Based on the play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, “Laugh Clown Laugh” is a bit of an odd mix. Melodramatic, the story escalates to a powerful crescendo that yields tragic results; although the premise, of the father figure becoming smitten with the woman he's known from a distance since childhood, echoes the more contemporary relationship that yielded Woody Allen's current marital status. Not really that unsettling in the film (due to Lon Chaney's self-aware and fearful characterization, and a highly conservative censor board), but Allen's own relationship certainly alters a contemporary reaction to the film that differed from 1920s audiences, which made “Laugh Clown Laugh” a great success.
Whereas “The Ace of Hearts” was shot using orthochromatic film – which mandated actors wear heavier, pale makeup – “Laugh” was filmed using the more versatile panchromatic stock. With less makeup, the shades of grey and focus details are far improved, and with a better print source, the transfer is more immaculate. Though not credited in the main title sequence, “Laugh” was photographed by one of Hollywood's greatest black & white cinematographers – James Wong Howe – and his genius for rich lighting, textured backgrounds and compositional beauty dominate this elegant film.
Like “Ace Of Hearts,” “Laugh Clown Laugh” also benefits from a truly moving orchestral score by H. Scott Salinas, second prize winner of TCM's Young Film Composers Competition. Like Vivek Maddala, Salinas ignores the period musical references and popular themes (like the original theme song) which were played by a live organist or small orchestra during the film's original screening. Salinas balances a contemporary orchestral approach with a deliberate aim towards character intimacy, making “Laugh Clown Laugh” all the more accessible for modern audiences.
Like his previous track for “Ace,” historian Michael F. Blake delivers another solid commentary, using the film as another pivotal moment in Lon Chaney's career, along with first-hand interview material from Loretta Young (who turned 14 during filming). Adding a now familiar splendor of historical and production facts, Blake also offers vintage reviews, censor objections, and reads material from a deleted scene, and an alternate ending offered to theatre owners (much like F.W. Murnau's “Four Devils” film).
For his three books, Blake spoke with several people who had worked with Lon Chaney, and this particular commentary functions as a natural prologue into the documentary, “Lon Chaney – A Thousand Faces,” which appears on Disc 2. The anecdotes are frequently moving, and the pivotal moment when Young's character, Simonetta, chooses her beloved, still packs an emotional wallop after 75 years.
“Laugh Clown Laugh ” is part of Warner Bros' Lon Chaney Collection. The 2-disc set also includes the features “Ace of Hearts ,” also on Disc 1, and “The Unknown,” on Disc 2, with extra bonus features to boot.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan