Conrad Veidt

My Masquerade Ball Blog Hop post is here.

This is significantly expanded from the concluding section of a post I wrote in October 2015. The source material focused on Conrad Veidt’s strong anti-Nazi stance, not his overall life and career.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943) was born in Berlin, to Lutheran parents Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. He attended the Sophien-Gymnasium until 1912, when he graduated last in his class, sans diploma.

In 1913, Conrad took up volunteer acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, gradually moving up from bit parts to medium roles. His budding acting career was interrupted by WWI.

Conrad was sent to the brutal Eastern Front, where he caught jaundice and pneumonia. His poor health earned him a discharge in January 1917.

After recovering, Conrad resumed acting. Some of his films had a socially-conscious message and were quite ahead of their time, like Victims of Society, The Diary of a Lost, Dida Ibsen’s Story, Prostitution, and Different from the Others.

The lattermost is the world’s first known film to openly, positively depict homosexuality. Though it came out (no pun intended) after the abolition of film censorship, it was quickly banned after censorship returned in 1920.

In 1919, Conrad formed his own company, so he could choose his own roles. He acted, produced, and directed during this era.

His big break came in 1920, when he starred as creepy somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This first German Expressionist film made a huge international impact, though owing to lingering anti-German sentiment, many theatres didn’t immediately screen it.

Conrad went on to star in several other major German Expressionist films, such as Waxworks, Orlac’s Hands, and The Student of Prague (a remake of the 1913 original). He made dozens of films during this heyday of German Expressionist cinema, often typecast in eccentric, mischievous, or menacing roles.

In 1927, he was invited to Hollywood. Probably his best-known films from this period are The Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore) and The Man Who Laughs (whose title character became the Joker’s genesis).

The arrival of sound compelled Conrad back to his native Germany. His thick German accent and poor English spelled the end of his Hollywood career, but he did wonderfully in sound films in his mother tongue.

Conrad wasn’t to stay in his homeland for long, since he strongly opposed Naziism and anti-Semitism. His new love, Ilona Prager (Lily), who soon became his third and final wife, was also Jewish.

When Conrad filled out a mandatory racial questionnaire, he falsely listed his “race” as Jewish. He stood in solidarity with his homeland’s beleaguered Jewish community, and couldn’t fling Lily to the wolves.

Goebbels, who wanted to keep this very successful actor in Germany, told Conrad to divorce Lily and declare support for the new régime. If he did this, Goebbels would give Lily false Aryan papers.

Not only did Conrad refuse to do either, he also took the lead in British film Jud Süß (NOT to be confused with the anti-Semitic German film of the same name). He knew this would end his German film career and possibly result in a death warrant.

Conrad was put under house arrest, and there were rumours of a Gestapo plot to murder him. He and Lily fled to England one week after their marriage, just ahead of the death squad’s arrival.

When Conrad finally became fluent in English, he began starring in anti-Nazi films. He also starred in several films in his third language, French.

Though he became a British subject in 1938, he returned to the U.S. in 1940. Before he left, he gave most of his fortune to the British government to help the war effort. 

Conrad hoped his anti-Nazi films would inspire Americans to end their neutrality.

Since he knew he’d be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.

Conrad died of a massive heart attack while playing golf at an L.A. country club. He was only fifty.

Conrad Veidt was more than just a great actor, but an incredible lion of a human being, representing the best of what we’re capable of.

The Joker’s genesis

The Man Who Laughs, released 27 April 1928, was the third Hollywood film for both German director Paul Leni and wonderful actor Conrad Veidt. Universal Pictures gave Lon Chaney, Sr., a contract to play the lead role of Gwynplaine, but failed to acquire film rights to Victor’s Hugo’s least-successful novel from Sociéte Générale des Films. Lon’s contract was amended to release him from this obligation, and let him name its replacement (1925’s The Phantom of the Opera).

By the time studio boss Carl Laemmle returned to The Man Who Laughs, Lon was under contract to MGM.

