Opening-day SHOCKtober screening this season is one I’ve been meaning to watch for years for being Shadowplay’s favorite film. Not my favorite, but I appreciated the enjoyably absurd premise, Chaney’s performance (which involves getting slapped), the brilliant optical transitions (a spinning ball -> globe -> circus ring), and of course, murder by lion.
Lon with his wife and benefactor, just before tragedy struck:
Lon Chaney (same year he did Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three) is a brilliant scientist married to sweet Ruth King (in possibly her only surviving film) and sponsored by a wealthy baron (Marc McDermott). Life is good, until McDermott steals Chaney’s ideas and his wife. Chaney is humiliated in front of his peers at a big presentation, slapped by the baron, slapped by his wife, and told to fuck off. Treated like a clown, he joins the circus, becomes an actual clown and creates a hugely successful routine wherein he reenacts his humiliation, getting slapped again and again as he tries to be taken seriously, the other clowns and the crowd roaring laughter at him.
A few years later, attractive young Norma Shearer (The Divorcee) joins the circus, drawing the attention of attractive young John Gilbert (The Merry Widow, The Big Parade) as well as Lon (now, hilariously, only known as “HE”). But slimy old Baron McDermott visits the circus and sees his chance to dump Lon’s wife for a younger girl. He makes a deal with her father to marry Norma, causing HE to take his belated revenge via lion.
Attractive young couple, somewhat overdoing it:
The biggest contortion of credibility is when Chaney confesses his love to Norma Shearer and she thinks he’s joking which, given his performance and the lines we get via intertitle, is impossible to accept as believable in any literal way. Nobody could be that dumb. A modern actor might say the scene is unplayable. But it works, because we get what it’s about (this film is deep but it ain’t exactly subtle, so Chaney even TELLS us what it’s about: “I say serious things and people laugh!”).
The first film MGM released, and the first American picture by Sjöström, lured to Hollywood after the international success of The Phantom Carriage. IMDB suggests a pile of related films – a 1917 Russian version, later Chinese and Argentinian versions, and three 1925 shorts with parody titles.