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Not only is this the greatest performance I've seen by Chaney, it is
one of the great films.
In this, Chaney definitively proves he is one of the greatest actors, perhaps the greatest, in all of film. Although he appears in different make-ups in almost every scene, the make-up is to portray himself as a younger man who slowly grows older as the 25-year span of the film tells the well-known tragic love story more familiarly known as "Pagliacci," the clown who could not laugh.
The film co-stars a radiant 14-year-old Loretta Young, who Chaney supposedly guided to another great performance. Without the director, who was unduly harsh on her, knowing it. When Chaney found out, he made sure he was always with Young whenever the director was. Young's mistreatment ended.
Several times I was near tears because Chaney's performance--watch his eyes, hands and demeanor--is so naturalistic, even though somewhat melodramatic, as all silent performances were.
Almost all of Chaney's films were about unrequieted love, but here he may have reached his apotheosis. I won't know until I see a few more of his non "horror" films, especially, "He Who Gets Slapped."
Don't let what I've said make you think this is some clunky "tear-jerker," It is filled with good laughs, drama, wonder and real pathos. Chaney's final scene is utterly tragic and beautiful.
Even non-Chaney fans will be awed by "Laugh, Clown, Laugh."
"Laugh, Clown, Laugh" is a very sad movie, much like "He Who Gets
Slapped", only much more heartrending. There is no horror, and the only
special makeup is clown makeup. Lon Chaney finds an abandoned toddler,
naming her Simonetta to appease his partner Simon. The movie wastes no
time into getting to the main plot, involving a teenaged Simonetta
(played by a 15-year old Loretta Young), who the circus coordinator
says should look like a woman in order to join Tito's and Simon's act.
Tito (Chaney) has loved Simonetta from the time he finds her as a toddler. When he tells her she needs a rose in her hair, Simonetta goes to the gardens of Count Ravelli (Nils Asther), where they grow. She scrapes her legs over the barbed wire fence, and Count Ravelli sees her and takes her into his house to tend to her. He is a womanizer, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. He verbalizes his love, and says the prophetic "What an alluring woman you could be." Maybe it encourages her, even after she learns to her horror that he is a womanizer, because later that day, she is dressed like a woman and amazes Tito.
Both men are now passionately in love with her, and suffer uncontrollable emotions as a result (the Count's is laughter, and Tito's is crying). Three years later, the two men meet at a neurologist's and decide to cure each other, not yet knowing they are both in love with Simonetta.
After they recover, they learn. Count Ravelli gives Simonetta some pearls, which Loretta and Lon Chaney initially reject--until they read the accompanying note. Then, things get really complicated.
Each performance is excellent throughout. Chaney gives an excellent performance, though his quick transformation from a fatherly love to one that borders on incest. Tito is not the kind of man who is given to that kind of passion, and he doesn't like it, knowing it is wrong. Nils Asther is not dramatic or as convincing as Lon Chaney, but then, who can outshine Chaney? No one. Count Ravelli's transformation is more plausible because Loretta Young makes Simonetta innocent and pure, who by her virtues slowly changes him from a reckless womanizer to a devoted lover. All three deserve praise, and don't be surprised if you want to watch it more than once. It may be sad, but it is also sweet.
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.
I recently viewed this film on TCM for the second time, and I enjoyed it even more. True, the fact that Chaney is in love with a teenager which he raised from a child is somewhat disturbing, but I think Chaney's portrayal in the film shows that he is aware of the inappropriateness of his love, however, he is unable to stop it. I particularly enjoyed the conflict Chaney experiences between his role as a performer and his needs as a human being. He displays a touching sense of obligation, stoicism, and vulnerability that only a master actor such as himself could manage. The final scene where he has fallen is absolutely heart wrenching, especially when he says, "I am an old man" as if he only realizes it for the first time. Complete with a wonderful new score, I would recommend this film for any fan of silent films, or just great acting in general. Long live Chaney!
...the Pagliacci story has become a keystone of American popular culture, all the way from Enrico Caruso's Metropolitan Opera performances in the Leoncavallo classic (his various recordings of "Vesti la Giubba" combined to sell over a million copies according to the Guinness Book of World Records) through to the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles hit record "Tears of a Clown." This Lon Chaney movie was once a primary link in that chain, but because it was considered "lost" for many years (before a British release print with two reels missing was found towards the end of the century) it was forgotten. Now that it's available on DVD with a beautiful H. Scott Salinas musical score worthy of Morricone, as well as a scholarly audio commentary by Michael F. Blake, it deserves to be restored to its former status as one of the greatest American films of the silent era...
A clown afflicted with terrible melancholy and an Italian Count plagued
by uncontrollable laughter seek solace with the girl they both love.
LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is a silent showcase for the dramatic skills of Lon Chaney. No phantoms or monsters here; no belfries, dungeons or secret laboratories. What you do have is a rather simple story set against a circus backdrop, the milieu which was so dear to Chaney's heart. Here is a clown tormented; even though consumed with love for his young protégée, he cannot put his feelings into words. No need--his marvelously expressive face, even when hidden by greasepaint, poignantly portrays every emotion. Chaney once again displays his talent as one of the supreme actors of the American Silent Film.
