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.
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.
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.