origin of his archnemesis dates back another 70 years. In 1989, Victor Hugo published a novel titled L'Homme qui rit. Translation? The Man Who Laughs.

The acclaimed but controversial author was living in exile from his native France, on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. His prior books, including Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), had caused a political uproar. The Man Who Laughs, which takes place in 17th-century England, continued to explore themes of class division, using a disfigured protagonist in a manner similar to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The book was a bit of a flop.

The novel centers around a character named Gwynplaine, a homeless man whose face is distorted into a permanent grin. The plot is not so important to our story here, but know that it involves carnivals and aristocrats scoffing at the "clown" Gwynplaine. Is this starting to sound familiar, Batman fans?

Jump forward to 1928. German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni adapted The Man Who Laughs, casting Conrad Veidt who had previously appeared in another proto-horror masterpiece, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Jack Pierce, the pioneering makeup artist for Universal Pictures, the man who crafted Boris Karloff's monster for Frankenstein, devised the cinematic look of Gwynplaine. And he was a dead ringer for the Joker.

A dozen years later, the Joker appeared in the debut issue of the Batman comic. The same issue introduced Catwoman. No wonder a copy can fetch tens of thousands of dollars today.

Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson are credited as co-creators of the Joker. It was Finger who brought the image of Veidt as the Laughing Man to the table.

"Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, 'Here's the Joker,'" Kane later recalled.

"I remembered that Grosset & Dunlap formerly issued very cheap editions of classics by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo ... The volume I had was The Man Who Laughs — his face had been permanently operated on so that he will always have this perpetual grin. And it looked absolutely weird. I cut the picture out of the book and gave it to Bob, who drew the profile and gave it a more sinister aspect," Finger told Batmania in 1967.

Of course, in 1967, another man was making the Joker a sensation. Cesar Romero of the hit TV show Batman technically became the first actor to play the villain on the screen. (White mustache and all.) But, in a sense, he was second.

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