Friday, July 18, 2008


In an assured and brilliant stroke of timely programming, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ("SFSFF") included Paul Leni's 1928 "silent" classic The Man Who Laughs as their Centerpiece presentation, acknowledging the direct influence the film's protagonist Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) had upon the creation and development of Bob Kane's Batman archnemesis The Joker (masterfully appropriated by Heath Ledger in a consummate swan song performance for Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight).

Television producer and director Frank Buxton, a member of the SFSFF Board of Directors for the last 12-13 years, emceed The Man Who Laughs. He recalled back to the festival's first year when "about four people" were in the audience, whereas now he enthused proudly that the festival was "packed to the rafters." He introduced Mike Mashon from the Library of Congress who detailed the preservation of the print of The Man Who Laughs provided the festival.

Joking that Conrad Veidt was known as the Man With A Thousand Faces—more appropriately the Man With One Face—Mashon admitted that one of the reasons he enjoys introducing The Man Who Laughs is because he gets to use one of his favorite words in the English language—"rictus"—referencing, of course, the infamous fixed grotesque grin of Gwynplaine. He complimented the nearly perverse double-billing of The Man Who Laughs with The Unknown because, in his mind, The Man Who Laughs is "the greatest Lon Chaney movie ever made [that] doesn't star Lon Chaney."

Mashon—working a somewhat clap-happy audience—stated that the print provided the Silent Film Festival was preserved by the Library of Congress Motion Picture Laboratory a few years back from original nitrate elements held in the AFI Universal Collection. As a late silent film around the period of The Jazz Singer (1927), The Man Who Laughs contained a Movietone score included in the Library of Congress print; but—for purposes of allowing Clark Wilson to express his artistry on the Mighty Wurlitzer—the sound track would not be played. This is, however, how Clark Wilson was able to reconstruct and incorporate the film's original love theme—"When Love Comes Stealing Into Your Heart"—into his interpretive score.

Synopses abound, of course, for The Man Who Laughs so there's really no sense in my going on about how Victor Hugo's novel was adapted for the Silver Screen. One I will point out, however, is the compassionate treatment by Roger Ebert who emphasized the ironic disconnect between the tragic pathos of Gwynplaine—an essentially good man "condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime"—and the transformation of Gwynplaine's tragic smile into its later incarnation as the maniacal Joker of Batman fame.

That transformation involved some controversy. In a May 1989 interview with Tom McNamee for The Chicago Sun Times, New York cartoonist Jerry Robinson claimed he dreamed up the famous villain in early 1940 when he was a mere 17 years old as a journalism freshman at Manhattan's Columbia University working part-time as an illustrator for artist Bob Kane, the creator of the Batman character. He wanted to try his hand at writing some of the Batman scripts and felt they lacked "a juicy bad guy, somebody a cut above the usual comic book gangsters and smalltime hoods."

He came up with a promising name first—The Joker—and then "walked around his student apartment, dug through drawers and shelves, and found a deck of playing cards. Balancing a makeshift drawing board against a table, he sketched his new character's trademark—his sinister calling card—a playing card joker."

"The problem with other bad guys is you didn't really know them," Robinson explained. "They just did bad things. I knew my villain should have a contradiction, something that would give him character. So I gave him a sense of humor."

Though Bob Kane "went wild" when Robinson pitched the idea of The Joker, much to Robinson's disappointment he was not assigned to write the Joker's debut. That honor went to Bill Finger.

"I was almost on the verge of tears," Robinson recalled. "I was willing to stay up day and night for a week, or however long it took me to finish it. But Bob said The Joker was too good a character for anybody but a professional writer. In the end, I had to admit he was right." To add insult to injury, Finger—who admittedly loved the concept of the Joker—disliked Robinson's initial drawings. He showed Robinson a picture of Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. "Now that," Finger said, "is the Joker!" Though, as Ebert qualified, more correctly the desired look of The Joker since Gwynplaine was nowhere near a villain.

Bob Kane disputed Robinson's testimony in his 1994 interview with Frank Lovece where he unabashedly claimed: "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. …Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, 'Here's the Joker'. Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he'll always say he created it till he dies. He brought in a playing card, which we used for a couple of issues for him [the Joker] to use as his playing card."

