Archive for clown

In the Wee Hours on TCM: Circus Clown Silents

Posted in Clown, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on November 3, 2015 by travsd

Tonight (tomorrow) in the wee hours on Turner Classic Movies: three silent features about circus clowns.


12:45am (EST): He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

The very acme of over-the-top storytelling, based on the play by Leonid Andreyev and directed by Swedish director Victor Sjöström (rendered “Seastrom” in most American advertising). In this one, Lon Chaney plays a scientist whose life’s work AND girlfriend are stolen by a devilish Baron, who compounds the humiliation by slapping him in front of all his colleagues, who then proceed to laugh at him. Traumatized, he naturally becomes a circus clown whose entire job is to re-enact this same humiliation night after night after night. THEN, to top it off, that Baron shows up one night and begins attempting to steal the NEW love of his life (Norma Shearer). This of course is too much and Chaney does what he can to prevent it. But this is a tragedy — don’t go looking for a happy ending. Also in the cast are John Gilbert and two honest-to-God clowns, Ford Sterling and Clyde Cook. This was one of the first movies released by the newly-formed MGM.


2:15am: (EST): Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Loretta Young was all of 14 when she played Lon Chaney’s love interest in this creepy but tragic romance, directed by Herbert Brenon. Based on an earlier stage play by David Belasco, and starring Lionel Barrymore, Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) tells the story of Tito, a circus clown who finds a baby and raises her as his daughter (Loretta Young).


“Yes! Please powder my distinctly prominent nose, my dear!”

When she grows to young womanhood Tito has the horrible predicament of falling in love with her — the creep! If that weren’t dilemma enough, the girl falls in love with a rich, young suitor. Tito solves it all (I can hardly be spoiling it, can I? the ending is pretty famous) with a spectacular death scene in front of a crowded circus audience. This story is one of the origins of the “sad clown” motif, and the film was the origin of the popular song by the same name. Nils Asther also in the cast.



3:45am: (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Charlie Chaplin‘s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.


So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.


And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”


Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!


5:15am: (EST): Chaplin Today: The Circus (2003)

Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica shares his impressions of Chaplin’s The Circus in this 26 minute documentary short.

For more on clowns and silent film don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media. 

Get Yerself a Vaudeville Valentine

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, PLUGS, Valentine's Day with tags , , , on February 4, 2015 by travsd


Becca Bernard, clown musician extraordinaire, whom four or five of you may remember from Dead End Dummy last fall, wants you to know about her Singing Telegram service, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day.  Accompanied by her trusty uke, Becca will work with you to customize an original song, which she’ll deliver at your loved one’s home or work (which, is much better I think you’ll agree, because it is more embarrassing). Becca radiates a very positive, infectious spirit (she’s a hospital clown, too) so I’d recommend her and her service not just as a gift for your Valentine or significant other, but for ANYONE you’d like to make happy for any reason whatsoever. DO IT! I’m Trav S.D., a non-paid, non-attorney spokesperson.

To find out more about Becca’s Singing Valentines visit her site:


On the Great Grimaldi

Posted in Clown, Comedy with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by travsd


All honor and reverence to the spirit of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) on this his birthday. Grimaldi expanded the part of “Clown” from the harlequinade portion of British pantomimes into a starring role. Indeed, he made be said to be the reason we call all clowns “clowns” today. Prior to him, the role was a character rather than an entire mode of performance. Some are said to still refer to clowns as “Joeys” today, although I’ve never heard anyone do that. Grimaldi was the biggest star of the London stage of his day, a sort of national treasure. Chaplin aspired to something like his eminence and respect when he himself became a famous clown (he may be said to have exceeded it).

As its Christmas season, expect to be hearing more about the British pantomimes hereabouts in the near future.

For more slapstick and clown history don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 



Emmett Kelly (a.k.a. Weary Willie)

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Clown, Irish with tags , , , , on December 9, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), whose Weary Willie character was probably the best known (or best recognized) circus clown of the 20th century. Kelly started out as a trapeze artist with the John Robinson circus in 1923; by 1931 he was a full time clown. He b egan as a white face clown, but gradually developed his familiar hobo character Weary Willie over time, a Chaplinesque creation that spoke to the mood of the nation during the Depression.

