What better way to end our Octoberflix series than with a film starring an actor who also starred in one of the very greatest horror films (& for my money, one of the great films) ever made: Lon Chaney, Sr., whose role as the Phantom in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera would by itself have been enough to assure his lasting fame. However, Chaney made many films, & a number of them are certifiable masterpieces. According to IMDB, Chaney may have acted in 161 films, possibly beginning as early as 1912, but certainly by 1913, when he was credited for appearing in The Ways of Fate (this seems like a particularly Chaneyesque title). His career ended in 1930 with a “talkie” re-make of 1925’s film The Unholy Three—sadly, he died at age 47 from bronchial lung cancer that had developed following a 1929 bout with pneumonia. In that almost 20 year career, however, Chaney created some of the most memorable film characters ever, & one of his best is Tito Beppi, in the 1928 Laugh, Clown, Laugh.
The film’s narrative has the feel of a fairy tale or Ur-story—a story that is altogether familiar even if we’ve never encountered it in a specific manifestation. Chaney, playing the traveling clown Tito Beppi, one day discovers a very young girl who has been abandoned by her parents. Tito immediately decides that he & his partner, Simon (played by Bernard Siegel) should raise the girl, arguing with Simon (who opposes the idea) that her parents left the child “for the saints,” & “what the saints offer, sinners can’t refuse.” It’s also clear in their first scene together that Tito is completely enchanted with the girl, & when he decides to name the girl Simonetta, Simon relents.
The story then cuts ahead to Simonetta’s adolescent years, & she—played by a 15-year-old Loretta Young, in her first major film role—has grown into a young beauty. Tito recognizes Simonetta’s transition toward womanhood, but he is profoundly perplexed by it, & by the feelings this stirs in him. The remainder of the film explores how Tito struggles with those feelings, & his ongoing anguish of love for a much younger woman who he raised as a daughter. As such, the narrative is disturbing—of course, many of Chaney’s best roles involved anguished & disturbing characters, many of which were physically deformed in some way—most famously in Quasimodo of the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame—but in this case the deformity Tito suffers is emotional. While Chaney’s brilliant portrayal renders Tito’s torment in an almost visceral, but ultimately compassionate, manner, he also makes it clear in subtle ways that this torment springs from his inability to form a relationship with Simonetta as an adult. In the film’s penultimate scene, we see Tito—now with gray hair—looking over his mementos of Simonetta, & all of these are tokens of her girlhood: a doll, a toy chicken, a ballet shoe she wore when younger (Simonetta had joined with Tito & Simon as a tightrope walker).
The trope of the clown who can make everyone laugh but cannot laugh himself is an old one—Chaney had done it very successfully in another of his great films, He Who Gets Slapped from 1924—but thru the power of Chaney’s portrayal, & the power of the film overall, this subject doesn’t seem in the least trite, but rather extraordinarily moving. At one point, Tito visits a neurologist because he is weeping compulsively. The neurologist (without any apparent insight from Tito) correctly diagnoses the problem as “hopelessness in love,” & advises Tito to win the girl “without delay.” Here Chaney reveals dramatically how Tito realizes there are legitimate & serious reasons why he shouldn’t pursue this passion: the great age discrepancy (& of course Simonetta will very shortly have a suitor her own age) & also because their relationship mirrors that of a father & daughter. The neurologist takes Chaney out to the balcony & they look across the street toward a poster advertising the act of a clown named Flik. The doctor says Chaney should see the clown perform, because Flik would make him laugh. Chaney answers, with the sort of anguished expression that few other actors could convey, that he could never laugh at that man’s act—& after a pause, the caption comes on screen: “Because I am Flik!”
Although this is Chaney’s film, the other performers all are first rate—Siegel as his clown partner, Simon; in fact Siegel & Chaney have an excellent onscreen rapport; Nils Asther as the young suitor whose transformation from rake to true lover we grudgingly accept; & Loretta Young as Simonetta. Tho only a teenager, Young brings a dimensionality to her characterization, & we can understand thru her Simonetta’s own torment at becoming an adult & dealing with the awakenings of sexual desire. One would also have to give credit to director Herbert Brenon, as the film’s pacing & staging are all superb. There is a famous story about the film involving Brenon, Young & Chaney. It seems that Brenon was a notorious taskmaster, & that he was quite cruel in the way he spoke to Young—but only when Chaney was not on the set. Chaney found out about this, & for the duration of the filming made a point of being on the set during all of Loretta Young’s scenes, whether he was involved in them or not.
What is Chaney’s greatness? It wasn’t simply his ability to transform himself into “monsters” by the use of make-up (tho Chaney himself participated a great deal in the make-up process & was very skilled in this area). His real greatness is the way he makes these “monsters” human—whether he’s playing the Phantom or Quasimodo or an aging, heartbroken clown, no actor seems so thoroughly human as Lon Chaney.
Unfortunately, this film appears hard to come by unless one shells out for the Warner Home Video Lon Chaney Collection, which also contains The Unknown & The Ace of Hearts). As a true believer, I say it’s worth it, but some would probably not agree. Shockingly, this film doesn’t seem to be a NetFlix selection—Netflix is weak when it comes to silent films—& while Turner Classic Movies has a good record of screening Chaney films, it’s not on the schedule the remainder of this year. Of course a video rental shop with a solid collection of silents really should have this. If & when you get a chance to see Laugh, Clown, Laugh, I give it the highest recommendation—Eberle does too!