Nils Asther enters the movie playing a rich cad, but his character is allowed to grow into rather more than that. Deftly underplaying his role he provides a nice counterpart to Chaney. Beautiful Loretta Young has little to do except look lovely and that is enough.
MGM has given the film superior production values, which was the fitting respect shown for one of their most important stars.
H. Scott Salinas has composed an excellent film score which perfectly complements the action on the screen.
"Laugh, Clown Laugh" is another masterpiece from Lon Chaney. Although I
didn't like it as much as some of his other work, it is nevertheless
considered as one of his best films.
Tito (Chaney) and Simon (Bernard Siegel) are traveling clowns moving from town to town in Italy. One day Tito stumbles upon an abandoned little girl and rescues her. Despite protests from his partner, he names her Simonetta (to appease Simon) and raises her as his own. The grown up Simonetta (Loretta Young) blossoms into a beautiful young lady. Tito and Simon meanwhile, have become successful and now headline the grandest theaters in the land.
One day Simonetta, while out for a walk becomes entangled in a barb wire fence. She is rescued by Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Aster) and taken to his home. There she learns that he is a womanizer and escapes. Tito suddenly discovers that he is in love with Simonetta when she appears before him in a stylish new dress.
Three Years later, Tito and Luigi meet while being treated by a doctor (Emmett King) for emotional problems. While in the office, Simonetta meets up again with Luigi and after some reservations begin to see each other ultimately becoming engaged. Tito is devastated and becomes distraught. In his sorrow he must continue to make people laugh as the show must go on even though he is being torn apart inside. Finally Simonetta discovers that Tito is also in love with her. Now she must choose.
Chaney returned to the eternal triangle theme time and time again in his films. He usually played the rejected lover and expressed such pathos that one could hardly help but feel pity for him. This film is no exception. The scenes where he must mask his sorrow and continue to play the clown, are classic Chaney.
Loretta Young, who would go on to a successful career spanning many decades was but a sweet sixteen when this film was made. The vast difference between her age and Chaney's made Chaney's character all the more pitiful.
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
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.
This is such a sad movie; after watching the great "Phantom of the Opera" I
became more open to Chaney's movie. This is such a sad heart-wrenching film.
Chaney is at his best in this film giving a bittersweet performance becoming
both entertaining and tragic. These are characters we can care about and
that's what made this movie effective. The fact that Chaney is in love with
a younger woman and knows he can never have her is possibly the biggest
aspect that tugs on your heart as you watch. The ending is possibly the most
heartwrenching. I won't give it away, though. You have to see it for
*** and a half (out of 4 stars)
I've been a die-hard Lonaholic since the early 70's, but only managed
to see this in a terrible 16MM bootleg print over 30 years ago, and
then a fragmentary view when it was shown on TCM. Watching this DVD now
has given me a whole new perspective on how great a silent picture can
be, and on why I fell for Chaney as well.
The story, while it apparently bears the stamp post-Victorian melodrama, is also very complex and has sexual undercurrents that are surprisingly modern. It portrays emotions that are so primal, and portrays them so well, that its dated elements don't prevent it from feeling current and emotionally valid.
The acting is top notch. The deep and conflicting feelings that are a component of any of the three sides of a love triangle are brilliantly, subtly portrayed by all the principals. Fourteen year-old Loretta Young is perfectly cast as the girl who is becoming a woman, with her experiences always ahead of her understanding.
You can really see in LCL why Lon Chaney was considered the actor's actor of his day. He's superb; his Tito Beppi is an irresistible combination of simplicity and depth. At first I thought Chaney was hamming a bit, but ultimately it contributes to the impact of his portrayal of Tito's honest and profoundly compassionate character. The few seconds when Beppi realizes that his fatherly love for Simonetta--whom he has raised since she was a child--has suddenly veered into desire, ought to be taught in acting classes. That Chaney was capable of portraying so many strong, and subtle, deeply personal emotions, without a single word, goes a long way towards explaining the powerful grip his on screen charisma had on audiences of the Twenties.
James Wong Howe's photography is stunning. He was famous for having been able to get Mary Miles Minter's pale blue eyes to register on orthochromatic film; LCL shows how he brought that same testimonial to the richness of black and white to the more realistic palette of panchromatic stock.
The DVD's presentation is excellent. The new musical score really enhances the film without calling attention to itself. Its quiet urgency contributes to the sense of inevitable tragedy without ever veering into clichéd dramatics. I think this print of Laugh Clown Laugh is the only one surviving; there are some small continuity hiccups from lost footage but it doesn't detract.
Anyone who is or has been in love should see this film; it's hard not to identify with elements of the plights of all three protagonists. Put this on a double bill with City Lights and it's liable to kill you.
Regards, Richard Day Gore
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