Sunday, November 1, 2009

A harmless Chaney is a toothless Chaney

Lon Chaney's films occupy an aesthetic space that doesn't exist in film anymore. He made popular entertainments based on solid acting and a disinclination to pander to the audience. If the stories veer into the sentimental, that was what Chaney sincerely desired.

He is most famous for his characterizations which amounted to disguises, and his role in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) is no exception. (And yes, that cheesy song with the lyrics, "Even though your heart is breaking/Laugh, Clown" that turned up in 1930's cartoons was written to publicize this movie.) But though he disguised himself, there were common qualities to all his characters--strong romantic desire, a penchant for self-sacrifice, and, in the best of films, menace--or at least power--held in check. Writer William Goldman describes in his book The Season how Burt Lancaster and George C. Scott suggested that power and menace, even in a meeting. There is always the sense in a good Chaney film that whatever he's doing right now, he could choose to do something much, much worse.

But not in Laugh, Clown. It's the literally pathetic story of the clown who raises a little girl and falls in love with her, but she loves the other fellow, so he nobly steps aside, which somewhat relieves the story from its inherent skeeviness. But throughout, he is completely harmless. He is not going to strangle the handsome young fellow, or whack him over the head, or cut off his limbs or do anything interesting. And Chaney not being weird and twisted, is just another sentimental old ham from the 1920's. I cannot imagine he would have the reputation he has today, 80+ years later if the body of his work were no edgier than this pablum.

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