From 1942 to 1956 he was the star clown of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was one of the few sawdust clowns to be so popular with audiences that he broke through to other media: he was in Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), he was mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1956), and he did lots of television and this is how he became a household word. Everyone remembers his favorite bit of sweeping up after the show (and stubbornly trying to sweep up the pool of light from a spotlight). And think about it: how many circus clowns were ever on the Carol Burnett Show?

For more on clown and slapstick history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


To find out more about show biz past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Stars of Slapstick #4: Toto

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , on October 2, 2013 by travsd

Neither the small Scotty dog from The Wizard of Oz, nor the rather embarrassing 70s’ rock band, nor the later Italian movie star, this Toto was a successful clown who conquered many kinds of stages, often performing with a dog named Whiskey. Born in 1888 in Switzerland, he came to the States during the First World War . He achieved the highest fame possible in his line during that era. 1918 was the peak for him in the U.S. — in that year he first played the Palace and began making comedy shorts for Hal Roach. The Roach shorts didn’t work out. Toto left the studio the following year, leaving a void that was filled by Stan Laurel. But he continued to play the Palace many times until its switch to feature films in 1932. In 1938, it was erroneously reported that he had died. He wrote the newspaper to complain. The following day he was dead. Never jump to conclusions!

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Oscar Willis, a.k.a. “Willio”

Posted in African American Interest, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Clown with tags , , , , on July 14, 2013 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Oscar Willis (Oscar Henry McLain, 1843-1881). Interestingly, though the above photograph of him is in wide circulation (and for good reason, it’s rather disturbing) the only place I was able to find any biographical information on him was in An Authentic History of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. B.P.O.E., indeed.

His father was an Irish immigrant who made a pile of money for himself as a hat manufacturer in Pittsburg. Oscar went against dad’s wishes to join a minstrel show at age 12 as a banjo player and “Ethopian Comedian.” Like most in his line he performed with dozens of outfits, including many which bore his own name: Willis and McAndrews’ Minstrels; Schoolcraft, Coe and Willis Minstrels; Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels; Cairncross and Dixey’s Minstrels; and Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. At one point he performed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which is where this photo comes from. He died of T.B. whilst managing the Bismark Opera House in Bismark, Dakota Territory.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc



Red Bastard Returns Tomorrow

Posted in BROOKLYN, Clown, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on July 8, 2013 by travsd


Yea, verily the Redness of the Bastard is like unto the Whiteness of the White, White Whale.

Red Bastard (learn all about him here) used to breathe the soot of New York City along with the rest of the drudges. Now he traipses the globe with something called “Surk Doo Solay” so we scarcely get to see him work his weirdness any more. Fortunately he can be caught (though I doubt he can be kept) tomorrow Tuesday, July 9 at 8pm at Cloud City, 85 N. 1st Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn. More deets below:

1 night only

Could this 5-star, Dangerous, Seductive, Comedy-Monster literally change your life? Experience the madness of this outrageous, award-winning knockout. “Something interesting must happen every 10 seconds,” and it will as Red Bastard lures his “students” into raw conversation, traps, rewards, and catch 22s in this absurdly sadistic masterclass. His mission: Charm/disarm, Shock-and-seduce. His Target: you!

Best Theater: 2012 Hollywood Fringe
Most Outrageous Show: 2012 Hollywood Fringe
Footlight Community Commitment Award: 2012

“Any art that is worth existing tries to accomplish what this confrontational monster succeeds in doing. This volcanic tour de force forces people to reevaluate how they live their lives. …this marvel is the single most courageous effort I’ve witnessed inside the walls of a theatre.” LA THEATRE REVIEW


Very, Very Funny- NYTIMES

Created under the direction of Sue Morrison with continued direction by Deanna Fleysher.
written by Eric Davis
with Deanna Fleysher and Sue Morrison

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