Those of you who have been following Spawn of Bozo are all too aware that up to now the films have been, well, awful. Sure, that's part of the charm of creepy clown movies, but every now and then you want to see something good.
So this week we're going way back to what are arguably the first creepy clown movies ever. They aren't horror films, and the clowns aren't scary scary, but they're definitely creepy. Also, they're just great films and you need to know about them.
Both films star the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr. Best known for roles such as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney was one of the silent film era's biggest stars. While it's easy to think of him as just the guy who could make funny faces, his mastery of using his face and body to convey emotion is what really made him an amazing actor to watch. And although the two roles we're looking at this week are by no means his most well-known, they're two of his most interesting.
First up is 1924's He Who Gets Slapped. Based on the play by Leonid Andreyev, this is one of those typical melodramatic morality stories about how people can be real jackholes. It was the first film made for the recently formed MGM, although not the first film released by the studio, for reasons we'll discuss later.
Chaney plays Paul Beaumont, a brilliant but poor scientist who along with his wife has been taken in by a wealthy friend, Baron Regnard. Right there you know he's in trouble, right? The whole handsome, rich baron thing never ends well.
And it doesn't. Beaumont asks Regnard (who apparently is a good speaker, while Beaumont is anxious and rabbity) to present his findings to the local scientific community. Regnard does, only he omits the part about the findings being Beaumont's. And of course when Beaumont objects he's ridiculed. That's slap #1. You'll want to keep track of these, because they're important.
Distraught over his friend's betrayal, Beaumont rushes home to his loving wife looking for comfort. Instead he gets slap #2. That's right -- she's leaving him for the Baron. Also, she calls him a clown.
Beaumont decides that he really is a clown and deserves all of this slapping, so he becomes an actual clown and develops an act called -- wait for it -- He Who Gets Slapped. The act basically consists of him being slapped more than 100 times during each performance while the audience roars with pleasure. Oh, the masochism of it all.
Because, as noted earlier, human beings are jackholes who like to see other people suffer the act becomes hugely popular. Beaumont, who is now called simply HE, is a star. (HE is always capitalized like that, apparently so we know we're talking about HE and not just some guy.) It looks as if HE will have the last laugh on the Baron and his trampy wife.
See, there's this girl. She's a bareback rider. Her name is Consuelo and she's really pretty. She also happens to be Norma Shearer, who at that time was one of MGM's biggest silent film stars. This was after she had her eyes fixed (sort of) and learned how to use the lights to her advantage so people forgot that she wasn't particularly beautiful.
Anyway, along comes Consuelo. HE thinks she's lovely. So does Bezano, the dreamy-eyed bareback rider/trapeze artist. Just like we all know what happens when the handsome, rich baron comes around, we all know what happens when the dreamy-eyed bareback rider/trapeze artist comes around. But things have been set in motion, and so we move on.
I should probably have mentioned that Consuelo's father is Baron Mancini. You'd think being a baron and all he would be rich, but you'd be mistaken. Some great tragedy has befallen the family and they're now poor. So the Baron sells Consuelo to the circus. This would totally not happen today because someone would be sure to be upset about a father selling his daughter to the circus, but Consuelo really doesn't seem all that unhappy about it. Maybe because she can't stop looking into Berzano's dreamy eyes. He has nice hair and teeth too, so he's a triple threat.
Although HE knows it's a lost cause he decides to fall in love with Consuelo anyway. As part of his act he has a satin heart sewn onto his costume. After being slapped 100 times he "dies" and one of the other clowns rips the heart off before they bury HE in a mock funeral where one of the clowns is dressed like the Virgin Mary. I'm not making that up and as far as I'm concerned it's the creepiest part of the movie and makes HWGS a shoo-in for Spawn of Bozo.
In case you hadn't noticed, there is no talking in silent films and everything is expressed through Very Subtle Symbolism. In this instance that takes the form of Consuelo sewing HE's heart onto his costume before every show. I know. Sad. But it has to be done.
Okay, so one night when the circus is in Paris guess who comes because he's heard all about this great clown? No, not Andrew Lloyd Webber. Baron Regnard. And he loves the show. He also loves the way Consuelo looks in her bareback rider outfit, and after the show he comes backstage and makes woo at her. HE doesn't like this, of course, but what can HE/he do?
Remember Consuelo's creepy father, Baron Mancini? He gets even creepier now. See, Regnard sends Consuelo a very expensive necklace hoping it will make her not want to throw up when he comes around. Mancini sees an opportunity to get even more money by marrying his daughter off to Regnard. To do his he takes the necklace back to Regnard and informs him that his little Consuelo is not that kind of girl and there will be no hanky-panky with her unless she's married.
