The Joker, an unfunny history

July 20, 2008 | 7:10 p.m.

Manluughs Patrick Day, a member of the newsboy legion here at Hero Complex, has a great photo gallery on the history of the Joker, tracing the roots of the creepiest clown all the way back to the 1929 film "The Man Who Laughs," which had Conrad Veidt in the title role. Stills from that Victor Hugo adpaptation were used to design the cackling visage of the Joker, which means Veidt’s rictus grin inspired the most instantly recognizable villain in the history of American comic books.      

Veidt is best known to movie fans for his portrayal of Major Strasser, the stern-eyed Nazi heavy in "Casablanca" but he almost became  famous for wearing a cape — Universal Pictures boss Carl Laemmle, a titan of early Hollywood, wanted Vedit to be the star of "Dracula" but eventually the career-shaping role went to a Eastern European fellow by the name of Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó, better known as Bela Lugosi. Dracula, of course, was one of the key visual inspirations for Batman, especially in his earliest apprances.

Here’s another interesting little link-up between "The Man Who Laughs" and "The Dark Knight": The Jokerbolland_2  1929 film and Veidt’s protrayal in it figure prominently in the plot of the 2006 Brain De Palma movie "The Black Dahlia"  In essence, a central conceit of the De Palma film (as well as the brilliant James Ellroy novel of the same title) is that "The Man Who Laughs" inspired the real-life fiend who carved up Elizabeth Short. Short, whose murder was never solved, was left with gruesome facial wounds not unlike those that mar the face of Heath Ledger’s Joker in "The Dark Knight."

More than that, Aaron Eckhart is a star in both "Black Dahlia" and "The Dark Knight." In the first film he portays a lawman in pursuit of a deranged killer that finds himself moving toward his own dark side. In the second he portrays… a lawman who is in pursuit of a deranged killer that finds himsef moving toward his own dark side.

I talked to Aaron Eckhart about both movies for a May article in The Times, you can find it after the jump.

– Geoff Boucher

Movie still of Conrad Vedit from the 1929 film "The Man Who Laughs"

Artwork of the Joker by Brian Bolland from "The Killing Joke," courtesy of DC Comics

