Earning the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces" with his skill as an actor and as a makeup artist, Lon Chaney had a gift for making the grotesque look real then imbuing his creations with a humanity that reaches right off the screen. Better known for his roles in the silent versions of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera, Chaney's performance in the tragic love story Laugh, Clown, Laugh may very well be the best of his career and is my choice for the best performance by actor for the year 1927-28.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh is the story of Tito Beppi, an aging circus performer who raises an abandoned child as his own only to find to his horror and his shame that when she grows to young womanhood he is falling hopelessly in love with her. Tito wrestles with feelings of guilt and, despite his enormous professional success, falls into a deep depression. The girl (played by a fourteen year old Loretta Young a full twenty years before she won an Oscar for The Farmer's Daughter) is unaware of Tito's feelings and complicates matters by falling in love with a close friend of her stepfather.
That by the end of the film the three participants of this unhappy love triangle are motivated by genuine affection and self- sacrificing concern for one another makes the tragic denouement all the more poignant.
Norma Desmond claimed silent stars acted with their faces—Lon Chaney really did. He had to. Often he was buried under layers of make-up and prosthetics and with the limitations of silent film that robbed him of a voice and a soundtrack to cue a mood, he was reduced to telling stories with his eyes. That he was able to convey deeply-felt transformations of character with little more than a look is a testament to his hard work and talent.
Here, Chaney moves from portraying the energy and contentment of a consummate professional in love with his work to the tears and self-loathing of a man in love with the girl he has raised as a daughter and is somehow able to make this troubled and troubling character sympathetic. It was the sort of delicate task he accomplished on film many times.
Years later, Loretta Young said of Chaney, who took great pains to help her with her first starring role, "I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die."
The same year Laugh, Clown, Laugh arrived in theaters, Chaney also starred in London After Midnight, a highly-regarded vampire thriller that may have been an even better showcase for Chaney's talent. Unfortunately, London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire at an MGM warehouse in 1967, an all-too-common end for many Silent Era films.
In 2002, film historian Rick Schmidlin produced a truncated form of London After Midnight for Turner Classic Movies from a series of still photographs and the film's screenplay. I've seen this version and while it's almost impossible to judge the movie itself from what's left, nothing I saw dissuaded me from my opinion that Chaney's work was the best of 1927-28.
After Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Chaney made one sound picture, a commercially-successful remake of one of his silent classics, The Unholy Three, and was slated to star in a number of other sound movies, including Tod Browning's classic Dracula and the Oscar-winning prison drama, The Big House. Shortly after his sound debut, however, he died of cancer. He was only 47.
Over the course of a film career that spanned eighteen years and 161 movies, Chaney developed into one of the greatest actors of the Silent Era. In addition to his film appearances, Chaney also directed six movies. In 1957, James Cagney starred in a movie about Chaney's life, appropriately named Man Of A Thousand Faces.
After Chaney's death, his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., carried on the acting tradition and appeared in nearly 200 movies and television shows, including a starring role in the 1939 classic Of Mice And Men.
A Side Note: It's easy to forget that before Hollywood began to censor itself in mid-1934 with the enforcement of the Production Code, movies were often as explicit and frank as anything we're accustomed to seeing now. In Laugh, Clown, Laugh, there's a scene where an aristocrat (Nils Asther) kneels to remove Loretta Young's stocking and kiss her bare foot, a scene of raw sensuality that helps explain both why he is obsessed with the girl and why she finds him simultaneously fascinating and repulsive.
I was reminded of scenes in other pre-Code movies I've seen recently—Clara Bow flashing her bare breasts in Wings, a woman breast-feeding a baby in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, and Joan Blondell's tendency to strip down to her bra and panties in practically everything she starred in—scenes which serve as proof for those who need it that baby boomers didn't invent sex at Woodstock.
As I will eventually cover, the Production Code would soon forbid scenes such as those in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Films from the pre-Code era would be bowdlerized or buried and, in either case, forgotten. It would take a later generation to reintroduce explicit imagery into the movies and then congratulate itself for inventing what had already been perfected—art, and its Siamese twin, exploitation.