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Tag Archives: Drama

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

When watching movies with clowns, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that making people laugh is depressing business. While the world relies on the clowns for their relief from daily life, tragedy and even neuroses, who is the clown to rely on? This is Lon Chaney’s problem in Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Chaney plays Tito, a clown traveling through rural Italy, who stumbles upon an abandoned child. He keeps her, despite the protests of Simon (Bernard Siegel), his fellow clown, and names her Simonetta. He raises her and she becomes a tightrope walker, joining their act (played by 15-year-old Loretta Young).

Tito is devoted to her, but after an amorous run-in with the hedonistic Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), she returns to Tito with a new awareness that she is a young woman. Tito also has a new awareness of this, which horrifies him, especially when he realizes that he is in love with her. Definitely creepy, though he seems to be as much aware of this as the audience, with a remarkably complex bit of acting from Chaney in the scene where he makes his discovery. Alternately confused, admiring, a bit turned on, appalled, affectionate, frightened

Years pass and Ravelli comes back into their lives. He is seeking treatment from a prominent neurologist for his constant bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The neurologist says he has lived a self-serving lifestyle and prescribes falling in love with a good woman. Tito, on the other hand, is experiencing bouts of crying and sees the same neurologist, who diagnoses repressed feelings of love and prescribes winning the lady he loves or at the least going to see the new sensation in town, the clown Flik. But Tito feels he cannot win Simonetta and knows  Flik cannot make him laugh, because he is, in fact, Flik. But he and Ravelli are introduced and begin to think that maybe they can cure each other.

Lon Chaney and Loretta Young

Of course, the inevitable happens. They become genuine friends, Ravelli reforms and falls in love with Simonetta, who is concerned about leaving Tito alone, but is unaware of Tito’s real feelings for her. In Lon Chaney’s films, he often played unrequited love, always on the outside, often not even understood to be in love by others. But in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, it becomes all too plain to nearly everyone, even Simonetta in the end.

Simonetta is constantly concerned for Tito, concerned even about leaving him to marry Ravelli. He is the only family she has even known and clearly feels him to be a part of herself. Spoilers: When she realizes that Tito loves her romantically, and not just as a father-figure, she tells him that she never realized how he felt and that it is truly him that she loves. She even swears before a figure of a Madonna that she loves Tito and not Ravelli. But Tito does not believe her. He feels that she is sorry for him and really loves Luigi Ravelli.

Setting aside the question of whether Simonetta was lying or not, it’s hard not to wonder if the real reason Tito does not believe her is because in his heart of hearts, he does not believe it to be right that she should love him. When he and Luigi discuss how they both love her, he insists that Luigi propose first, so that she need never learn of his love if she prefers Luigi. In essence, he has a breakdown at the end, play-acting a happy scene from an early time with Simonetta or even dressing up in costume for a mere rehearsal and imagining there is an audience and orchestra out front, doing a dangerous stunt that leads to his death. Even if there had been no Luigi, I doubt he would have believed that she loved him. End Spoilers 

One of the lovely things about silent movies is that it allows one to easily show the incongruity of the exterior and interior of feelings. After Tito has learned that Luigi and Simonetta are engaged, he must go back on stage to thunderous applause. We see the crowd cheering and clapping and shouting, we can see the orchestra playing, and finally we see Tito run on stage in his clown costume, laughing and bowing, but we hear none of these things. All we hear is the heartbreaking score that contrasts so effectively with what we are seeing. Highly emotive, as is Chaney, who shows us the heartbreak beneath the smile.

Simon and Tito

Lon Chaney is a remarkably physical actor. Not just in stunts, but in how he conveys feeling. His entire body seems to reflect emotions, not just his face. At first, it struck me as a trifle melodramatic, but then I concluded that it is also very powerful. It’s hard not to be drawn into his story. He is probably the saddest clown I’ve ever seen, and there are some pretty sad clowns out there.

What makes it all the more sad is that audiences today generally agree that it is rather creepy that he should fall in love with Simonetta or even the idea that she would marry him. He has stood too much as a father figure and she owes him too much gratitude for it to be a healthy relationship, but it really does seem like Tito knows this, at least as Chaney plays it. There is never a chance for him. It’s a familiar story, but given unique angles by Chaney. In other hands, there is the danger that we would have been too disgusted with Tito, but it does still feel like a a personal tragedy.

