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Art as Inheritance, part 1: That Lingering Smile

This will be something of a long and meandering trip, only to wind up back where we started. But I can promise that along the way we’ll encounter secrets hidden behind locked doors, as well as deeds that will form the fabric of nightmares.

Shall we?

This is Conrad Veidt:

Veidt was a German actor who moved to England in the 1930s, where he starred in three films directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: The Spy in Black (1939):

Contraband (1940):

and The Thief of Bagdad (1940):

He also played Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). (If you watch this clip here, you’ll see him at 1:15, leading his fellow Germans in the song.)

But Veidt is best remembered for two roles he played earlier in his career, while still living in Germany. You know of both of them, even if you’ve never seen the movies.

1. The somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920):

Caligari has enjoyed a wide influence. Pynchon mentions it in Gravity’s Rainbow:

He entered a brick labyrinth that had been a harmonica factory. Splashes of bell-metal lay forever unrung in the foundry dirt. Against a high wall that had recently been painted white, the shadoes of horses and their riders drummed. Sitting watching, from workbenches and crates, were a dozen individuals Squalidozzi recognized right away as gangsters. Cigar-ends glowed, and molls whispered back and forth in German. The men ate sausages, ripping away the casings with white teeth, well cared for, that flashed in the light from the movie. They were wearing the Caligari gloves which now enjoy a summer vogue in the Zone: bone white, except for the four lines in deep violet fanning up on each gloveback from wrist to knuckle. (384–5)

Pynchon means these gloves:

Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari, with his servant Cesare (Veidt).

And the film has become a popular visual source for music videos:

…among other things. Veidt’s sleepwalker Cesare, of course, served as the direct inspiration for Edward Scissorhands:

2. Veidt’s other most famous role was as the hideously disfigured Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1929):

…where he served as the direct inspiration for—well, you can figure that one out for yourself.

What I found most interesting about Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) was how it synthesized both of Veidt’s most famous descendants:

But poor Edward S. and The Joker aren’t unique in their lack of uniqueness. Batman himself was directly inspired by a character in the 1930 film The Bat Whispers:

…which was itself a remake of the 1926 film The Bat:

(See in particular from 4 minutes in onward.)

Both films were directed by Roland West, and were themselves adaptations of the 1920 Broadway play, The Bat, by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood.

The Bat and The Bat Whispers were early entries in the horror subgenre called “the old dark house.” In those types of films, people enter a spooky old mansion for one reason or another (in this case they’re looking for treasure), where they are murdered one by one (in this case, by The Bat.) …Maybe you’ve at some point seen a movie like that.

The Bat himself never went very far away. The play was re-adapted in 1959, starring Vincent Price:

…which served as some inspiration, surely, for the 1960s Batman TV series:

…where Vincent Price put in more than one apprearance as the villain Egghead:

Humpty Dumpty puns, of course, abounded. (Batman often contains many references to Lewis Carroll.)

I don’t know why Tim Burton didn’t cast Price in his 1989 adaptation of Batman, but he did manage to fit him into Edward Scissorhands (1990):

…And of course Price narrated—and served as the inspiration for—Burton’s 1982 animated short film Vincent:

Tim Burton is a wonderful collector of influences. What is his aesthetic, precisely? Take a moment and close your eyes and picture the kind of things that Tim Burton makes.

Did you picture this?

Or this?

Or this?

No, probably you pictured this:

Or this:

Or this:

Tim Burton’s work draws on a wider range of artworks than we may at first recall. The most obvious one is German Expressionism:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

…and cartoons like the Addams Family and work by Edward Gorey:

…but also 1950s Science Fiction:

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

…and Roger Corman films starring…Vincent Price (such as The Masque of the Red Death, 1964):

…which is of course a Poe adaptation. Poe, like The Bat, or Conrad Veidt, is ever all that far away.

Burton, despite having what we might think of as an instantly-recognizable or singular aesthetic, in fact blends elements from works from many different times and places. Many of them bear family resemblances to one another—Gorey was himself influenced by German Expressionism, and those Corman/Price films are Poe adaptations—but they aren’t all quite the same things. Burton selects what he likes from what he sees and mixes them all together, making his own thing—his own artworks—from them.