Robinson, whose original Joker playing card was on public display in the exhibition "Masters of American Comics" at the Jewish Museum in New York City, New York, from September 16, 2006 to January 28, 2007, and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia from October 24, 2004 to August 28, 2005, has countered in a subsequent interview with Daniel Robert Epstein that: "Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt ... had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of the Joker, he said, 'That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.' He said he would bring in some shots of that movie to show me. That's how that came about. I think in Bill's mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character."

More on this controversy with detailed pros and cons (including a heated dispute between Bob Kane and Stan Lee) can be found at Tom Mason's Crimson Collector. Further, aside from the Robinson/Joker dispute, some say Kane stole the idea of Batman from Frank D. Foster, II and there's an entire and intriguing website Original Batman.Com committed to that. I have to honestly say that though Kane unquestionably brought the character of The Joker to iconic fruition, my eyebrow is raised at his less-than-gracious concessions.

Proceeding from this initial contestation of origins and influences, in 1966 Cesar Romero achieved icon status when he played The Joker in the ABC television series, Batman. As detailed at Wikipedia, Romero refused to shave his trademark mustache and so it was covered with white makeup when playing the supervillain throughout the series' run. Romero also portrayed The Joker in the original movie version, long before its recreations by Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. His performances, highlighted by their maniacal laughter, were cited as an influence for Mark Hamill when he took the role of The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and its followups.

When it came time for Jack Nicholson to portray The Joker for the Tim Burton franchise, Nicholson's trademark grin seemed a natural shoe-in. Though I was surprised to read in Benedict Nightingale's June 1989 article for The New York Times that—after digging up a copy of the film—Nicholson stated: "The Man Who Laughs is not very good. But it's interesting that the character has now come full circle." A questionable comment at best but I have to concede that mileage always varies. That being said, I've always felt that Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker was heavily ironized and self-reflexive. He never disappeared into the role. The Joker became a heavily made-up and extravagantly costumed extension of Jack Nicholson.

Heath Ledger, on the other hand, has accomplished something almost frightening for being so flawless. Notwithstanding that we still grieve his recent death and a brilliant career cut too short, but if ever an Oscar has been awarded posthumously—and I haven't done the research to determine if one has—Ledger's performance would certainly and deservedly qualify. As Justin Chang states it for Variety: "Utterly indifferent to simple criminal motivations like greed, Ledger's maniacally murderous Joker is as pure an embodiment of irrational evil as any in modern movies. He's a pitiless psychopath who revels in chaos and fears neither pain nor death, a demonic prankster for whom all the world's a punchline.

"After Ledger's death in January, his penultimate performance (with Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus still to come) will be viewed with both tremendous excitement and unavoidable sadness. It's a tribute to Ledger's indelible work that he makes the viewer entirely forget the actor behind the cracked white makeup and blood-red rictus grin, so complete and frightening is his immersion in the role. With all due respect to the enjoyable camp buffoonery of past Jokers like Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson, Ledger makes them look like—well, clowns.

"The pic shrewdly positions the Joker as the superhero-movie equivalent of a modern terrorist (one of several post-9/11 signifiers), who threatens to target Gotham civilians until Batman reveals his identity." In this, Ledger's performance as The Joker exceeds comic antistrophe and veers into the kind of "horror texts" that Mario DeGiglio Bellemare suggests are fundamentally linked to social anxieties generated by the threat of evil—precisely the shifting face of evil—in the modern world.

For The Village Voice Scott Foundas writes: "[T]he Joker of The Dark Knight is all the more terrifying for not having a plan or an identifiable motive. A committed anarchist in a dusting of floury foundation, a smear of crimson lipstick, and pools of Louise Brooks eye shadow, this Joker isn't the ebullient prankster of Batman movies (and TV shows) past, but rather a freakishly disturbing embodiment of those destructive human impulses that can't so easily be explained away." Perhaps the best compliment one can pay Ledger, Foundas adds, is "to say that his performance here would have cemented his legend even if he'd lived to see the film's release. …Ledger seems to make the film grow larger whenever he's onscreen (no matter if you happen to already be watching it in the giant-screen IMAX format)." He "invests in a character from the inside-out, lending the Joker's every physical tick and vocal inflection a signature flair. No wonder Ledger was reportedly exhausted after finishing work on the film; watching him, you can see how demanding he was on himself, how much he refused to play any predictable beats."

Cross-published on Twitch.