The only thing worse than an insincere smile? A smile that's sincere. And implacable. And entirely wrong and horrifyingly out-of-place.
For years, I have felt that it is from this "out-of-placeness" -- this smiling at things that do not (or should not) produce that kind of emotional response -- that the iconic Joker draws his power over so many imaginations. (Horrible actions are one thing, and a phenomenon with which Humanity is all too familiar. But horrible actions from a place so perverted that they actually bring pleasure to one's heart and a smile to one's lips? That's something else entirely.)
Earlier this week, however, this Atlas Obscura piece reminded me that while the "implacable" and the "sincere" and the "out-of-place" bit is true, the pleasure behind it -- the thing that really makes the Joker horrible -- was missing from the character's original exemplar: the horrifying (yet sorrowfully suffering) Gwynplaine, of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs:"
However, the Joker did not begin as a scribble at DC Comic, as is commonly thought. In fact, the notorious laughing villain can be traced back to a silent film character from the late 1920s, that was inspired in turn by a Victor Hugo novel published in 1869.
This tragic silent film clown served as a clear template for the later comic book villain. Hugo’s book, "The Man Who Laughs," is a sad story about an orphan in the 17th century. The protagonist, Gwynplaine, is of secret and portentous parentage, and was hideously disfigured as a child, resulting in a permanent rictus that makes him look like he is perpetually laughing.
Nightmare fuel, isn't it? And imagery from which the Joker springs instantly to mind, no? Unsurprising, that, because the similarities are far from coincidental, as Atlas' article stresses when it recounts this interview with the great Bob Kane:
Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That's the way I sum it up. But he looks like Conrad Veidt—you know, the actor in 'The Man Who Laughs'...So Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here's the Joker.’"
While the appeal of tying The Joker's iconic image to one of our greatest literary icons certainly makes me smile, it seems a bit more accurate to say that it was German actor Conrad Veidt (and director Paul Leni) who played the key roles in our villain's birth.
Nor was this the last time Veidt served as nightmarish inspiration for future cinematic villainy: his Jaffar from the 1940 adventure fantasy The Thief of Bagdad is lifted nearly in toto for the Jonathan Freeman-voiced Jafar in Disney's Aladdin.
But my favorite "Old-Timey Hollywood Actor" tidbit involving the (as we now know) iconic Conrad Veidt? He's probably most famous (if less recognized) for something that has nothing at all to do with either Jafar or the Joker. Because it's his Nazi villain whose demise brings about one of the most oft-quoted lines in cinematic history:
"Major Strasser's been shot! ...round up the usual suspects."