Director: Victor Seastrom/Sjostrom. MGM.
Producer: Victor Seastrom. Writer: Carey Wilson, Victor Seastrom. Camera: Milton Moore. Sets: Cedric Gibbons.
Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Ruth King, Marc McDermott, Ford sterling, Tully Marshall.
Nice scientist Paul (Chaney) makes a remarkable breakthrough and entrusts the publication of his findings to his friend and patron, the Baron (McDermott). Unbeknownst to him, the Baron is having an affair with Paul’s wife (King) and steals his research, claiming it as his own in front of an august scientific institution. Paul immediately suffers a catastrophic breakdown that sees him fall into uncontrollable hysterics when faced with this double deceit. He leaves to join a circus as a clown who, fetishistically, likes being humiliated and slapped, recreating the moment the Baron did this to him. When beautiful horse-rider Consuela (Shearer) joins his troupe, Paul falls in love, but finds competition for her hand in the form of her riding act partner (Gilbert).
Historically significant as the first film to be produced and released by the newly formed trio of film studio Metro and independent producers (Samuel) Goldwyn and (Louis B.) Mayer. Given the plot, this was a surprisingly depressing start for a studio that would become synonymous with beauty, glamour and happy endings.
But then choosing the esteemed Seastrom, who specialised in moody, epic pastoral dramas in his native Sweden to huge acclaim, was never going to result in the rosiest of products. The director formerly known as Sjostrom in his homeland, was new himself, having arrived to direct American films for Metro only the previous year.
This is a veritable one-man band for him as co-writer, co-producer and director. Riding high following years of commercial and critical success in Europe, he was viewed favourably by Hollywood top brass (the normally tyrannical Louis B. Mayer was said to view him as God), Seastrom was allowed unprecedented artistic freedom in his films.
This film is no exception and allows him the chance to continue exploring the themes of cruelty and fate that he had established in Europe and would elaborate on throughout his sojourn in America (The Scarlet Letter, The Wind). Despite the hoary, theatrical set-up and giddy, fun of the fair atmosphere, this film is as grim a morality tale as anything he told in Sweden or would tell in years to come.
It also lets him show off his unique and arresting visual style – the recurring motif of the clowns dancing around a globe, symbolic of the fools we all are on this earth. This is a world that is also perpetually spinning out of control only to be thrown to the ground, just as Paul’s wife is revealed as an adulterer.
The arrangement of the members of the scientific institution is also genius – seated in serried rows of cold judgement like Paul’s judge, jury and executioner.
The cast list features three actors who would become some of the brightest stars of the silent era, Chaney in particular is heart-wrenchingly good. He was a silent actor of enormous skill, having honed his craft as a mime artist after acting out the day’s activities for his deaf parents as a child. Here, he deftly arouses audience sympathy, although given the brutality he faces during his “act”, it’s understandable why he is so morose.
Gilbert had been acting in films for many years but here hit the big time and would soon mature into the premier leading man of the twenties. His bouncy joie de vivre is readily apparent.
Although pretty Shearer is underused and under-focused she would go onto bigger and better things very soon.
Support actor Marshall, who specialised in playing small time villainy and perversity, is delectably vile as her down-at-heel, minor aristocrat father who sees opportunity around a corner before he even steps outside.