Released 14 April 1928, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is one of several circus-themed films of Lon Chaney, Sr. Unlike HE Who Gets Slapped or The Unknown, however, this isn’t one of the ones where he starts out as a sympathetic character and then goes totally psycho. The only thing this clown is driven mad by is an inappropriate passion he knows he can’t act on.
Tito Beppi (Lon) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) are travelling Italian clowns whose lives change when Tito finds a little girl tied up by the river. He rescues her and begs Simon to adopt her, but Simon is adamant women bring bad luck.
Tito’s heart is stolen immediately, and he names her Simonetta to sweeten the deal. She becomes part of their family.
When Simonetta (Loretta Young) grows up, she joins the act. Tito suggests she needs a rose in her hair, and she goes in search of it. While she’s climbing a wire fence, she snags her stockings and cuts her legs.
A handsome young count, Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), comes across her in his rose garden, and invites her into his home to tend to her wounded legs. He’s clearly smitten, though his fiancée Lucretia is very displeased at the peasant in her midst. While he’s dealing with Lucretia, Simonetta escapes through the window.
Simon announces he’s leaving the act if Simonetta is joining it, still insisting women bring bad luck. When Simonetta returns, made up in her new costume, with her new hairstyle, Tito realizes in shock she’s become a woman. His body language makes his other feelings obvious, and he demands Simonetta call Simon back. He needs that buffer.
Three years later, Luigi is in a shrink’s office, seeking help for his uncontrollable laughter. The doctor tells him the cause is his life of excess and always being unsatisfied. He suggests Luigi’s trouble might disappear if he sincerely falls in love with the right type of woman.
Tito then enters the office, and Luigi laughs hysterically. A nurse escorts him out to the balcony.
The doctor thinks Tito may be suffering from some kind of suppression, perhaps unrequited love. He says Tito will be cured when his hopelessness is gone, and urges him to waste no time in winning the lady.
Tito, knowing this is an inappropriate passion, dissolves into tears and tells the doctor he can never tell her. It’s not right. The doctor then suggests diversion, to make him laugh.
He takes Tito to the balcony and shows him a poster advertising Flik’s current show. The doctor says he’s making all Rome laugh, and will make Tito laugh too. Tito says that’s impossible, since he is Flik.
Luigi apologizes to Tito for laughing, and assures him it wasn’t intentional. He laughs uncontrollably, just as Tito cries uncontrollably. They soon realize they can help one another with their respective problems.
Luigi and Tito become great friends, little realizing how Simonetta helps them both.
Luigi has a string of pearls delivered to Simonetta’s dressing room, but she refuses them. She doesn’t want to be a rich man’s plaything or kept woman. Her life is with Tito.
Simon realizes Tito has feelings for Simonetta, and after he sees the pearls and Luigi’s calling card, realizes Luigi loves her too. He knows Luigi stopped laughing and Tito stopped crying because of the same woman.
Simon says men like Luigi don’t marry tightrope-walkers, and wouldn’t give Simonetta pearls for nothing. Tito is furious at this insult to her character.
When Luigi comes by, Tito lashes out at him too, saying his friendship was a farce, and that he’s trying to buy Simonetta with his filthy pearls. Simonetta’s not the type of woman he can buy.
Luigi diffuses the situation when he turns his calling card around and shows Tito his handwritten note. Those were his mother’s pearls, and he wants them to be his wife’s.
Tito tells Luigi he won’t stand in his way if he loves Simonetta. Luigi must ask her first, and if Simonetta agrees to be his, she’ll never know of Tito’s love.
Several tragic complications spring up after this.
LCL is based on a 1923–24 Broadway play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, starring Lionel Barrymore and his second wife, Irene Fenwick. In turn, the play was based on Fausto Maria Martini’s 1919 story Ridi, Pagliaccio.
MGM held up film production for several years, because Lon had already played a clown in 1924, and the expectation that Lionel Barrymore would want to reprise his role.
This was Loretta Young’s first major film. She was only 13 when production started. Director Herbert Brenon was often quite harsh and mean to her, but changed his attitude every time Lon was there. Lon picked up on this, and made sure to always be there when Loretta was. She spoke very effusively about how much his kindness, guidance, and protection meant to her.
The trope of a man falling for his foster daughter or sister has so much potential to be creepy, but Tito knows how inappropriate these feelings are. Not only did he raise Simonetta, but he’s an old man. He doesn’t want to spoil her happiness and youth with his sadness and old age.