Lon Chaney stars as Tito, a clown who finds an orphan girl and raises her as his daughter. He falls in love with her (ew!) but she falls for a debauched count, as one does. Everyone ends up in hysterics and it’s a race to see who can off themselves first. Not my favorite. Is it obvious?
Cry me a river
Lon Chaney was one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood by the late 1920s. His grim tales of murder, mayhem and unrequited love may seem at odds with the cheery flapper era but no one could argue with his popularity.
Of course, even the best stars have a turkey or two in their filmography.
On the surface, Laugh, Clown, Laugh seems to have all the trappings of a Chaney hit. He plays Tito, a clown who falls for his adopted daughter, Simonetta (Loretta Young). The girl is turning into a woman (Everyone seems astonished that this is happening. Clearly someone skipped biology 101.) and is starting to wear roses in her hair and everything.
Whilst seeking a rose, Simonetta enters the garden of Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther). He’s a sophisticated man of the world. We know because he has a monocle. If you’re like me and enjoy the Marx Brothers, you will likely be shouting “Oh, Mr. Ravioli!” at the screen. In any case, Ravelli falls for Simonetta, gropes her a little but then gets distracted by his fiancée, Lucretia (Gwen Lee). It seems that Lucretia objects to her fiancé bringing teenage girls to his bedroom and fondling their feet. Some women have no sense of humor. Simonetta slips away while the couple is arguing and Ravelli is bereft.
Tito is likewise smitten by Simonetta’s newfound womanliness but realizes that it is not proper, him being her father and all. (A real genius, this one.) And so a few more years pass and everyone goes quite nuts. Literally, that’s what they do.
As a result of Simonetta’s awesomeness and not-a-girl-not-yet-a-womanliness (commented on multiple times), Tito falls into sobbing depression while Ravelli begins to laugh uncontrollably. It’s supposed to be Simonetta’s fault that these men can’t take rejection? How fortunate that the internet was not yet a thing because they’d probably be joining online clubs and ranting about the evils of the fair sex. “But I was friend-zoned! Why won’t she date meeeeeee?” And women are the emotional ones?
Look, no matter what the gender of the protagonist, this type of story drives me bats. Yes, getting rejected is no fun at all but millions of people have survived it. It’s not that bad. I believe an examination of the underlying issues that lead to such extreme reactions is in order. Do we get one? No, of course not!
Both Ravelli and Tito end up going to the same doctor and he prescribes a woman for each of them. You read that right. He says that their conditions will clear when they get the woman they pine for. Who cares about what she wants, right? After all, unrequited love is just fatal and has never, ever happened to anyone before. It also never occurs to the doc that both men love the same woman.
Anyway, Ravelli and Tito meet, get along and decide to help one another on the road to recovery. This is actually an interesting development but it is cut off at the knees when Simonetta shows up and every member of the trio begins to display noble idiocy. It’s a race to see which of them can off themselves to make the other two happy. A suicide derby? For me? You shouldn’t have! No, seriously, you shouldn’t have.
The biggest flaw of this picture is that it expects us to take the emotional turmoil of Chaney and Asther seriously when it is impossible. Tito, you fell for your adopted daughter. Go chase yourself. Count Ravioli, er, Ravelli, you groped a teen and were shocked when your fiancée caught you and then the teen ran away. Would you mind crossing the road when the lights are against you?
Lon Chaney vehicles always promise a certain level of squickiness—it’s a feature, not a bug—however, this film takes the squick to an uncomfortable degree. A big part of the problem is that Loretta Young really was fifteen when the film was shot and she looks it. She has all the coltish awkwardness of a young lady barely out of her tweens. This makes her romance with Nils Asther (thirty-one) and the fixation displayed by Lon Chaney (forty-five) really, really uncomfortable. When Asther tries to stuff a rose down her top during their first meeting, I was tempted to call the police.
There were other youthful leading ladies and youthful characters in silent film but Young looks so, well, young that the film takes on a very unpleasant vibe. Other characters acknowledge this in-universe by remarking on her extreme youth and trying to dress her up to make a “woman” of her. Oh dear. (In contrast, Marjorie Daw and Bessie Love were both teens when they were cast as leading ladies opposite a thirty-something Douglas Fairbanks but their characters’ ages were left ambiguous and Doug did not attempt to put his hands in inappropriate places.)
