As professional clowns Tito and Simon are traveling, they happen upon an abandoned child, whom they take in and name Simonetta. When Simonetta is older, she becomes a circus performer herself. One day she is looking for roses, and climbs into the garden of Count Luigi Ravelli. The count becomes infatuated with her, but she leaves as soon as possible. Sometime later, Ravelli consults a doctor about his fits of uncontrollable laughter, and there he meets Tito, who has come to seek help for his fits of uncontrollable weeping. The two decide to help each other, and they establish a friendship, but problems arise when they realize that they are both in love with Simonetta. Written by
The comedy... is... ended!
[Flik/Tito dies onstage in Simon's arms]
[watching from offstage]
That's Flik on the floor.
[watching from offstage]
He's playing that he's dead.
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A powerful performance by the man known as "the man of a thousand faces."
A one man special effects unit, Lon Chaney was known as The Man of a Thousand Faces and more than lived up to his nickname. Of course, he is best known for his work The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but his career was loaded with impressive performances of all kinds. Laugh, Clown, Laugh certainly showcases one of the many he did.
Herbert Brenon, known as a despotic director, directs the film. It's a bittersweet romantic melodrama, a film with a similar theme that Chaney did in 1924's He Who Gets Slapped. The fifteen-year-old Loretta Young (only 14 at the time of shooting) is 45-year-old Lon Chaney's leading lady. Young started in showbiz at the age of four as an extra, but this was her first major role. The film proved to be popular; MGM had it shot with an alternative happy ending to its sad ending and let the individual movie houses decide which version they wanted. No surviving copy of the happy ending seems to have survived. It's taken from a 1923 play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing based on the Italian play Ridi Pagliacci by Gausto Martino, Elizabeth Meehan is the screenwriter. The play had a successful run in New York with Lionel Barrymore in the Chaney role. It was shot on location in Elysian Park, a suburb of Los Angeles by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.
The film is simply about Tito (Lon Chaney) a clown in a traveling circus, a performer who once drew in massive crowds with his skills. When he was younger, he found himself in a most unusual situation, however. He and his friend Simon discover an abandoned young girl, who has no chance of survival on her own. Out of kindness, the two take her in and she is raised on the road with the two performers. As time passes and the years roll on, the girl blossoms into a beautiful young woman, known as Simonetta (Loretta Young). Tito's prime has passed, which has him in a depressed state at the outset. He and the self-indulgent Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther) learn to help each other with their problems, but become romantic rivals when Simonetta falls for the rich count. Tito then falls into a spiral of sadness, due his mixed emotions.
Probably the first thing you'll notice about Laugh, Clown, Laugh is how little attempted dialogue there is. The title card is used infrequently. The vast majority of this movie is told in near pantomime: gestures, facial expressions, and stage direction. It is also eloquently plotted, so we understand the situations and dramatics instantly and inherently.
Without Chaney though, this film just would not work. It would seem forced or flashy, almost hyperactive in some ways. Chaney is the anchor, the solid center whose pure motives move quickly over to the mixed when he realizes the emotional bond between Simonette and himself is growing more "physical." Without the seriousness, the emotional concrete that Chaney provides to tie the movie to a core concept, the flighty nature of Loretta Young or the overacting of Simon and Count Lavelli would forever damage the narrative. Chaney is the epitome of a clown laughing on the outside as he is dying on the inside, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a classic film.
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