My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.
Lon Chaney could play just about anything—hunchbacks, legless gangsters, and all manner of “freaks.” However, Laugh, Clown, Laugh offers perhaps his most moving performance because, for much of it, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching Lon Chaney… as Lon Chaney. In fact, Chaney would remember the sad funnyman Tito as his favorite role.
As a traveling commedia dell’arte clown torn apart by his love for the foundling girl he adopts, Chaney gets the rare opportunity to inhabit a character devoid of menace and to act wearing little makeup for most of the film.
Indeed, apart from a brief show scene towards the beginning, the grotesque clown makeup doesn’t factor in until rather far into the film. Already, we have a chameleonic performer playing a performer and this kind of double fiction ironically flakes away at the illusion of the film and gives us glimpses of the Chaney buried under all those ferocious facial expressions and disguises.
For me, the most powerful scene in the film, even more powerful than the emotional breakdown of the third act, takes place when Tito is visiting a psychoanalyst to discuss his depression—he is always prone to fits of weeping. While there, he meets a rich playboy struck with the opposite affliction: bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The doctor, unaware of Tito’s profession, takes him onto the balcony of his office and points to a poster of Tito as Flik the Clown that just happens to be plastered on a building below.
The doctor suggests that a funny show might do the melancholy man a world of good, but Tito reveals the flaw in this argument.
No sooner does the celebrated jester announce his identity than the doctor and Count Luigi pay their respects to the great comedian who wearily thanks them. I may be projecting this, but the gracious but tired expression that comes across Chaney’s face reminds me of what you might’ve seen if you’d asked him for an autograph. His Tito conveys such exhaustion—exhaustion from living a life in which he cannot reveal his true self to anyone, much less his “daughter” with whom he’s fallen in love and who loves another man.
Obviously the plot is something of a contrivance to wring tears out of us, but you get the feeling that the burnt-out sadness, the gloom which Tito lugs around with him, when not in make-up, derives not from Chaney’s craft as an actor, but rather from personal reserves of angst. He even supposedly said in real life, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” as if even all that pretending and creating of screen illusions had worn away his essence as a coherent individual.
Tito is expected to put on a show for everyone and has to lie about his feelings to Simonetta—and so he lives in a state of perpetual exile from himself.
Contributing to the poignant realness of the situation, the radiant adolescent Loretta Young plays a radiant adolescent ingénue, Simonetta. We seem to watch both Loretta and Simonetta come of age and blossom onscreen.
Apparently, during the making of the film, the nasty director, Herbert Brenon, liked to bully the 14-year-old Young, once even nastily telling her, in front of the crew, “I don’t know whatever gave you the idea you could be an actress.” As Young recalled, “[Brenon] would rip me up one side and down the other… but never when Lon Chaney was on the set.”
Well, Chaney caught wind of this and decided to protect the vulnerable girl by always being on-set—even when he wasn’t filming any scenes. Young gave him credit for coaching her sensitive performance: “He really directed me.” A lot of that genuine paternal warmth and mentorship comes across in their onscreen chemistry.
Tito’s fatherly love for Simonetta and her caring devotion to him light up the screen. Indeed, Young always remembered Chaney’s protectiveness and said years later, “I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die.”
I strongly recommend that you watch this movie for a master class in the glowy, gauzy textures of the silent era. I love how much un-stylized information seems to fit into each frame of silent films, as though the lack of sound facilitated a fuller picture of reality, one untrimmed of its fringes, wrinkles, and unvarnished natural details. The brilliant cinematography shows that, even relatively early in his career, James Wong Howe could coax the heartbreaking shades and nuances out of every petal on a flower, every ruffle on a costume, every plane of a character’s face.
Almost all the silent tropes are there: the nobleman and the common girl, unrequited love, and lots and lots of scenes of characters longingly watching other characters.
The contrast between the buoyant, lily-like grace of an angelic Loretta Young and the pathetic, knockabout ugliness of Flik make this film remarkably striking.
The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesqueness produces enough visual tension to sustain a story that really doesn’t have much to it in terms of intrigue. The difference between Chaney’s facial expressions and the constant painter smile of the clown makeup also interjects a creepiness into the scenes where he becomes enraged or breaks down into tears.
And then there’s the brilliantly expressionistic final sequence. Don’t read on if you don’t want major spoilers.
Realizing that he could never make Simonetta happy, even though she agrees to marry him out of gratitude, Tito goes to the theater gets into costume and psyches himself up into a frenzy in front of a mirror—if he can’t be himself and be happy, he’ll at least die in the role that everyone expects him to play.
The visuals in this scene turn incredibly flamboyant and disorienting, providing a glimpse into his unhinged mind.
As he stands on the stage, the yawning theater dwarfs him.
Flik hallucinates an audience and we see a superimposed kaleidoscopic ring of spectators hovering around him
Finally as he ascends his signature head-stand “death-defying slide” he looks down on his partner from an angle so high and canted that it borders on total abstraction.
Then he lets himself go into the slide—and slides right into the camera, as though crashing into the audience! Then he tumbles off the wire.
Simon and the stage manager pick up the mortally wounded clown and, as they do, his big floppy fake feet swing towards the camera making him bitterly ludicrous even in his dying moments.
As Simon cradles Tito in his arms, Tito turns to the camera, touches his nose as though taking us in his confidence, and breathes his last words—still in character.
This announcement not only breaks down the forth wall, it widens the context of the movie’s theme of the actor as a kind of sacrifice, an object of consumption for an audience who fails to understand the pain behind the mask. By declaring that the comedy is over just as the film itself is coming to a close, Lon Chaney as Tito invites us to think of the story as a parable for the travail of anyone who hides his identity behind an act put forward for our amusement.
As much as “the tears of a clown” are kind of a cliché, I can’t help but watch this without thinking of all the silent stars who succumbed to their own press mythology and died early deaths. I particularly think of my favorite silent clown, Max Linder, who slit his wrists (and those of his wife) just a few years before this movie was made.
I imagine that’s one hell of a burden when thousands of people applaud you, but have no clue about the person you really are. In fact, when a person attains that kind of celebrity, and Chaney conveys this beautifully, I suspect that the performer begins not to know who he is himself! The essence of a person breaks down into frayed personae that will not be reconciled. An actor is something like a philosopher in the sense that he is always both himself and looking in at himself. This schism can be funny. But really it’s quite, quite sad.
And, on that happy note, la commedia è finita.
Oh, and I took all these screenshots of the glory that is Nils Asther. I’m certainly not letting them go to waste. You’re welcome.