And then we get the whole incest thing. Yeah… “He’s my father, he’s my boyfriend!” is not a title card I wish to see. Speaking of title cards, here are some of the most disturbing ones from the film:
Chaney’s films often followed a formula that involved him falling for a younger woman who viewed him as a father or friend. Chaney would steadily descend into a violent rage and end up lashing out either to protect the young woman or to attack her true love. Usually, though, his better side would overcome his fury and he would sacrifice himself for his lady love. So studio executives looked at the formula, saw it was successful and decided that the element everyone loved was… the “he’s her daddy” thing? Sigh. Let me spell it out: We’re here to see Chaney fly off the handle and become homicidal. The motivation is less important than the macabre finale. I don’t care if he’s angry about his pet chihuahua, I just want to see him attempt murder in some baroque manner.
MGM misses the point of Chaney so spectacularly that I am at a loss to understand how this film was made. “Let’s keep the falling for his daughter thing and NOT make him murderous! The tickets will sell like thermally enhanced baked goods!” It’s like a modern film executive seeing that Iron Man is popular and making a superhero movie about a charming arms merchant with no robotic suit and no action scenes.
Squick in a Lon Chaney film? Okay. Squick in a Lon Chaney film with no payoff? Nope, nope, nope.
Is Chaney himself good? At this point in his career, Chaney was batting a thousand even if the writing or direction was so-so and Laugh, Clown, Laugh is no exception. He overplays some scenes but this is the sort of role he could play in his sleep. Slightly unhinged heartbreak? The only unusual thing is the “slightly” part. Still, even Chaney cannot overcome the insultingly small stakes. (And French fried potatoes? Sorry, couldn’t resist another Marx Brothers quote.)
Nils Asther, on the other hand… Um, yeah, not someone I would want hanging around a fifteen-year-old or any other minor. He wouldn’t be out of place driving slowly through the neighborhood in a windowless van. Between his oily mannerisms and the fact that he applied his makeup with a trowel, I’m not sure where anyone had the idea that he would be a sympathetic romantic lead.
Loretta Young is lovely and sweet but raw. It’s not that there are major flaws in her performance or embarrassing moments. It’s just that little spark that marks a performer for stardom is not there yet. 1928 was a big year for Young and started her on her way to success but it should definitely be viewed as just that: a start.
I don’t normally like to delve into the personal lives of film stars but I think this particular topic is worth mentioning because it has caused enormous damage to a talented actress’s legacy. For years, Young was treated as a punchline, a hypocritical religious zealot who hid a pregnancy by co-star Clark Gable. She was slut-shamed at every opportunity, people snickered at the resulting child’s prominent ears and shady adoption. Did Young really think she could get away with it? Who did she think she was? (Naturally, these jokes target Young and not Gable. I think some people are confused as to how human babies are made. Loretta Young was not, in fact, a Komodo dragon or a whiptail lizard and was thus incapable of parthenogenesis. Sorry to interrupt everyone’s bullying but Gable did provide half of the genetic material.)
Last year, everything changed. In an epic article published by Buzzfeed (I know, right?) Anne Helen Peterson wrote that Loretta Young described her physical relationship with Clark Gable as date rape. Young claimed that the one and only time they were intimate occurred when Gable entered her train compartment uninvited and forced himself on her.
All the main players in the tale are dead, of course, and we will never know definitively what happened between Gable and Young on that train ride but this revelation that there was even a possibility of rape should be enough to silence the prurient jokes at Young’s expense. They’re just not funny. They never were.
In the end, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a disappointment. Chaney acts his heart out, as usual, and Loretta Young is as cute as a bug but the story lets them down. If it had dropped Chaney’s romantic obsession with his adopted daughter and thrown in a few murders (starting with Nils Asther’s character), it could have been a great film. As it is, it’s an odd addition to an odd career but it’s not the right kind of odd. I wouldn’t recommend it to Chaney newcomers.
Where can I see it?
Laugh, Clown, Laugh has been released on DVD by TCM with an absolutely stunning score by H. Scott Salinas. The beautiful music goes a long way toward preserving one’s sanity.