There’s a shocking moment in this film when Lon Chaney’s character is tenderly holding his adopted daughter, played by Loretta Young, and kissing her on the shoulder in the way that dads do. Suddenly he realises that this is no longer a child and, in an instant his eyes widen in horror as he realises that his feelings have shifted in an altogether less paternal direction. You only see Chaney’s eyes and that’s all you need for one of the most controlled and expressive actors of the age.
The unease he feels is shared by the viewer though as you realise that Young was only fourteen at the time of filming: Pickford in reverse in the most shocking context. By all accounts the 45-year old Chaney looked after Young protecting her from the bullying of director Herbert Brenon but this is surely amongst the worst casting decisions ever made. Young does well and times were different: this was only play-acting but… really?
Chaney, needless to say, gives a typically committed performance and surely not even Emile Jannings could convey the level of sincerity required to play such a sad clown. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition and you have to really be broken hearted to carry this off – otherwise you’re just another hollow Grimaldi.
The plot owes something to La Roue (no doubt others) and was based on the successful play that had wowed Broadway in 1924 with Lionel Barrymore who may or may not have been lined up to reprise his role on screen. Chaney plays Tito alias Flik one half of a travelling duo of clowns with partner, you guessed it, Flak (Bernard Siegel) also known as Simon.
Tito finds an abandoned child, an unwanted girl tied to a tree near a river. Heart-rendered he resolves to keep her much to his co-clown’d chagrin even after naming the child Simonetta in his honour. As you can imagine there’s pathos a plenty but there’s something real about these jesters with Chaney and Siegel’s attention to detail winning you over.
Chaney had already played a clown in Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and required little prompting to immerse himself in the study of the ephemera, discipline and make-up of the profession.
The film fast-forwards a dozen years and we see Tito’s glowing pride as Simonetta learns how to walk the wire. She has grown up into young Loretta Young and she is exceptionally pretty (fast-talking pre-code success was mere years away).
Simonetta becomes part of the act and helps the boys to greater success. She is also spotted by Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther) who is immediately captivated and rushes her and her injured foot to his bedroom… The young girl is shooed off by the Count’s mother (Cissy Fitzgerald) who – perhaps – senses that she’s a little young for him.
Then the moment happens when Tito feels that inappropriate affection and is driven into a deep well of conflicted emotions. A psychiatrist suggests that what he needs is to go and see the funniest clown in Italy, but Tito can’t: he is that clown.
|The Count spots Simonetta caught in his fence: metaphor intentional...|
At the same therapist we find the Count who as a result of a surfeit of bohemian excess is given to bouts of hysterics – he can’t stop laughing. Count meets Clown and they both decide they’ll be good for one another – perhaps their humours will meet in the middle.
Their friendship grows and gradually equilibrium is established for the odd couple but it’s a fragile triangle as the Count is increasingly in love with Simonetta and her besotted step-father knows it.
The Flik, Flak and Simonetta act has grown so successful that they now have theatre residence in Rome and they play to packed houses, as her grace allows the clowns to act the fools in love – of course all clowns are romantic failures, what else makes them so sad?
But there’s also daring do as Flick flies down from on high with just his head balanced on a wire attached up near the gods… Clowns live dangerously.
No spoilers… The Count proposes to Simonetta and relations are stretched to the limit as the plot delivers twists and tumbles you’d expect from Flik.
Young acts well beyond her years which seemed to be her speciality – she married Grant Withers aged 17 in 1930 and was a teen star of pre-code films such as Show Girl in Hollywood and The Truth About Youth. She was only 20 making Born to be Bad and showing up a rather wooden Cary Grant with her ferocious performance as the mother who refuses to let her seven-year old son go into his care.
Nils Asther has extraordinary screen presence as well: a believably vulnerable romantic lead who is also rather unsettling as the man who can’t stop laughing.
But it’s Chaney’s show and you can only marvel at the controlled expression: a face that can make you smile one second and uncomfortable the next. When the breaks come off and Flik takes his misery onto the stage it’s a special effect all on its own.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh is on the TCM Archives - The Lon Chaney Collection which is available from Amazon and other good online retailers.