Released 4/14/28 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Director: Herbert Brenon; Screenplay: Elizabeth Meehan, from the play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, based on the Italian play Ridi, Pagliacci by Fausto Martino; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Film Editor: Marie Halvey; Settings: Cedric Gibbons; Wardrobe: Gilbert Clark; Titles: Joe Farnham; Assistant Director: Ray Lissner; 8 reels (7,045'); Print Source: George Eastman House, Warner Brothers Classics, National Film Archives (London; all prints are missing reel 4)
CAST: Lon Chaney (Tito Beppi), Loretta Young (Simonetta), Nils Asther (Count Luigi Ravelli), Bernard Siegel (Simon), Cissy Fitzgerald (Giacinta), Gwen Lee (Lucretia)
SYNOPSIS: Tito and Simon are a traveling acrobatic clown team in Italy. One day, Tito finds a small girl tied up and abandoned by the river, apparently left by poor parents who could not afford to keep her. Tito wishes to keep her, but Simon insists that "women bring bad luck." Tito flatters him by naming the girl Simonetta and he begrudgingly agrees to let her stay. Years later, Simonetta has become a beautiful young woman who is quickly mastering the tight-rope. Near the circus grounds, Simonetta is caught stealing a rose from the gardens of Count Luigi Ravelli. Luigi is charmed by the girl and brings her in to meet his guests. Tito tells Simon that he wants Simonetta to join the act, but Simon is furious and leaves the act. Three years have passed, and Tito is now a famous clown named Flik. In the office of a famous neurologist, Count Ravelli is being treated for uncontrollable fits of laughter, while Tito is being treated by the same doctor for severe depression, brought on by his unrequited love for Simonetta. Ravelli and Tito decide they might be good for one another, and become friends. Luigi is delighted to be reunited with Simonetta and the three go everywhere together.
One day, Tito sees the police arresting a beggar, and recognizes the man as Simon. The two are happily reunited and they form a new act called Flik and Flok. Luigi sends Simonetta a pearl necklace, and her maid encourages Simonetta to accept his advances, but the girl states that she could never leave Tito. Simon tries to convince Tito that Luigi is trying to bribe Simonetta for dishonorable purposes, and Tito becomes enraged. Tito tells Luigi to "fish in the gutter for harlots" with his pearls, but Luigi shows Tito the note that he sent with the pearls: "They were my mother's pearls--I want them to be my wife's." Tito asks Luigi's forgiveness, but confesses his love for Simonetta. He tells Luigi that if Simonetta accepts him, she will never learn of his love. Luigi's proposal is accepted, and Flik must go on with his act. Simon tells him, "Laugh, clown, laugh. Even though your heart is breaking!" Simonetta and Luigi are betrothed, but she soon returns to Tito and agrees to marry him. Tito is thrilled, but realizes that she is marrying him only for pity, not love. Simon has worked out a new act for Tito where he slides down to the stage on a high wire, sliding on his head with a helmet that fits in the wire. When Tito shows up for rehearsal, he is in full costume and acting obsessed. He climbs the ladder for his act and makes Simon announce him. Tito rolls down the rope, but half-way down he falls. Simon rushes to him, and Tito dies in his arms saying, "Tell Luigi...to be good...to her."
This is the best work of Lon Chaney since THE UNHOLY THREE, and it is a great relief to have him minus his usual sinister make-up. His characterization of Tito Flik is perfect." -- -Photoplay
Except for an expertly filmed closing sequence...Herbert Brenon's pictorial translation of LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH...is a somewhat dawdling and sparkless contribution. Even Lon Chaney's undoubtedly earnest interpretation...fails to arouse the necessary sympathy...Miss Young is attractive and dainty, but her talent as an actress is not called for to any great extent in this picture." ---The New York Times
"Chaney without his crutches, Chaney the middle-aged lover, Chaney the clown, Chaney the actor! These are good entertainers, particularly the latter, and LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH is good entertainment...I believe I'm giving the impression that I think Mr. Chaney is a whale of an actor. If I'm not, I'm sorry, for that--at least that--is what I think he is." --- Exhibitors Herald-World
NOTES: LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is certainly one of the loveliest of Chaney's films. The film was directed by Herbert Brenon, the autocratic but effective director of PETER PAN (1924), BEAU GESTE (1927), and A KISS FOR CINDERELLA (1925), and was stunningly photographed by James Wong Howe, probably the finest cinematographer to work on a Chaney picture. Combined with a radiant 14-year old Loretta Young, and a higher than average budget, the end result is a beautiful film that holds up wonderfully today. The film was shot in 36 days for $293,000, a relatively high budget for Chaney films of that year. It did solid business in both the U.S. and overseas markets and earned $450,000 in profits.
