Tito (Lon Chaney), a traveling circus clown, finds an abandoned child (uncredited). Tito adopts her and raises her as his daughter, naming her Simonetta after his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel). One day Simonetta (Loretta Young) encounters Luigi (Nils Asther), a wealthy man who falls madly in love with her, but she rejects him. She returns home to the circus and Tito suddenly realizes she is no longer a child. Tito further realizes he has feelings for Simonetta, but also knows his feelings are improper because he raised her as his daughter.
Luigi begins having fits of uncontrollable laughter because Simonetta has rejected him. Tito falls into melancholy because he believes he should not have Simonatta as a love interest. They both see the same doctor about their conditions and meet for the first time. They share their respective troubles and believe they can help each other, not knowing they both love the same woman. Nonetheless, the three eventually develop a strong friendship until Luigi asks Simonetta to marry him. Simonetta eventually accepts Luigi's proposal, which throws Tito into an even deeper melancholy. Simonetta learns of Tito's affections for her before she marries Luigi. She tells Tito she loved him before she loved Luigi, then goes to break her engagement with Luigi.
While Simonetta is breaking her engagement, Tito and Simon begin rehearsing some new material for their Flik and Flok act. Tito does not believe Simonetta's love is genuine, but that is just pity. He becomes emotionally hysterical, and falls from the highwire while practicing a familiar stunt.
There are two endings. In one, Tito dies from his fall, freeing Simonetta to marry Luigi. In the alternate, Tito survives his fall and Simonetta marries Luigi, and they all remain close friends.
The film survives in an incomplete print, but the missing footage does not critically affect the storyline. The surviving print seems to end rather abruptly, as the last few seconds of the fadeout are among the lost footage. The alternate happy ending, shot at the studio's insistence, has also been lost.
MGM delayed production of this film several years, because Chaney had already appeared as a clown character in the 1924 film He Who Gets Slapped. Chaney took pains to make the clown makeup between these films of different styles, with the Flik character in this film being portrayed in Grotesque Style, rather than the earlier character's Neat Style.
A musical theme written specially for the film (called "Laugh, Clown, Laugh") became a huge popular hit. Chaney's set musicians played the song at his 1930 funeral.
This was Loretta Young's first major movie role, at the age of fourteen. In interviews near the end of her life, she remembered her gratitude towards Chaney for his kindness and guidance, and for protecting her from director Brenon's sometimes harsh treatment.
2002 Re-Score, 2003 ReleaseEdit
In January 2002, the third annual Young Film Composers Competition sponsored by Turner Classic Movies (which is owned by Turner Broadcasting System - the Time Warner subsidiary that also owns MGM's pre-1986 films through Turner Entertainment) began. One of the entrants was a college student named Scott Salinas and he won. In November 2002, he scored it at TODD-AO digitally recorded which the film first aired in February 2003 and at the same time, a promo showing Scott Salinas' experience composing the score for Laugh, Clown, Laugh.