There are benefits to being an insomniac. One is that you don’t have to work hard to stay up into the dead of night to watch the kind of movies that only air in the dead of night. Turner Classic Movies has a series this month called Silent Sundays, and the other night they aired a movie I’ve been meaning to see for a while:
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), based on a play and directed by Herbert Brenon, is a vehicle for the great Lon Chaney: Here he plays a travelling circus clown named Tito, who finds a baby girl he names Simonetta, takes her in and raises her to be a fellow performer. As she grows up, into a beautiful adolescent, he realizes to his confusion that he’s fallen in love with her. And then he has competition in the form of a dashing gentleman named Luigi.
The story has obvious echoes of the opera Pagliacci, but a more fun way to look at it for modern movie fans is that it’s Léon (The Professional) but with Italian clowns instead of Gallic assassins. The ingenue is played by Loretta Young, who went on to a long career in Hollywood, who from her appearance here seems to have been the Natalie Portman of her day.
But this is Lon Chaney’s show, and as usual, even to modern eyes his performance is compelling and affecting. For me, as with many people of my generation, it can take some work to get into a silent movie, but it’s not that way with Chaney’s filmography. For one thing, he almost always played grotesques, eccentrics, and freaks — that stuff works in any era.
For another, and maybe it’s the nature of the roles, but Chaney feels more expressive and more demonstrative than pretty much any other well-known performer of the era, to me at least. His acting is always perfectly modulated, neither too much nor too little, and thereby ensures that you hardly need the title cards to follow the story.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a great showcase for Lon Chaney, and the nature of the circus setting makes it a baroque experience, and well worth watching, but to me, it didn’t feel quite as transcendently weird as the movies I’ve seen that Chaney made with director Tod Browning. One of those is The Unknown.
It was probably Hugo that did it, but I went on a silent movie kick for a while there. So this is a movie I only got around to at the end of last year. It holds up and then some. The Unknown (1927) is one of the strongest collaborations between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney. In it, Lon Chaney plays an armless knife thrower named Alonzo The Armless.
For real now: Doesn’t that make you want to skip the rest of this article right now and go watch this movie?
All of the Tod Browning/ Lon Chaney collaborations I’ve seen are exactly this level of crazy. These two artists were, for a while there, as perfect a match as Leone and Eastwood. Besides his command of eerie and ominous atmosphere behind the camera, Browning had been a circus performer himself, a clown and a daredevil, so he knew these worlds. Chaney was a master of pathos and the macabre, fully able to meet any of the bizarre physical demands Browning needed from him.
Needless to say I’m a Tod Browning fan. Nobody else made movies like his. The closest you could come, for that mix of playful and menacing, is arguably early Tim Burton, or recent Alex De La Iglesia. I spent time studying Browning’s movies, most notably Freaks, for one of the comics I wrote. (Still available in stores and online!)
But Freaks came a few years after The Unknown — it’s better-known because it has sound and because the titular “freaks” were actually deformed, whereas Chaney was only playing at it (albeit doing so while in excruciating pain, if you read up on the history.) The Unknown also comes before Laugh, Clown, Laugh in the Lon Chaney chronology. This is a much more depraved character, in a much more depraved movie.
Chaney plays Alonzo The Armless, a sideshow freak whose act is flinging knives at his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford) using only his feet. He can do other things with his feet, such as play guitar…
…But the main thing to look out for is that knife-throwing. Alonzo’s not that nice a guy, and he’s also a fake. Turns out he has both his arms — he’s only hiding out in the circus because he’s a career criminal, who is easily identifiable because he has two thumbs on one hand.
This movie is wild. Okay, so Alonzo is a genetic aberration, but not the kind he purports to be. It’s the perfect cover story! Because not only does he need to hide his identity from the authorities, but he’s trying to not let on to Nanon, the woman he loves, that he is THE SAME TWO-THUMBED MAN WHO KILLED HER FATHER!
Alonzo’s only confidante is a little person named Cojo. It really just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? Alonzo fumes to Cojo as his beloved Nanon gets closer to the circus strongman — but not too close, as since her father was killed, she has developed a phobia of being held. This in turn leaves the door wide open for the romantic advances of Alonzo, as long as he doesn’t reveal to her that he actually does have arms. (It’s a little bit like Tootsie!) Alonzo gets so wrapped up in his babe that he makes the spectacularly bad decision to go get his arms amputated. Fellas, don’t make this mistake with your lady, and I’ll tell you why: While he’s recovering, Nanon gets over her arm phobia. Not only that, but she announces that she’s marrying the circus strongman. Well, Alonzo doesn’t take this news well at all, and that’s where everything gets really Tod Browning all over everybody.
What’s so compelling and so unusual about The Unknown, and about so many of Tod Browning’s films, is that it begins on a malevolent note and that only intensifies, until the typically violent climax, where the movie’s villain gets a karmic comeuppance so horrible that it’s barely even gratifying to watch. And of course what’s so uncommon, never more than today, is how the movie’s villain was the main character and the biggest star. It just shows how very much Lon Chaney brought to the movie, and to movies in general. How many stars are brave enough to allow themselves to be shown in so ugly a light? Alonzo is an evil, angry, murderous character, only occasionally sympathetic, but clearly that doesn’t keep him from being interesting. Tod Browning’s movies were provocative, profound, and truly valuable because his bad people were truly nasty brutes, and the so-called “freaks” were the most human out of anyone. Then again, being human doesn’t always mean being good either. The world is a complicated place.
And here’s me on Twitter, sadly far less than silent: @jonnyabomb