Well, that’s cute, but I’m not really much of a Tim Burton fan. (I think he’s a very good visual designer but not so strong a director—although Vincent is pretty great, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Batman Returns.)

Burton apparently has some new movie coming out, based on something or other.

The Last Laugh

Let’s return to Conrad Veidt:

The Man Who Laughed is not an original film. It’s an adaptation of the 1869 novel L’Homme qui rit by Victor Hugo.

And Paul Leni’s popular 1928 adaptation was not the first: a French one (now lost) was made in 1909, and a German production—Das grinsende Gesicht (“The Grinning Face”)—appeared in 1921.

Nor was it the last adaptation. Another was made in 1966.

Well, no doubt another one will be made, sooner or later.

L’Homme qui rit has also inspired other literature. For instance, Mark Twain wrote a parody of it in 1869:

The boy started up the hill!

Only a poor tailor boy.

It was night.


It was black—awful.

Ice covered the ground, rocks—everything. It was snowing.

Far up the hill, steeped in solitude, reeking with silence, he—hark!

Something creaked!

Something moaned!

Compare this to an excerpt from the original:

It was winter—it was night. It would be necessary to walk several leagues before a human habitation could be reached.

He did not know where he was.

He knew nothing, unless it was that those who had come with him to the brink of the sea had gone away without him.

He felt himself put outside the pale of life.

He felt that man failed him.

He was ten years old.

The child was in a desert, between depths where he saw the night rising and depths where he heard the waves murmur.

He stretched his little thin arms and yawned.

(Taken from the Project Guttenberg version; no translator is listed.)

The Hugo novel is also believed to have served as some inspiration for Ray Russell’s 1961 novel Sardonicus, which was adapted by William Castle that same year into a film, Mr. Sardonicus:

Like Mr. Castle, I too shall refrain from showing you Mr. Sardonicus’s face (although you’re free to imagine it…in your nightmares! Or to Google image search for it—but I warn you!) (Think twice before you click on that link!)

William Castle, ever the goofball, directly addressed the audience toward the end of the film, offering them “the awful power to punish,” and the choice as to whether Mr. Sardonicus lived or died:

…Although in reality, just like in capital-r Reality, there is only one ending:

No mercy!

Further punishment!

While we’re remembering William Castle, it’s worth noting that he directed a film called The Old Dark House (1963), an old dark house horror film…that was a remake of James Whale’s Old Dark House (1932)…which gave the subgenre its name.

Well, Mr. Castle has since then had more than a few of his films remade himself, such as House on Haunted Hill (1959):

(Castle’s gimmicks are still in full effect—the DVD of Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007) gives its viewers control over the characters’ fates: “A unique experience you won’t get in theaters [because it was direct-to-video]. …You decide who lives…or how they die.” …Well, it runs in the family: Castle’s daughter Terry is one of the producers behind these remakes.)

Note the woman with Joker-style makeup at 1:43 in that last trailer.

Also remade was 13 Ghosts (1960):

(Be sure to check out the insanely detailed backstories for each one of the thirteeen ghosts featured in the remake.)

The Man Who Laughs, meanwhile—or Veidt’s indelible portrayal of Gwynplaine—has continued inspiring artists. And lest you think that it’s all schlock, J.D. Salinger (may he rest in peace) thought enough of Hugo’s novel to use it as the basis for his story “The Laughing Man,” originally published in the New Yorker in 1949, and later collected in Nine Stories. In it, an infant is kidnapped by “Chinese bandits,” who mutilate his head and face when his parents refuse to pay the ransom:

Strangers fainted dead away at the sight of the Laughing Man’s horrible face. Acquaintances shunned him. Curiously enough, though, the bandits let him hang around their headquarters—as long as he kept his face covered with a pale-red gossamer mask made out of poppy petals.

Salinger’s story apparently influenced a character in the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002–3), which apparently draws inspiration from other works by Salinger.

And now, finally, one last literay reference, albeit a roundabout one (although it will serve to lead us directly back to Veidt):

Donald Barthelme wrote only one piece of Batman fan-fiction in his life (that I know of), but it was an exquisite one: “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph.” It was actually based on a real issue of Batman, from 1962!

You can find it now in Flying to America, but it was originally collected in…

…you won’t believe it…

…it’s just too perfect…

Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964).

Which had a cover by Edward Gorey:

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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