This has been my contribution to “The Lon Chaney Blogathon,” hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Silver Screenings. For more articles about Lon Chaney, check out the wrap-up of articles from Days 1 and 2.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2018 in Movies

 

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Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979)

I’ve seen a vast number of Bette Davis films during the studio era, during the height of her stardom, from the early 1930s to the 1950s, but I haven’t seen many of her later films, though she worked her whole life. However, after reading about a TV movie called Strangers: A Story of a Mother and Daughter, in which she co-stars with Gena Rowlands, I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for stories about mothers and daughters anyway, but the cast made it irresistible.

The film was made for TV in 1979 and proved to be everything I was expecting. It’s the story of Abigail Mason (Gena Rowlands), who returns from Boston to live with her mother, Lucy (Davis), in a small New England fishing town. Abigail hasn’t seen her mother in over twenty years and is at first not even sure her mother will let her in the door. Lucy doesn’t say a word, only glares at her and continues doing her puzzle, while Abigail talks nervously. One can feel the tension in the room.

The story follows the two of them as they argue, accuse, talk, unbend, do puzzles, plant tomatoes and come to understand each other for the first time in their whole lives. Lucy, in particular, works on her puzzle a lot, though she isn’t very good at it. Her daughter, however, has a knack for doing puzzles. She has a knack for life, or perhaps a determination to persevere in life in general and gets her mother to do all sorts of things she hadn’t done in a long time: go out among her neighbors, eat out in a restaurant, buy a new dress. She even gets her mother to help her repair the toilet and fix a lamp.

Abigail brings a can-do attitude into Lucy’s life and even opens the blinds, exposes the dust, and then dusts. Ultimately, watching the two of them accomplish ordinary things together and grow closer and open up in the process is lovely. It’s not a film about dramatic events – the dramatic events were mostly in the past. As Lucy says, she thought she was destined to live and die alone, until her daughter came home to keep her company. Except there is something that Abigail has not told her mother.

Both performances are lovely as they play off each other. Bette Davis is her usual fierce self, but you can see the vulnerability beneath, the disappointments of her life, and her proud refusal to express her feelings. She’s a recluse at the beginning of the film, chasing away the neighborhood kids who like to ring her doorbell, when her daughter arrives and Gena Rowlands is equally excellent, fully up to starring opposite Bette Davis. Vulnerable in her own way, it manifests itself in frustration with her mother, eagerness to help, even a determination to help and not be bothered by anything her mother says or does, and a propensity to talk so that there won’t be too much awkward silence.

It’s really a bittersweet movie, as they discuss Lucy’s husband, Abigail’s father, and their conflict and misunderstandings. Bette Davis’ character literally unbuttons in the film. When we first meet her, she buttons every button on her shirt. By the middle of the film, the top button is undone, making even her casual appearance look less severe and, well….less buttoned-up.

(Spoilers) It turns out that the reason Abigail has returned home to live with her mother is because she is dying of cancer and wants to be with her mother, the only one she has left in her life, but she doesn’t tell her mother right away. Lucy has already nursed her husband during his illness and death, and she is angry and shocked when she learns that Abigail is dying, too, at first accusing Abigail of using her again, saying “How dare you come back and make me care.” Bette Davis makes her anger scalding, but also manages to convey that her anger is because of how much she does care.

“I am not going to go through that again,” Lucy tells a doctor, when he tells her that she is going to have to bring a hospital bed into the house and prepare. It reminded me of when I lost a family member to cancer, having had a hospital bed in the house and spent time nursing that family member; it seemed all the more poignant. The first time you nurse someone, you don’t really know what’s in store. How much worse when you know what is going to happen? When it is your own daughter, your last relative, who you’ve just found again?

The film doesn’t show Abigail’s death, but leaves the viewer with the renewed relationship between mother and daughter and how Abigail has found peace, but also brought her mother back to life again, so to speak. Very bittersweet, but with an emphasis on relationship rather than loss or death.

The film can be found on youtube, but the quality is admittedly poor. However, I have not found another place to view the film. It is worth viewing, however, for the excellent performances of Bette Davis and Gena Rowland.

This post was written as part of “The Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I made a mistake, however, and mistook the day the blogathon ended, so I am regrettably getting my post out a day late, but thanks so much to Crystal for her acceptance! Visit Crystal’s site for more posts celebrating Bette Davis and her films.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

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The Temptress (1926) – The Greta Garbo Blogathon

Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.

I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.

The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.

No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.

Opening scene

But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.

The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.

Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.

The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.

Dangerous woman

Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.

Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.

It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.

This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.

The opening sequence of The Temptress.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Movies

 

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