In the meantime Consuelo has gone on a picnic with Bezano and his dreamy eyes. Bezano tells her that he loves her, but she won't say it back because part of her thinks she should hold out for things like necklaces and money, which to my mind makes her a little bit of a bitch and makes me feel sorry for Bezano, who kisses her anyway, I guess because he doesn't know any other girls.
While Bezano is declaring his love and Consuelo is being a little bit of a bitch, Baron Regnard agrees to marry Consuelo because he's all worked up and gotta have it. Only HE's old wife -- the one Regnard stole -- is still hanging around. To get rid of her Regnard gives her a check for $2000, which probably went a lot farther then than it would today and if you ask me is way more than she deserves.
Consuelo now makes up for being a little bit of a bitch by telling Bezano that, okay, she loves him after all and there will never be anybody for her but him. Except she can't marry him unless she has her father's blessing, which frankly I think is kind of stupid of her considering her father sold her to the circus and is trying to whore her out to Regnard and doesn't exactly seem to have her best interests at heart, but she didn't ask me so she can do what she likes. Oh, and now we get a shot of ants crawling all over the picnic food, which I'd bet you a silver dollar is supposed to by symbolic.
Back at the circus Consuelo has returned and seems pretty happy about the fact that she loves Bezano and his dreamy eyes and beautiful teeth and soft hair. HE offers to read her palm, and no I don't know where he learned to do that. Probably from some crazy old gypsy, as there are a million of them running around. But he can, and he does, and he tells Consuelo that she's about to get some Really Bad News. Because we don't actually see Consuelo's palm and I can't read palms anyway because I don't know any old gypsies, I don't know if he's telling the truth or just trying to set her up for what happens next, which is that he tells Consuelo that he can save her because he loves her.
Yes he did. He told her. And what does Consuelo do? (Remember, she can be a little bit of a bitch.) She slaps him. Playfully, but it’s still a slap. She also laughs and says something like, "I almost believed you, you silly old clown who is old enough to be my father and is really creepy and not someone I would fall in love with even if there were no other men on the planet especially ones who have dreamy eyes and ones who have lots of money and give me necklaces."
That would be slap #3. And you know what happens after 3 slaps. You're out.
Now Baron Regnard and Baron Mancini come in looking all pleased with themselves. They inform Consuelo that she and Regnard are to be married that very night following the performance. She pouts a little bit and runs away. HE, enraged, taunts Regnard because he's mad now and doesn't care what happens. But the two barons retreat to a room to wait for Consuelo's act to be over so she can marry Regnard and Regnard can get some and Mancini can have his money and Consuelo can have her necklace.
Only HE breaks into the room. He then reveals his true identity to Regnard, who laughs at him and throws him through another door into a room where there just happens to be a lion in a cage. I don't know if it's the same lion that appears in the MGM logo at the start of every movie, but it looks a lot like that one so let's say it is. It's also very angry, which gives HE an idea.
[Side Note: My friend Carolyn's mother, when she was a little girl, used to go to the movies just to see the lion roar at the start of MGM pictures. Then she would leave. This means she never saw He Who Gets Slapped and probably not The Wizard of Oz either, although now that I think of it she probably wasn't old enough to go to the movies when these came out, so never mind.]
A lot happens now, so stick with me. HE pushes the cage up against the door. Then he goes back into the room with the barons, locks the only door leading out, and starts a sword fight with Regnard. Ragnard stabs HE, who falls to the floor laughing because now he's kind of lost his mind. With the one door locked, the barons open the other door and find themselves face-to-face with the King of Beasts.
The lion is still angry, and hungry, so he pretends the barons are antelopes and takes them out. HE is waiting to be eaten as well and doesn't really care because Consuelo doesn't love him and he has a sword wound in his tummy and those two things make it difficult to enjoy the fact that he's just gotten revenge on his enemy and saved Consuelo from having to marry someone who thinks a necklace will make up for his character deficiencies.
So the lion is getting ready to munch on clownburger when the lion tamer comes in and puts a stop to that. HE manages to get up and announces that he will go on with his act. He stumbles into the ring, where he proceeds to fall down and die surrounded by his clown brothers, Consuelo, and Bezano (who looks down with tears in his dreamy eyes).
Remember earlier where I said this was the first film made by MGM but not the first one released? That's because MGM decided to hold HWGS for a Christmas release. Because nothing says Happy Holidays like a dead clown.
Now flash forward four years to Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Once again the film is based on a stage play. Once again Chaney dons the clown white. And once again his costar is an up-and-coming starlet, in this case a 15-year-old Loretta Young. Remember that, because it factors into the creepy clown rating later.
This time Chaney's clown is called Flik. Flik is one half of the most popular clown duo in Europe, Flik and Flok. Flik's real name is Tito. Flok's real name is Simon. That's what we'll call them so it isn't too confusing. The O and I keys are right next to one another on the keyboard and it would be really easy for me to type Flik when I meant to type Flok and then nothing would make any sense.
