Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh
TCM viewing

Loretta Young was without question one of the all-time great beauties of the silver screen, in an industry not exactly lacking in great beauties. An Oscar winner for the film The Farmer's Daughter, she also had a long-running, multiple Emmy-winning television show that is still remembered fondly. Seeing her in the silent film Laugh, Clown, Laugh at the tender age of 14, I was mesmerized not only at her breathtaking looks, but at what was a remarkable and deeply sympathetic performance opposite Lon Chaney Sr., who must have been three times her age, at least! I was reminded of the first time I saw Natalie Portman, at about the same age, in Beautiful Girls. I was eager to learn more about Young after watching the movie, and boy, did I ever...

...though it wasn't exactly what I expected. I don't know how I missed this story from earlier this year, but according to her son, daughter-in-law and biographer, Young may have been raped by none other than Clark Gable and had a daughter by him. If you don't know about it, I urge you to check out the story at that link; it's long but well worth the read.

One obviously hopes, for Young's sake, this allegation isn't true - she, Gable, and her daughter are no longer around to confirm or deny it - but perhaps the saddest part is how Young was unable, like many women in similar positions over the years, to say anything. It's a familiar story, told again and again whenever there's a man in a position of power and privilege who feels entitled to take what he wants without fear of consequence. And that's all I got to say about that.

On the surface, Clown seems like a spiritual sequel, or at least a spin-off, to Chaney's other clown movie, He Who Gets Slapped, and while this also ends on a sad note, it's a little less dark. Chaney is a clown who performs with his partner throughout the towns and villages in Italy. One day he finds an abandoned child and adopts her. She grows up and becomes part of the act as a tightrope walker. Chaney finds himself attracted to her, but is way too embarrassed about it to say anything. The situation is exacerbated when he meets a count who also falls for his ward.

Chaney had some serious comedic chops. He puts on a slapstick clinic in which even Chaplin could've taken a lesson or two. One wonders if Chaney could've reinvented himself as a funnyman within the sound era had he lived longer. In Slapped, his clown character's humor has an undercurrent of tragedy that taints his performances. That's not the case here; at least, not at first. There's an early scene where he tries to make Young's character as a baby smile. It's reminiscent of Chaplin in The Kid, and just as endearing.

Young plays Simonetta as a teen and a young adult, and though it's a little squirm-inducing at first to see her kiss a grown man like a woman, I don't think it comes across as exploitative or prurient. Chances are it still wouldn't go over well if this had been made today, despite how heavily sexualized teens and even pre-teens already are in the media. Once again, context matters. This isn't a Lolita situation; Chaney's Tito recognizes Simonetta as a grown-up woman and that's when his feelings for her change, even though he still can't express them. Young's performance changes as well; she comes across as more mature, in a subtle way.

Chaney was way more than just a master of disguise; he was a legitimately good dramatic actor who knew how to convey subtlety of emotion in a medium without the advantage of sound. While we'll never know if he could've sustained his career in the sound era, part of me is kinda glad he belongs to the silent era (yes, I know he made one talkie). He didn't need to be heard to make his presence felt.


  1. I used to watch Judy Lewis on "The Secret Storm", so Loretta Young was "Judy's mom" in my view. Later, I came to greatly admire the movie star. The secret was devastating for Judy, but I can't help but admire the lengths to which Loretta went to keep her daughter near her.

    This story put me in mind of your piece on Sarah Polley's film about her family. I guess we all have stories.

  2. We do indeed. I wanted to talk more about Young, like her Catholicism and her relationship with Spencer Tracy, but I figure I can do that another time.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.