Lord Clancharlie is sentenced to death in an iron maiden by King James II in January 1690, and his son Gwynplaine has a permanent grin carved into his face by a Comprachico surgeon. Shortly afterwards, all Comprachicos are banished from England for trading in stolen children and performing unlawful surgeries transforming children into monsters.

Gwynplaine, who’s been with them since his capture, is ordered left behind. Dr. Hardquanonne, who performed the macabre surgery, demands he come with them, but another Comprachico says they want no victims to convict them of their trade. Dr. Hardquanonne says Gwynplaine is theirs by the King’s orders, and means money to them, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

While Gwynplaine, his grin covered by a scarf, is wandering in the snow afterwards, he finds a woman frozen to death and saves her baby. Gwynplaine stumbles across Ursus, a philosopher, and his trained wolf with the unfortunate name Homo (dog Zimbo). Ursus is annoyed to be disturbed, but ultimately invites Gwynplaine into his little green van.

Ursus is stunned anew to discover there are two of them, and quickly determines the baby is blind. He thinks Gwynplaine is laughing about this, but soon realises this was done by Comprachicos.

Many years pass, and Gwynplaine is now a successful travelling performer, The Laughing Man. Who should Ursus meet during one of these stops but Dr. Hardquanonne!

Also rather predictably, Gwynplaine and the blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love.

Dr. Hardquanonne has a message delivered to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, who played the two-faced Cleopatra in Freaks). It first gets to Barkilphedro, the jester who kidnapped Gwynplaine and had him mutilated all those years ago. He shows it to Queen Anne.

After Josiana attends Gwynplaine’s show, she has a message delivered to him, saying she was the one who wasn’t laughing, and that her page will come for him at midnight. Gwynplaine is thrilled, and tells Ursus if a sighted woman might love him, he may now have the right to marry Dea. He’s always felt unworthy of her love.

Josiana puts the moves on Gwynplaine, which thrills him. During their meeting, Josiana reads a letter from the Queen, saying Lord Clancharlie’s heir, whose estates she now enjoys, has been found and identified as Gwynplaine. Her betrothal is thus annulled, and she must marry Gwynplaine, who’ll be restored to his heritage. Josiana breaks out laughing.

Gwynplaine returns home to find Dea asleep outside the wagon, where she was waiting up for him. The letter from Josiana is in her hands, which Gwynplaine rips up. He now realises Dea truly loves him, since she’s never laughed at him and accepts him just as he is.

Gwynplaine is arrested in the morning, and Ursus follows him. Ursus is told not to wait, since those who enter Chatham Prison never return, but he’s undeterred.

The Queen tells Barkilphedro Dr. Hardquanonne died in Chatham Prison, and his confession proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Gwynplaine is indeed Lord Clancharlie’s son. It grieves her to know Josiana must marry a clown, but after Gwynplaine is released, he’ll be made a Peer in the House of Lords.

Ursus tells all the other performers Dea must not know, and that the show must go on. More trouble comes when Barkilphedro interrupts the show to inform Ursus he’s banished from England, and lies Gwynplaine is dead.

Will Gwynplaine escape marrying Josiana and find Dea and Ursus in time?

This film had a budget of over $1,000,000, and was a huge success. Opening night proceeds went to American Friends of Blérancourt. Many critics, however, panned it, finding the subject matter too dark and depressing, and feeling the German Expressionistic style didn’t evoke 17th and 18th century England. As recently as the Seventies, many critics still hated it, but today it’s rightly recognised as a beautiful masterpiece.

Like many films of the late silent era, TMWL is a hybrid, with a synchronised sountrack, sound effects (including crowd noises and the calling of Gwynplaine’s name), and a song, “When Love Comes Stealing.”

The themes, style, and set designs were major influences on Universal’s classic horror movies of the Thirties.

And, of course, Gwynplaine’s exaggerated grin was The Joker’s genesis.