The Man Who Laughs is a macabre little love story that begins with a decadent king's order to carve a permanent grin into the face of a boy whose father has been convicted of treason. The boy grows to manhood earning an unhappy but lucrative living as a circus freak, shunning all human contact but that of the young blind woman who travels with him.
Through a series of twists plotted by the great Victor Hugo, whose novel L'Homme Qui Rit was the basis for this movie, the man (Conrad Veidt in a first-rate performance) finds himself elevated to Britain's House of Lords and ordered against his will to marry a brazen duchess with a fetish for his ruined face.
It sounds like the stuff of a pretty ludicrous melodrama but thanks to Veidt—better known to movie fans as Casablanca's Major Strasser—The Man Who Laughs is actually one of the best movies of 1928.
I mention it here because Veidt, who played the part wearing a prosthesis that pulled his lips into that horrible grin, inspired the role that earlier this year won Heath Ledger an Oscar.
Depending on who you believe, either Bill Finger and Batman creator Bob Kane concocted the Joker from a photograph of Veidt in full Man Who Laughs makeup; or illustrator Jerry Robinson conceived the Joker from a playing card and then fleshed out the character based on a photograph of Veidt that Finger provided. (Apparently this is one of those bitter tempests in a teapot that only people with too much free time and not enough recognition can brew up.)
The one thing, however, that all the participants can agree on is that Veidt was central to the creation of the Joker's bizarre look.
The character of the Joker has gone through many changes since his creation in the Spring of 1940, from sociopath to comic jester and back again. A number of actors have inhabited the role, including Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and, of course, Ledger.
But all incarnations of the Joker have included the rictus grin that Conrad Veidt first introduced to the screen and without his performance in The Man Who Laughs, we can only guess at who the Dark Knight would have done battle with in last summer's biggest blockbuster. You can just be sure it wouldn't have been the fascinating psychopath that Ledger essayed so brilliantly.
Remember that the next time some snot-nosed kid tell you old movies are irrelevant.