(1928) Directed by: Herbert Brenon; Written by Elizabeth Meehan; Titles by Joseph Farnham; Based on the play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing; Starring: Lon Chaney, Bernard Siegel, Loretta Young and Nils Asther
Available on DVD
“I believe you’re suffering from some sort of suppression… perhaps a hopeless love.” – Doctor (Emmett King) to Tito (Lon Chaney)
I recently remarked on Twitter that a silent retrospective without Lon Chaney was like a cupcake without frosting (If you’re one of those poor souls that scrape the frosting off, I weep for you). While that statement might seem a smidgen hyperbolic, it’s safe for me to say I fell in love with silent cinema, thanks to Chaney, my gateway drug. I can also safely attest that none of his roles have failed to captivate me. No matter how weak the story might have been, or unbelievable the situation, he always immersed himself in his characters, and elevated the material to sublime levels. It’s no surprise that Laugh, Clown, Laugh* features yet another superb performance by Mr. Chaney, once again proving what an amazing, versatile actor he was. In his capable hands, what could have been a simple melodrama about unrequited love becomes a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
* According to film historian Michael F. Blake’s DVD commentary, the theme song, which shares the film’s title, was wildly popular at the time. The lyrics mirror the sentiment of a pivotal scene late in the film.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh was based on a 1924 stage play, starring Lionel Barrymore in the lead role. Director Herbert Brenon and writer Elizabeth Meehan did an admirable job adapting the play for the screen, taking advantage of various Southern California locations to simulate the Italian countryside. In an early scene, traveling clowns Tito (Lon Chaney) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) discover an abandoned toddler girl. Although Simon is initially reluctant to bring her along, his heart melts when Tito decides to name her Simonetta. As she grows up, she learns the tricks of the trade, and joins their circus act*. As the years pass, and Simonetta has blossomed into a beautiful young lady, it dawns on Tito that his feelings for her have shifted. Things take a turn for the worse, from Tito’s perspective, when an outside force, the debonair Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), threatens to take her away.
* The circus tent set in the film was previously used in the Chaney films He Who Gets Slapped and The Unknown.
It’s a testament to Chaney’s supreme skill as an actor that Laugh, Clown, Laugh never ventures into the creepy territory it could have gone. We can feel Tito’s inner torment from his pained expressions. As his alter ego, the clown Flik, he spends his time making others laugh, but cannot feel joy himself, on account of a love he doesn’t dare reveal. His conflicted emotions, stemming from repressed sexual frustration and paternal affection for Simonetta, are manifested in crying spells. He meets his rival, Luigi, when they both visit a doctor to help cure their respective afflictions. In direct contrast to Tito, Luigi is prone to uncontrollable fits of laughter. They start out as friends, as they help each other overcome their respective afflictions, but their amity gives way to animosity when Simonetta enters the equation. The two men and Simonetta form a love triangle that’s doomed from the start. Despite the fact we’re painfully aware Simonetta and her father by proxy can never be together, we feel sympathy for Tito because he’s essentially likeable.
Loretta Young, who was only 14 when filming began for Laugh, Clown, Laugh, is excellent as the innocent ingénue, Simonetta. She strikes the perfect balance, torn between her devotion to Tito and being smitten by Luigi. Admittedly, the love triangle, and all of its Freudian implications, comprises one of the more disturbing aspects of the film. The audience is expected to accept that a teenage girl is the object of affection for men who are significantly older. While this sort of story line may have been reflective of the times, it doesn’t make it more palatable as a subject. Most modern filmmakers would be hard pressed to rationalize such a relationship in a current film, at least outside of quite a few Disney animated movies.
According to Blake’s commentary, an alternate happy ending was made available to theater owners, who had the option of playing this version instead. Although it’s a shame no known print of this scene exists, it’s hard to imagine the film ending any other way. The writing is on the wall for Tito as a tragic figure. Concluding the film on a positive note would have seemed like a cop out, undermining the impact of Tito’s moral dilemma. As it stands, Laugh, Clown, Laugh features another classic Chaney role, which ranks among his best.