Based on Leonid Andreyev's play, a scientist has his discovery and wife stolen. He is laughed at and becomes a clown in the circus, where he falls in love again.
Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) tells his wife Maria Beaumont (Ruth King) and his benefactor Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) that he has proved his theories and is ready to share them with the academy. Regnard says he will arrange everything. While Paul sleeps, Maria kisses Regnard. At the academy Regnard takes credit for Paul's discoveries. When Paul objects, Regnard says Paul is only a student. Men in the audience laugh at Paul. Maria tells Paul that she loves Regnard, and she calls Paul a fool and a clown.
Years later Paul has become a clown. Tricaud hired him to get slapped. Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) offers his daughter Consuelo (Norma Shearer) to the circus as a bareback rider to work with Bezano (John Gilbert). Paul sees Bezano wooing Consuelo. She sews a heart on Paul's clown costume. Sixty clowns perform with Paul. When he speaks, they slap him. A clown removes Paul's heart and buries it. Paul sees Regnard talking with Consuelo. Mancini and Consuelo accept a ride with Regnard.
Mancini shows Consuelo the necklace that Regnard sent her and says he will teach him. Consuelo goes on a picnic with Bezano; they are in love and kiss. Mancini tells Regnard that Consuelo only accepts jewelry from her husband. Regnard says he will marry her. Bezano asks Consuelo to marry, but she says her father must approve. Mancini borrows money from Regnard.
Consuelo asks Paul why he is sad. He says only he can save her from Regnard. Consuelo laughs. Mancini and Regnard come in, and Mancini says that Consuelo will marry Regnard after the show. Paul berates Mancini for selling his daughter to Regnard, and he opens the cage of a lion by a door. Paul reveals to Regnard that he is the scientist. He says that he will stop the wedding, and he expects to have the last laugh. Mancini stabs Paul with a sword. When the door is opened, the lion comes in and kills Mancini and then Regnard; but the lion tamer comes in and saves Paul. Bezano and Consuelo have finished their act, and Paul goes out to perform and make people laugh. However, he is in terrible pain and collapses. Consuelo comes and kneels by him. He speaks to her and then dies. In the final scene Consuelo performs with Bezano.
This romantic tragedy suggests that humor and laughter
may come out of unrecognized cruelty and pain as a relief they
are not happening to us. How ironic that in this first M-G-M picture
with its lion insignia a lion kills two people in the story!