by Allan Fish
(USA 1924 81m) not on DVD
Bring on the clowns
p Louis B.Mayer d Victor Sjöstrom w Carey Wilson, Victor Sjöstrom, Gregory Zilboorg play Leonid Andreyev ph Milton Moore ed Hugh Wynn m uncredited art Cedric Gibbons cos Sophie Wachner
Lon Chaney (Paul Beaumont), Norma Shearer (Consuelo), John Gilbert (Bezano), Marc McDermott (Baron Regnard), Ruth King (Marie), Tully Marshall (Count Mancini), Ford Sterling (Tricaud),
“What is it about human nature that makes people quick to laugh when someone gets slapped – whether the slap be spiritual, mental or physical?“ In setting out to answer the question prompted by a caption during the movie, great Scandinavian in Hollywood Victor Sjöstrom gave Lon Chaney one of his finest roles. An actor of both demonstrative bravado and subtle skill, Chaney was the movies’ first chameleon, a master of disguise, make-up and eccentricity. And if The Pemalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tell it to the Marines and The Unholy Three were also superb personal triumphs for the actor, they just lack that special something that signifies true greatness today. He, however, to shorten the title in the way that his character is referred in the film, is Chaney’s unheralded greatest film and one of the greatest silent productions of the twenties. For too long it has been famous for being the then fledging merged studio of MGM’s first major production and for introducing the future king and queen of the MGM lot, Shearer and Gilbert, to stardom. Yet their romance is the one thing that dates in the whole shebang. Artistically, however, and in its lead performance, it’s hard to see how it could be bettered.
Paul Beaumont is a driven scientist under the patronage of the Baron Regnard who finally proclaims that he has proved his wonderful scientific theories. However, the Baron tricks him, passing the theories off as his own, stealing his wife from him, and slapping and humiliating him in front of the scientific worthies. Reduced to pitifully laughing at the sick irony of his fate, Paul turns his back on his old life and becomes a clown in the circus, billing himself as ‘he who gets slapped.’ He soon becomes a big success, and falls in love with the daughter of another baron, who has joined the circus as a bareback rider. However, when Regnard returns to try and buy the girl as his wife, Paul decides to take his overdue revenge.
Though never a horror film, there are undoubtedly horrific aspects to this most artistic of melodramas. Indeed, to many it may be very reminiscent of Paul Leni’s later silent classic The Man Who Laughs, though there the eternal smiling face was as a result of a physical deformity. Here Chaney hides behind his anger and resentment, rather like Jack Nicholson’s later Joker declaring “I’m only smiling on the outside.” To watch Chaney’s facial contortions and expressions is a marvel of expressionistic acting. Just observe the heartbreak when he declares his love for Shearer, only for her to playfully slap him and laugh, thinking him to be joking. The look of abject despair on his face is more than palatable, and even more heartrending when he suddenly hides behind laughter again to hide his pain. As many critics have noted, the symbolic wearing of his heart effectively on his sleeve points to his final demise, and what a demise. The final scenes of Chaney, fatally wounded by the reprehensible Marshall, staggering out for one last bow to his adoring and unaware public, before collapsing to the floor, is one of the great moments in Hollywood cinema of its decade.
Not to overlook the contribution of Sjöstrom, who fashioned this potentially laughable story into a truly exquisite work of art. His use of psychological distortion and superimposition is majestic, most memorably when Chaney sees the faces of the laughing scientists amongst his fellow clowns. Just to hear the immortal March of the Clowns, or to see the savagely caricatured framing character of the clown twirling his globe-like sphere (which looks forward to the Iron Man in The Wedding March) is to enter a magical place in which it is very clear that the lot of a clown is not a happy one.