Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

—END—

 

IN THE SHADOWS: J. CARROL NAISH

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J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS,  the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today in the shadows it’s J. Carrol Naish, one of the most respected character actors of his day, and while he’s certainly known for his horror roles, one of my favorite Naish roles is not from a horror flick at all, but from a superhero tale.

No, they weren’t making Marvel movies back in the 1930s and 40s, but they were making DC serials, and Naish starred in one of the best, BATMAN (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This 15 episode serial marked the first time Batman would appear on the big screen, and it remains one of the better interpretations of the Caped Crusader, even all these years later. Another reason this one is so memorable? J. Carrol Naish plays the evil villain, Dr. Daka.

Since Naish was known for his multitudinous accents, he was a natural choice to play the Japanese Dr. Daka.  Remember, this was 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II, and just two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so it made sense to feature a villain of Japanese descent. Still, this one unfortunately contains some racial slurs which were redubbed in the VHS release, then restored in the later DVD release. Interestingly enough, Naish was originally signed to play the Joker, but the villain was changed to fit into a more contemporary and pressing storyline. Some remnants of the Joker still remain, like his hideout being inside a carnival.

I love Naish’s performance in BATMAN. Every time he gets the upper hand on one of his victims, and they lament, he tends to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Not quite a catch phrase, but there’s just something about his delivery that cracks me up every time.

But horror fans remember Naish for his horror roles, especially that of Daniel, the sympathetic hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

Here’s a partial look at Naish’s whopping 224 screen credits, focusing mostly on his genre films:

THE OPEN SWITCH (1925) – Naish’s first screen appearance is in this silent crime drama.

GOOD INTENTIONS (1930) – Charlie Hattrick – Naish’s first screen credit. Another crime drama.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Noel – horror movie also starring George Zucco as the mysterious Dr. Renault. Naish plays Noel, Renault’s strange assistant, whose real identity, is Dr. Renault’s secret.

BATMAN (1943) – Dr. Daka – 15 episode serial remains one of the better screen interpretations of the Batman. Also the first. Naish plays the villain, the evil Dr. Daka, which happens to be my favorite Naish role.

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J. Carrol Naish as the evil Dr. Daka in the 15 episode serial BATMAN (1943). 

SAHARA (1943) – Giuseppe – Classic Humphrey Bogart World War II adventure tells the story of a group of survivors in an army tank facing the Nazis in the desert. Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

CALLING DR. DEATH (1943) – Inspector Gregg- Horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr. where Chaney plays a doctor who believes he has murdered his wife.

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) – Markoff – Naish plays a mad scientist who injects his victims with a serum that causes them to become seriously deformed. Why? Because he can! Also stars Glenn Strange as the giant, who would go on later that year to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), which would also star Naish.

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) – Dr. Carl Fletcher – horror movie featuring Paula the ape woman. (Not to be confused with Mildred the Monkey Woman. Or Clara the Cat Woman. Or Madge the Avon Lady. Seriously, though, Paula the ape woman???) Also stars Evelyn Ankers.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Daniel – my second favorite J. Carrol Naish role after Dr. Daka. Naish plays the hunchback Daniel, assistant to Boris Karloff’s evil Dr. Niemann, who falls for the beautiful gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) but his love is not returned as she has eyes for the doomed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in one of the film’s better story arcs. With Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

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Naish and Karloff searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

A MEDAL FOR BENNY (1945) – Charley Martin – Second and final time Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this war drama based on a story by John Steinbeck.

STRANGE CONFESSION (1945) -Graham – another horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1046) – Ovidio Castanio – classic horror movie starring Peter Lorre about a murderous severed hand. Written by Curt Siodmark.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1966) – Uncle Giuliano- guest spot on the popular 60s spy TV show in the episode “The Super-Colossal Affair.”

GET SMART (1968) – Sam Vittorio – guest spot on the classic Don Adams comedy in the episode “The Secret of Sam Vittorio.”

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) – Dr. Frankenstein – Naish’s final film role is in this dreadful horror movie which falls under the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. Plays a wheel chair bound Dr. Frankenstein. Also notable for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s final movie. He actually fares worse here than Naish, as his character doesn’t even have any dialogue. Horrible, grade Z stuff.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), the final film roles for both these actors.

 

Naish passed away on January 24, 1973 from emphysema at the age of 77.

J. Carrol Naish – January 21,  1896 – January 24, 1973.

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of J. Carrol Naish, one of the hardest working and most effective character actors of his day.  His horror movies were few and far between, but he was always memorable in them.

Thanks for joining me today on IN THE SHADOWS and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we look at the career of another great character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael