Let’s take a break from Batman movies for a little bit and review a movie that influenced Batman. Ever hear of a character named “the Joker?” Real deep cut reference, I know, but by all accounts this is the movie that inspired the creation of the iconic villain.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, we follow Gwynplaine, a man disfigured as a child to have a permanent and haunting grin, played by Mr. Conrad Veidt (who also played Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). He loves Dea, a blind girl he met when she was a baby because that’s not weird or Twilight-y at all. The two were raised by Ursus and his dog Homo (ha), and now are part of a traveling side show. A spoiled duchess (played by Ms. Olga Baclanova, who was the rude woman who gets turned into a chicken-monster in Freaks) watches Gwynplaine’s performance and feels moved by him, asking for him to visit her. It’s then that she finds out he’s actually the son of the Lord who ruled the lands she now controls, and that if she wants to retain her fortune she’ll have to marry the clown! Dea and Ursus are banished from England, believing that Gwynplaine is dead. Instead he is brought before the House of Lords, where he scolds all of them for mocking him. He escapes the authorities, reunites with Dea, and the bad guy who had been playing everyone gets his throat torn out by Homo.
I had read up on the book before watching this, so I was ready to add the “tragedy” tag to this film. But the movie decided to have a happy ending instead! From what I understand, the novel ends with Dea dying and Gwynplaine committing suicide by throwing himself off a ship. Not that changing Hugo’s downer endings is uncommon–in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Esmeralda is hanged and Quasimodo crawls into her grave to die with her. Not Disney friendly, that’s for sure.
But what about Gwynplaine, our main character? He’s a tragic figure, having turned his deformity into a career where people laugh at him, but remains deeply unhappy. He meets with the duchess because while he loves Dea and she loves him, the possibility of a woman falling for him who can actually see his face is too much to pass up. And the constant grin is wonderfully unnerving, especially when modern audiences see him and–generally–think of the Joker. Hell, after watching the trailer for the 2012 adaptation, it looks like that version incorporated the Joker’s scars from The Dark Knight. Such is the circular nature of literature. Someone should write a paper on that, or something.
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