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 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