Tuesday, October 13, 2015
A Lon Chaney Double Feature
The more I see of the young Norma Shearer, the more I like her. I recently watched The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927), in which she's paired with Ramon Novarro, and was struck by how fresh and natural she was as an actress, and the same holds true in He Who Gets Slapped, where her love interest is John Gilbert. Both movies are silents, of course. It was only after the advent of sound that her husband, MGM's creative director Irving G. Thalberg, decided to make her into a great lady, the cinematic equivalent of Katharine Cornell, putting her into remakes of Broadway hits like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), which had starred Cornell, or Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932), which had featured another theatrical diva, Lynn Fontanne. She was also miscast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936), a role that, at 34, she was much too old to play. She is barely in her 20s in He Who Gets Slapped, however, and she's delightful. This is not a film for coulrophobes (people with a fear of clowns), however. It's crawling with them, performing antics that are supposed to be, to judge from the hilarity they induce in the audiences shown in the film, side-splittingly funny. The film is based on the highly dubious premise that watching someone get slapped repeatedly is one of the funniest things ever. There may be people who think so -- to judge from the perennial popularity of the Three Stooges -- but I'm not one of them. The whole movie is an artificial concoction, anyway, and only the brilliance of Lon Chaney gives it some grounding in real-life feeling. It was one of the films that launched the MGM studios on the road to Hollywood dominance, and the first one to feature Leo the Lion in the credits.
This is a grand showcase for Chaney, whose reputation as the man of a thousand faces was somewhat misleading. Chaney had one well-worn face that, no matter how much he distorted or disguised it, shone through. Here he's given an opportunity to perform without disguise through much of the film, and the range of expressions available to him is astonishing. The leading lady is 14-year-old Loretta Young. That she often looks her age is one of the more disturbing things about the film, in which she's supposed to be in love with both Chaney, who was 45, and the improbably pretty Nils Asther, who was 31. The cinematography is by James Wong Howe. Laugh, Clown, Laugh was eligible for Oscar nominations in the first year of the Academy Awards, and Chaney should have received one. The closest the film came to an award was the one that Joseph Farnham received for title writing (the one and only time the award was presented). But Farnham's award was for the body of his work over the nomination period, and not for a particular film.