Laugh, Clown, Laugh
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Itinerant showmen, Tito (Lon Chaney) and Simon (Bernard Siegel) travel from town to town entertaining Italian peasants with their brilliant clowning. But that carefree existence is soon at an end when Tito rescues an abandoned child he finds by the riverside. He names her Simonetta (Loretta Young) and she grows into a young women as beautiful as she is sweet. But Tito finds that, as Simon predicted, women bring fresh complications to life. When Simonetta makes the acquaintance of a cocky young Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), aging circus clown Tito finds himself torn between his newly discovered romantic love for the girl he has raised as his own, and his desire for her happiness.
The bittersweet romantic triangle Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) was directed by notable silent film auteur Herbert Brenon (Ivanhoe, 1913, The Two Orphans, 1915), who was by all accounts, a despotic, often cruel director, especially when it came to berating Young. "He criticized me in front of everyone" Young remembered, "told me I was stupid and useless." Young recounted that a considerate Chaney, who was spared Brenon's assaults, intervened on her behalf. "I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die," Young later said.
Set against the showmanship of whimsical Italian circus life, Laugh, Clown, Laugh works principally from Chaney's moving performance and the captivating chemistry between the graceful, innocent Young and Chaney as a typically tragic, morally conflicted but essentially goodhearted clown.
Young was only 14 when she appeared in Laugh after a string of early film roles as a child extra since the age of 4. Chaney, however, was a 45-year-old veteran and the contrast in their ages makes the film an even more melancholy expression of impossible love as Simonetta's devoted child tries desperately to make her guardian Tito happy. Nearly as captivating was the believable love affair between Young and the handsome Asther, dubbed the "male Greta Garbo" for his Swedish origins and good looks. He later appeared with Garbo in The Single Standard (1929) and Wild Orchids (1929).
Like so many of Chaney's film roles, Flik the Clown in Laugh, Clown, Laugh was underlined with a sense of tragedy with origins in Chaney's own life. The child of deaf-mutes, Chaney developed his gift for pantomime early on in order to communicate with his parents. The actor, dubbed "The Man of a Thousand Faces" seemed attracted to playing the crippled, the criminal or the heartbroken in films like The Penalty (1920), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and a 10-picture string of atmospheric collaborations with sublime director Tod Browning like The Unknown (1927) and The Unholy Three (1925). As writer Joe Franklin has noted "Without benefit of the spoken word, he would create characters who repelled with physical ugliness, yet attracted by the suffering or humanity of their souls."
Though Chaney was initially fearful about what effect the coming of sound would have on his film career, his first talkie, a 1930 Jack Conway remake of Browning's The Unholy Three proved a confidence-boosting success. But as it so often did in his film plots, cruel fate soon intervened, and bronchial cancer would cut both Chaney's talkie career and his life short. As he did in the beginning of his life, Chaney in his final days was forced to return to sign language and pantomime to communicate.
As for Laugh, Clown, Laugh, the film was popular with audiences and even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Title Writing, the first and last year for that category. Portions of the film were shot on location in Elysian Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, and it was said that MGM shot an alternative, happy ending to Laugh, Clown, Laugh but it has yet to turn up in any surviving prints. TCM will be showing Laugh, Clown, Laugh with a new music score composed by H. Scott Salinas, winner of the 2002 Young Film Composers Competition.
Director: Herbert Brenon
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Screenplay: Elizabeth Meehan from a play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing based on the Italian play Ridi Pagliacci by Gausto Martino.
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: H. Scott Salinas
Cast: Lon Chaney (Tito Beppi), Bernard Siegel (Simon), Loretta Young (Simonetta), Cissy Fitzgerald (Giancinta), Nils Asther (Count Luigi Ravelli), Gwen Lee (Lucretia).
by Felicia Feaster