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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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Cafe Metropole (1937) – Tyrone Power and Loretta Young

download (2)1930s Hollywood had a thing for impoverished royal Russians in exile who were obliged to take menial jobs to earn their living, like being a waiter, a taxi driver, elevator operator or dressmaker. Irene Dunne was the dressmaker in the 1935 musical Roberta and Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer go into service in the 1937 Tovarich. In Cafe Metropole, a charming and somewhat obscure screwball comedy, the exiled Russian is a waiter.

Set in Paris, a young American named Alexander Brown (Tyrone Power) loses a bet to Monsieur Victor (Adolphe Menjou), the manager of Cafe Metropole. But Victor offers to waive the debt if Alexander will pretend to be a wealthy Russian prince named Alexis. Victor is quite sure the real prince is dead. Alexander is then supposed to woo heiress Laura Ridgeway (Loretta Young), daughter of self-made businessman Joseph Ridgeway (Charles Winninger). The idea, never exactly stated, is to either get money from her father or to marry her without her realizing that he’s not a real prince. Alexander, however, falls in love with Laura for real (something of an occupational hazard in the movies).

What is funny is that the movie doesn’t pretend that Alex’s  Russian accent is anything but atrocious and Victor comments that he hopes Alexander will not meet any Russians. As Alexander explains to Laura, his accent, “it comes and it goes, comes and goes…” She doesn’t seem to mind, however, because he is handsome and rather sweet.

Though, of course, the real prince (played with elan by Gregory Ratoff) is not dead after all. He is a waiter at Cafe Metropole and when he realizes that he is being impersonated he is indignant and storms into Victor’s office. It turns out that Victor used to work for the prince, back in the days of Imperial Russia, but he had not recognized the prince working in his own cafe. Through some rather skillfully ingratiating flattery and obeisance, along with a hefty bribe, Victor manages to pay the prince off (so he can return to the dissipated lifestyle that the prince’s family was noted for).

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Loretta Young and Tyrone Power

Meanwhile, Laura has determined that she wants to marry Alexander and even proposes to him, though her father is uneasy about the whole thing. Alexander is too nice. All the nice men with titles that he’s previously met turned out to be frauds. The only man who truly had a title was rude. Besides, it seems odd that there should be a Russian prince who actually has money. But Laura doesn’t care if he’s a prince or not. She’s made up her mind to have him and she intends to have him no matter how much Alexander demurs (owing to his guilty conscience).

Cafe Metropole is a somewhat understated screwball comedy. There are no pratfalls, manic action (except a bit at the end with Young) or manic dialogue and the problems people must overcome are not serious. Humor is found in the situations and the tone of the film, the charming way that everyone deports themselves. For example, Alexander and Laura are having a serious conversation while Alexander is buying a hat and they are so absorbed by their conversation and too sophisticated, anyway, to pay attention to the whole serious of ridiculous hats that the clerk tries on Alexander’s head. And Victor is constantly getting himself into trouble, usually financial, and manages to extricate himself always with grace and charm, without ever breaking or sweat or registering rancor.

This was the third movie that Tyrone Power and Loretta Young made together (though the first movie, Ladies in Love, barely counts since he was a side-character, but audiences liked their chemistry, so they made four more movies together). They are one of the most glamorous Hollywood couples you will ever see, beautifully attired (Loretta Young appears in a whole serious of gorgeous, though improbable, dresses by Royer that no woman would wear except in a movie) and have good chemistry together. Tyrone Power only made his film debut the year before and looks extremely young (he was twenty-three) and he doesn’t have much to do, though he does it gracefully. Loretta Young, on the other hand, was twenty-four, but had been making movies since she was around fifteen and had over fifties movies to her credit already. It’s more her film than his. She is the one scheming (she schemes practically as much as con artist Victor) and although Alexander is supposed to be wooing her, it doesn’t take long for it to really be her who is doing the wooing.

Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Adolphe Menjou

Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Adolphe Menjou

Adolphe Menjou is extremely good as the dapper, though slippery, manager who never lets his troubles dampen his suavity. He is even too dapper to be  ungracious when Alexander fails him. Charles Winninger usually plays genial buffoons, but here he is a little more restrained as Laura’s highly skeptical father who doesn’t really trust foreigners. Helen Westley also has a fun role as Laura’s aunt, who has seen too many gangster films. Gregory Ratoff – who wrote the story, though not the screenplay – is hilarious as the hedonistic, down-on-his-luck prince who is insulted by the very thought of someone pretending to be him…who can’t even speak Russian, no less.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint specific moments of hilarity, the entire package is cute and worth seeing if you like screwball comedy or Tyrone Power and Loretta Young. The DVD is currently only available as part of the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection, which contains 10 of his less-known films.

 
 

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Along Came Jones: Gary Cooper Spoofs Westerns

thYCMIOKBHI have never liked Westerns – at least not the serious kind of Westerns – but I seem to have developed a taste for comedic Westerns. I enjoyed Destry Rides Again and last night I watched and laughed my way through Along Came Jones, which doesn’t take itself seriously for even a moment.

1945 – Starring Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, William Demarest  – Directed by Stuart Heisler 

I used to hear that women rarely get good roles in westerns, but the more I watch the more I find exceptions. Loretta Young’s Cherry is by far the most competent person in this film…and seems to be the best shot, too.

Gary Cooper is Melody Jones, an easygoing cowpoke who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn and seems to even have difficulty drawing his gun from his holster.

Jones rides into Payneville with his pal, George (Demarest). His monogram, MJ, is immediately taken to stand for Monte Jarrod, an outlaw who just robbed a stagecoach and stole $40,000. The wanted poster says he’s tall, skinny and rides with somebody named Uncle Roscoe. Jones is tall and skinny and nobody seems to know what Uncle Roscoe looks like, so he and George are met with unexpected fear and respect.

along-came-jones-1-1[1]Jones, at first, thinks it’s his demeanor, but figures it out when several people in the town try to ambush him and he is rescue by Cherry, who walks up and calls him Monte and takes him to her ranch, where she tells him he should probably leave town.

It turns out that Cherry is hiding Monte and wants Jones to lead the posses away. However, Jones has no intention of leaving. He likes Cherry and and he harbors (admittedly briefly) the idea of taking down Jarrod himself.

The story unfolds in hilarious fashion. George is cantankerous and absolutely disgusted with Meldoy, who continues to do everything that Cherry asks him to do and nearly gets himself killed several times and is constantly being hunted by various people and has to be rescued by Cherry. He says that the one thing he likes best is to be rescued from getting shot.

Meanwhile, the real Monte is running around, played by the wonderful and oft villainous Dan Duryea. Monte is growing concerned that Cherry is falling for Melody while Cherry is discovering that Monte isn’t the wild kid she knew as a child, but a rather mean, murderous crook.

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This is one of the few Gary Cooper films I’ve seen so far (I’ve only seen him in one western), but he plays such an appealing character. He may be fairly hapless, but he’s no coward and he’s not quite as dense as Cherry thinks he is. He’s game for most everything and definitely loyal.

Oddly enough, I had never seen Loretta Young in a movie until this year. I’d always heard that she was a devout Catholic and read complaints about how strait-laced she was in film, which affected the kinds of roles she would play. However, I have been hugely impressed with her and thoroughly enjoyed all her films. She may always be a lady (nothing cheap about her) and project grace, but she also always has a quiet, totally not in-your-face competency and good humor that is rare. Morality, in this case, does not equal prim, fainting female in distress.

Notes: Gary Cooper was making fun of his own image. He played his first cowboy in 1929, in The Virginian and would go on to win his second Oscar in High Noon (1952). Cecil B. DeMille did not appreciate the good humor with which Cooper made fun of his own image: silent, folksy, strong, competent, unpretentious. He thought it was a betrayal of Cooper’s image as a hero.

alongcamejones8[1]Cooper was also the producer of this film, which was the only time he ever produced a film. He didn’t like it at all and apparently was somewhat taken aback when told that Young’s costumes would cost $175 each, which he couldn’t understand because they were supposed to be simple clothes and he wanted to buy them for $7 at a store.

Along Came Jones can currently be found on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPBIFjXcI4U

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Comedy, Westerns

 

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