One day while the traveling circus is on its way to the next town Tito goes down to a river to get some water and finds a little girl tied to a stick. He takes her back to Simon and says he's going to keep her. Simon says absolutely not, because women are a curse to a circus act. Then Tito says he'll name the baby Simonetta and Simon changes his mind because apparently he's either sterile or gay and therefore won't have children of his own.
A lot of years go by. Simonetta is now a young woman, even though Loretta Young is still 15 and Lon Chaney is still 45. One day Tito is hugging her, looks at her breasts, and feels something he's never felt. I know. I know. It's so very wrong. But things were different in 1928 and who are we to judge?
Oh, hell. I'll judge. This is CREEPY. In every way.
To Tito's credit, he buries his feelings. But not because they're CREEPY AND WRONG, it's because he knows Simonetta would never love an old man like him. He does, however, put her in the act. This annoys Simon (remember the whole thing about women being a curse) and he quits. Now it's just Flik, not Flik and Flok.
Meanwhile, Simonetta has run off to find a rose to put in her hair to celebrate the fact that she's now a woman. She sees some lovely roses on the other side of a barbed wire fence and climbs through, tearing her stocking in the process and cutting her leg. She's rescued by a dashing fellow who turns out to be Count Luigi, the owner of the property onto which Simonetta has just trespassed.
Luigi is immediately smitten with Simonetta (who really is exceptionally beautiful) and takes her up to his house to tend to her leg. There they run into Lucretia, Luigi's maybe girlfriend, who is not exactly a stunner and who appears to drink a wee bit too much. But really what do you expect from someone called Lucretia. I mean historically they have not been all that nice, except for Lucretia Mott, who was an abolitionist and seems like a good egg. But this Lucretia hates Simonetta on the spot. She hates her even more when Luigi takes the girl into his bedroom and shuts the door.
Now hold on. Don't freak out. He's just going to bandage her leg. And if he happens to rub it a little bit and kiss her foot is that so wrong?
YES. It's absolutely CREEPY AND WRONG. Honestly, can no one in this movie keep their hands off this poor girl? And where was Loretta Young's mother? Actually, I know the answer to that. She was around, but as she'd put all three of her daughters into the film business before they could walk you know what she was like. And if you ask me, this is what made Loretta have so many problems with men later on and probably what caused her to have an affair with Clark Gable and get pregnant by him and have to go away on "vacation" and come back with a daughter she'd "adopted" but who everyone knew was Gable's because she had enormous ears (this is true).
It all started when Luigi felt her up in that bedroom.
Also, it reminds me of when Miley Cyrus did that shoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair when she was 15 and Annie made her look really hoochie and everyone wanted to know where Miley's parents were when this was going on and it turned out they were there watching the whole thing and never said a word but then after the fact acted all surprised. Which just proves that show business parents are a real problem and need to be stopped. Except for Dakota and Elle Fanning's parents, who seem really sweet.
To be fair Nils Asther, who played Luigi, was 31 and therefore only twice Young's age. And it wasn't uncommon for girls to marry at 16 or 17. (Young was 17 when she married her first husband, 26-year-old Grant Withers.) Still, it's icky. I don't care how cute Asther was. Which he totally was. And he was Swedish.
Anyway, while Luigi is kissing Simonetta's foot Lucretia storms in and makes fun of Simonetta. Simonetta jumps out the window and runs off. Now Luigi is sad. He's so sad in fact that he develops this weird condition where he suddenly breaks out into uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. We find this out when -- three years later -- Tito goes to the office of a famous neurologist in Rome to see if the doctor can cure the overwhelming sadness Tito has been feeling ever since falling in love with Simonetta.
The doctor tells Tito that he just needs to cheer up, which he should do by going to the circus to see the funniest clown to ever walk the earth -- Flik! Oh, the irony! But wait -- there's more. While Tito is explaining why he can't go see Flik, Luigi walks in. He's the doctor's next appointment! That's when we find out about the laughing business.
This is good stuff. It gets even better when Simonetta comes to fetch Tito and Luigi realizes that she's the girl whose foot he kissed. Now Luigi pursues her doggedly, coming to the circus and bringing her gifts. One of these gifts is a pearl necklace, which freaks Simonetta out. It freaks Tito out too when he sees it. And then Luigi freaks out when he comes into the room and sees Tito freaking out. Tito accuses Luigi of having unnatural designs on Simonetta, at which point Luigi shows Tito the card that he enclosed with the pearls saying that they once belonged to his dear, dead mother and that the only woman worthy of wearing them is the woman who will be his wife. Hint, hint.
