The Man Who Laughs (1928)

No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.

Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

The dog in Mighty Like a Moose

This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.

Blackmail (1929)

The Laughing Jester in Blackmail

Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt.

La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)
La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

The husband in The Smiling Madame Beudet

Germaine Dulac’s feminist classic features an intelligent woman driven mad by her husband’s incessant, immature pranks and jokes. Repeatedly, he mimics shooting himself in the head – just like Arthur in Joker.

Häxan (1922)
Häxan (1922)

Satan in Häxan

Satan himself, played by the film’s director Benjamin Christensen, wears an uncanny leer as he goes about his devilish business in this classic drama-documentary-horror hybrid.

Broken Blossoms (1919)
Broken Blossoms (1919)

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms

The Limehouse waif played by Gish in this classic tearjerker lives a life of such relentless misery and deprivation she is physically unable to smile unless she props up the corners of her mouth with her fingers. Which is pretty sinister, I’d say. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck adopts a similar, if more grotesque, trick in Joker.

The Crowd (1928)
The Crowd (1928)

The clowns in The Crowd

In Gotham’s alter ego New York, the grinning faces of the clowns carrying advertising placards belie a painful reality. This job is one of the lowest-paid in the big city, a cruel joke of a way to make a living – and sure enough it’s where the hero of King Vidor’s classic melodrama ends up. I’d like to think Phillips is paying homage to this in the opening moments of Joker.

Clara Bow
Clara Bow

Clara Bow, in any film

It wasn’t easy being Clara Bow. “All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath,” Bow once said. “She’s unhappy and disillusioned, and that’s what people sense.”

Arsenal (1929)

The gas victim in Arsenal

Nothing more horrific in all of silent cinema than the grisly rictus grin of this poor dead soldier in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races at Venice

In one of early Hollywood’s most provocative images, the Tramp leers and gurns into the camera set up to capture a children’s cart race. It’s a disquieting moment in which an outsider imposes himself on a family entertainment, and an upstart English vaudeville turns announces himself as the future of American cinema. This awkward hobo will soon be the biggest movie star in the world. No wonder Joker features both a screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times and the song he wrote for that film, ‘Smile’.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs

This scary face exemplifies why the painted-on smiles of clowns are so terrifying to so many. Sold and mutilated as a child, Conrad Veidt’s character in The Man Who Laughs is forced to grin for the rest of his life and for the amusement of carnival crowds. His twisted features were said to be a direct influence on the look of DC’s Joker too.




3 thoughts on “No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema”

  1. The Gish grin in “Broken Blossoms” has always struck me as pretty creepy, so I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels a little freaked out by it.

    I watched “Asphalt” again recently. There’s a moment when Betty Amann starts laughing in Gustav Frölich’s face and goes Joker-maniacal for a minute.

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