An alternate happy ending was shot in which Flik falls, but is not killed. He tells Simonetta and Luigi that the two of them should be happy together and the camera moves in to a closeup of Tito laughing. This ending does not exist, and all extant prints are missing reel 4.
Ted Fiorito wrote a popular title tune for the picture, with lyrics by Lewis and Young. The song, which became one of Chaney's personal favorites, was a big hit of 1928, and was recorded by many artists, with the rendition by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians being the most famous.
Loretta Young made her screen debut in 1916 at age 2 in SIRENS OF THE SEA. Already a seasoned actress at age 14, she was cast in LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH as the young waif Chaney adopts. Although billed as Loretta, she was still referred to on the set by her real name, Gretchen. In a 1985 interview with this author, she recalled working with Chaney on the film:
"Lon Chaney, I think, was one of the real geniuses in our business. There aren't too many of them, but I think surely he was one. The director (Herbert Brenon) kept telling me that I was so rotten and so awful. He was in a sanitarium...a nervous breakdown...between the time he made PETER PAN and when he made LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH. Anna Q. Nilson lived on the beach in Santa Monica a couple of doors down from Herbert Brenon when he was casting for LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH. We all made tests for it; I was under contract to First National studios, but I was sent over anyway, and out of 50 girls, she said he'd boiled it down to five. One Sunday night, he called all of his friends along the beach, there were 8 or 10 of them, and he said, 'Now we've got to pick a girl for this part. One out of these five. We'll just vote for them.' Anna said, 'I like that one, #2, Gretchen,' and he said, 'Oh no, she's got big eyes and buck teeth. She's got no legs,' which I didn't. I looked like a 9-year old boy, all flat-chested, everything wrong.
"Anyway, I got the job, and I really didn't want the job, because I didn't like him [Brenon]. He had said to me during the interview, 'Pull up your dress, I want to see your legs,' and that was the worst thing in the world about me besides my buck teeth, I thought. So I said, 'No, I'm very thin and my legs aren't pretty.' Lon Chaney was in there, and he said, 'I can fix that.' He could fix anything. He was such a marvelous make-up artist. He padded my legs, my front, my back. The first time, to experiment, he took me into the wardrobe and he asked for a union suit--long woolen underwear--and he would cut cotton out of a roll, and he'd kind of shape it, and put it there, or there, or wherever he wanted it. Even after they were all padded, they still looked like skinny things.
"One day on the set, I had been so brainwashed about not crying in front of Mr. Brenon--he didn't like cry-babies--and there came a scene in which he wanted me to cry, but he didn't say so. He just said, 'Now you come in here and you see this, and you feel so terrible about it, and then you express whatever emotion you like.' So I'd come in and he'd say, 'Cut! Terrible! Go out, try it again!' Well this went on and on. I was just building up, and of course I was getting stiffer than a board, and scared to death, and sicker to my stomach, and nothing was coming out except this terrible panic.
"Finally, Lon Chaney walked back on the set. Whenever Lon Chaney was on the set, Brenon behaved at least civilly toward me. The minute Lon Chaney would leave the set, he just turned into this awful, almost Jekyll and Hyde, character, and apparently Lon Chaney had seen the last take and said, 'Uh, Herb, let me talk to the girl.' So he came over and said, 'Gretchen, I think he wants you to cry in this scene,' and I burst out crying, and he said 'Roll 'em! Roll 'em!'
"I didn't know him at all personally, except how he treated me on the set. And that was in a very protective manner. I have always felt that there are stars, and then there are actors. The stars didn't necessarily have to be good actors---they were stars! And that's because their personality was so charismatic that you just couldn't stand it! Douglas Fairbanks I don't think was a great actor, but he was a great star. Chaney was an actor."
"I think Lon Chaney was able to separate his work from his life. When he was working, he actually was not in this world at all. He was just inside that character so if that character was up, he was up. If the character was down, he was down."
Also, check out this poster in my Poster Gallery and sheet music on my Memorabilia Page.
© 2000,2008 Jon C. Mirsalis
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