Tito admits that he too loves Simonetta. Now everything is out in the open and everyone is creeped out. Worse, Luigi's laughing sickness returns and Tito starts weeping uncontrollably and we're right back where we started before they saw that doctor in Rome. Somehow they manage to calm down, and Luigi says that if Simonetta loves Tito then he'll step aside. Tito says that if Simonetta loves Luigi then he'll step aside. Tito then goes out to do his act while Simonetta returns to the dressing room and sees Luigi there. She tells him she can't accept his necklace. Then he shows her the card with the nonsense about his mother and she changes her mind. (It really is a pretty necklace.)
Tito, meanwhile, is performing his most death-defying stunt, in which he stands on his head on this small, wheeled platform and slides down a wire from the top of the theater to the stage. He does it successfully and triumphantly rushes to the dressing room.
Where he sees Simonetta kissing Luigi.
Tito is naturally distraught, but Simon (who at some point has gotten over their tiff and returned to be Flok to Tito's Flik) reminds him that the love of the audience is all he needs. Tito tries to keep this in mind while Simonetta and Luigi, who are now engaged, go to spend a few weeks with Luigi's family before their wedding.
It turns out that Tito can't keep his spirits up. He tells Simon that he's leaving the act. Simon convinces him to give it one more go. Pleased with himself for recovering from his malaise, Tito is having a conversation with a stuffed chicken he keeps in his trunk when Simonetta enters dressed in a stunning fur coat, which is of course totally WRONG because you shouldn't kill animals for their fur, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't gorgeous.
Tito's reaction to her return makes Simonetta realize that he loves her "like that" (it actually says that on the title card). She then ups the creepy factor by about eleventy million when she reveals to Tito that she is in love with him too and will leave Luigi to be Tito's wife if he just asks her. She tries to kiss Tito but he pulls away.
Of course there's only one thing to do. She drags Tito over to a statue of the Virgin Mary that just happens to be in the room and swears to the statue that she really does love Tito. Because no one would lie to the Mother of God and risk damning their immortal soul to eternal Hell, Tito is convinced that Simonetta is telling the truth and he finally kisses her while everyone watching goes,"Ewwwwwwwwwww." Giddy, Simonetta runs off to tell Luigi that she's through with him and that she and Tito are going to Lake Como, where I can only assume they will hole up at George Clooney's villa to escape the paparazzi.
With Simonetta gone Tito has his own conversation with the Virgin Mary and tells her that he knows Simonetta is lying or at least confused. She really does love Luigi, and her feelings for him (Tito) are totally inappropriate, which is not a surprise to most of us. More distraught than ever, he rushes to the theater to rehearse for that evening's performance.
There Simon tries to get Tito back into the character of Flik. Tito tries, but it's just no use. All the laughter has gone from him. Trying to force himself to be happy, Tito blurts out that Simonetta is in love with him. Simon, who doesn't seem to think this is CREEPY AND WRONG, tells him that in that case he should be the happiest man in the world. That does the trick.
Actually what it does is cause Tito to have a nervous breakdown. He starts hallucinating, hearing the applause of an invisible audience and the music of an invisible orchestra while his mood changes from elation to despair in a display of rapid cycling no amount of pharmaceuticals could control. In this state he rushes to the top of the theater and prepares to do his wire-sliding trick.
Guess what happens next? Go on. Guess.
Well, you have two options. In the first one Tito falls from the wire and dies. But that's kind of depressing, so MGM insisted that an alternate ending be shot as well. In that one Tito falls but is only injured. He then brings Simonetta to her senses, she stays with Luigi, and the three of them remain friends.
Sadly, that alternate ending has been lost, so all we have is the one where Tito dies. And part of that is lost as well, so the movie ends pretty abruptly. But dead is dead, so you aren't missing much.
Incidentally, a piece of music from the film, also called "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," was a huge hit. Sadly, it was also played at Chaney's funeral when he died in 1930.
As I mentioned at the start of this column, these are what I consider the first two creepy clown films, but only because Chaney's makeup and performances are so grotesque and have since been copied in lesser films. And I mean grotesque in the traditional sense. Chaney was unparalleled as a silent film actor, and his talents are what hold both of these films together.
Unfortunately, they're not easy to find. Laugh, Clown, Laugh is only available as part of the Turner Classic Movies The Lon Chaney Collection, which also includes The Ace of Hearts, The Unknown (in which Chaney plays an armless knife thrower), and the documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces.
He Who Gets Slapped has never been made available in a commercial edition. Copies made from airings on Turner Classic Movies are available on a few bittorrent sites, and Google Video has a copy featuring French subtitles available for viewing here.
For a fantastic collection of 20 obscure Lon Chaney films (including He Who Gets Slapped) there is a 10-disc set available from Unique DVD. These are not official releases, and the source material varies in quality, but at $49.95 it's a real bargain.
Rating (out of 5):
He Who Gets Slapped
Laugh, Clown, Laugh