Eckhart
Aaron Eckhart, not just another pretty face in "The Dark Knight"
By Geoff Boucher
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 4, 2008
The trailers for "The Dark Knight" have shown quite a bit of Heath Ledger’s scabbier, surlier reinvention of the Joker (think of Malcolm McDowell’s thug from "A Clockwork Orange" but with kelp-colored hair, scars and a hyena laugh), but the producers have been keeping the film’s other Batman bad guy, Two-Face, under wraps.
"That’s right, people don’t really know yet," actor Aaron Eckhart said with grin. "I can tell you that, basically, when you look at Two-Face, you should get sick to your stomach. Being the guy under all that, well, that was a lot of fun for me. It’s like you would feel if you met someone whose face had pretty much been ripped off or burned off with acid. I can’t talk about it beyond that because I don’t want to give away too much of the plans by Chris."
Chris is Christopher Nolan, the director of "Batman Begins," the acclaimed 2005 franchise reboot, and of "The Dark Knight," the sequel that hit theaters Friday with a tale that is far darker and more psychological than the other, sunnier superhero fare this summer. The darkness goes beyond the screen as well; 28-year-old Ledger died in January in New York after an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
The death of Ledger and the word of his incendiary performance in this film have made him the natural focus of early media coverage of "The Dark Knight." But Nolan told The Times this year that the foundation of the film is the tale and transformation of Eckhart’s character, Harvey Dent, from a crusading Gotham City prosecutor to Harvey Two-Face, a maniac whose face is ravaged on one side by a horrible injury.
On the campy 1960s "Batman" television series, the writers imported pretty much every major villain from the namesake comic book — the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman, etc. — but not Two-Face. He was simply too gross. In the comic books, the wounds come from a splash of acid thrown at the attorney by a gangster on the witness stand, but there are hints that in this film it might be the Joker who is responsible for the scars.
Eckhart won’t discuss that, but he did say that the wounds are structurally deeper than in the comics: "There are fans on the Internet who have done artist’s versions of what they think it will look like, and I can tell you this: They’re thinking small; Chris is going way farther than people think."
There were plenty of name actors lined up hoping to get the role of Two-Face, but in the end Nolan went with Eckhart because of his "complexity and this aura he has of a good man pushed too far," Nolan said. Two-Face in the film is more of a vigilante hunting down the Joker than he is a criminal, as he has most often been portrayed in the comics. His trademark is flipping a two-headed coin, one side defaced, the other pristine, and letting its landing determine his actions, often in situations where he has a gun to someone’s head.
"The difference between Batman and Two-Face is how far they are willing to go and how they make their point," Eckhart said. "Otherwise, we’re talking about vigilante crime-fighting. That’s what Batman is all about. He has a strong sense of justice. And Harvey Dent has an extremely strong sense of justice. His fiancée is killed. He’s horribly injured. But he is still true to himself. He’s a crime fighter, he’s not killing good people. He’s not a bad guy, not purely."
The 40-year-old, square-jawed Eckhart has a history of playing authority figures pulled away from the bright path. He was a cop on a path to destruction in "The Black Dahlia," the slick tobacco lobbyist in "Thank You for Smoking," the junior executive looking to punish women in Neil LaBute’s "In the Company of Men," all of them roles in which bad deeds are simple to see but bad men are hard to recognize.
"You look at a good guy too long, and it’s not that exciting; it’s the Boy Scout always doing the right thing," Eckhart said. "I’m interested in good guys gone wrong. They’re not the bad guy, they’re the good guy doing bad things."
He joins a franchise with a deep roster of serious actors onboard: "The Dark Knight" has career-surging Christian Bale back in the cape and Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honest cop, Jim Gordon, as well as Oscar winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in for Katie Holmes as prosecutor Rachel Dawes, the romantic interest of Bruce Wayne.
"My guy identifies with everybody in the movie," Eckhart said. "Really, all of it is more than an adventure tale, it’s somewhat of a mirror of our times. It deals with some fundamental questions of what’s going on in society. To me, this film is about how Batman feels about justice, how he takes care of the city, how he feels about the Joker when he meets him and sees what he is capable of doing. How he feels when Harvey Two-Face takes matters into his own hands. It’s not simple, and it gets ugly. I think people will be surprised."
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
More in: Uncategorized, Batman, The Dark Knight

Comments


2 Responses to The Joker, an unfunny history

  1. christie says:

    Awesome. I couldn't have asked for a better two-face.

  2. Kim says:

    The thing you neglected to mention, though, and I think it's important, given the grisly, psychotic nature of Ledger's Joker: Veidt's Gwynplaine, in "The Man Who Laughs," is an eminently gentle, honorable man. Hideously disfigured by the Comprachicos, a clan of gypsies who in Jacobean times kidnapped and mutilated children, and who sold those children as sideshow freaks, Gwynplaine, the son of a disgraced and murdered Scottish nobleman, grows up as the adopted son of a kindly eccentric who heads a traveling theatre troupe; Gwynplaine, abandoned by the Comprachicos, himself rescues a blind baby girl, who grows up with him in the sheltered environment of Father Ursus's traveling show and who– of course!– falls in love with Gwynplaine, not knowing his disfigurement. Her discovering his mutilated face, and her tender acceptance of it, makes for one of the loveliest scenes in silent cinema, and a sweet contrast to the horrified "unmasking" scenes in other classic horror films. (Mary Philbin, who plays Dea, the blind girl, also played Christine opposite the magnificent Lon Chaney in Universal's "Phantom of the Opera.") Sorry to ramble on, but I think it's interesting– and not a little tragic– to note how one of comics' most famous villains has his visual origins in such a kind and noble character.

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