U.S. Marine Sergeant O'Hara has his hands full training raw recruits, one of whom, 'Skeets' Burns, is a particular thorn in his side. If Burns's lackadaisical approach to the military were ... See full summary »
George W. Hill
In this early collaboration with director Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks), Chaney delivers a dual performance of dramatic intensity, starring as Ah Wing, a kind-hearted student of Confucian ... See full summary »
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
Starring Lon Chaney as a less successful Woody Allen
Lon Chaney is Tito Beppi, an Italian clown better known to his audiences as "Flik", in this Herbert Brenon directed film. Tito and his partner, Simon (Bernard Siegel), or "Flok", have a traveling two-man circus act. Tito finds an apparently abandoned young girl near a river and decides to adopt her. Simon objects, but Tito butters him up slightly by announcing that he'll name her Simonetta.
We quickly move forward in time, and Simonetta is now a young woman, played by Loretta Young, who was only 14 at the time of shooting. She's now skilled at tightrope walking, so Tito wants to work her into the act. On their promoter's advice, they try to make Simonetta look womanlier. They fix her hair and she heads out to a well-known spot where roses grow to acquire one as a coiffure accoutrement. It happens to be on Count Luigi Ravelli's (Nils Asther) property. The Count sees her and immediately falls in love. Tito has come to realize that he's in love with Simonetta, too, and thus the film is about the dilemmas of a morally and socially complex love triangle.
Like many films from the earlier years of Hollywood, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is an instantiation of a story that had a circuitous route to the silver screen. The script, by Elizabeth Meehan, with titles by Joseph Farnham, was adapted from a 1923 play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, which was itself a version of an earlier (1919) Italian play--Ridi, Pagliacci--by Fausto Martini, which was very loosely based on Ruggiero Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci. Films such as this are handy to keep in mind, by the way, whenever you want to counter someone complaining that only newer films rely so heavily on adapting stories from other media. Not that there is anything wrong with this, despite some saying it shows a "lack of originality" or "paucity of ideas" (fueled by them believing it's a new phenomenon). Laugh, Clown, Laugh has a nicely focused, parable-like script that works well despite the fact that all we have available now is a version of the film with a section missing. In fact, it's so well constructed that I couldn't even detect the missing section--I wasn't aware of it until I listened to the DVD commentary by Lon Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake.
This is the second time Chaney played a clown, the first being He Who Gets Slapped (1924). We might have expected Chaney to tackle a clown even earlier in his career given his notoriety for transformative makeup designs. He does a fantastic job in the role, as we'd expect. It's especially amazing to watch his ability to turn on a dime as he adjusts his depressive backstage persona (especially in the later sections of the film) to the happy-go-lucky Flik for the benefit of the audience on the other side of the curtain.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh incorporates compelling and even controversial themes, subtexts and direct content. Two scenes are relatively racy for the late 1920s, including one that builds up to a bit of foot fetish material and another containing a kiss with incestual subtexts--it's important to remember that this was an era when some states would not even allow films that showed a woman's bare leg or shoulder. The ending is somewhat nihilistic and surprisingly tragic.
On one level, the film is largely about social and dramatic contrasts. Tito and Simon are successful and popular when they perform, but they are almost gypsy-like, spartan itinerants. Like many comedians, Tito's public persona is joyous and exuberant, but behind the scenes he's not quite so happy. The love triangle involves both a man who is incredibly wealthy and in the upper niches of society and a man who is well liked but not wealthy and who is considered on lower or outside social rungs. There is a fabulous scene where both men head to a "neurologist" (more a psychologist) because one is suffering from mania characterized by uncontrollable laughter and the other is suffering from depression characterized by outbursts of crying--it's a personification of the comedy/tragedy masks. And of course, the film itself appears to be a comedy for much of its length, but ends up as a tragedy.
At the same time, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a morality play. Tito ends up falling in love with his much younger, functionally adopted daughter. That's controversial material for the era--it's still controversial even now. Like many Chaney films, the climax hinges on the moral quandaries suggested by this love triangle and Chaney's difficult decisions.
While Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a quality film, it wasn't a complete artistic success in my view. I watched it on Turner Classic Movies' "Archives" Lon Chaney Collection disc, which also contains The Ace of Hearts (1921), which I just watched yesterday and preferred. The story here never quite captivated me in the way that Ace of Hearts did. The new score, by H. Scott Salinas, was also good (although maybe a bit too literal to the action at times for my tastes), but didn't match the sublime, sustained beauty of Vivek Maddala's Ace of Hearts score. Laugh, Clown, Laugh is well loved by many Chaney fans, though, and by some accounts, this was one of his favorite roles. Chaney's performance, at least, deserved a 10 even if the film overall wasn't up to the same degree of excellence.
15 of 20 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?