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The Circus Clown: run away with Joe E. Brown

One of the earliest instances of split-screen technology found in a talkie

The Circus Clown: Joe E. Brown at cross-purposes with crossdresser Don Dillaway.
The Circus Clown: Joe E. Brown at cross-purposes with crossdresser Don Dillaway.

It’s a circus of reviews this week, starting with Joe E. Brown as the rube roustabout who follows elephants with a shovel with the same fervor as he does the comely cross-dressing equestrian toying with his affections.

The Circus Clown (1934)

Wasn’t it the late comedian George Miller who blessed us with one of the surefire pickup lines of all time: “Excuse me. You look familiar. Aren’t your parents circus folk?” If the person on the receiving end responds with a smile, there is a good chance your senses of humor are sympatico. Joe E. Brown will forever be remembered for delivering the “Nobody’s perfect” curtain line in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, but few recall that the comedian’s first brush with celluloid transvestism took place under the big top in this pre-code curiosity. Brown arrived in Hollywood with sawdust in his veins. In his youth, he performed with a troupe of traveling acrobats known as the Marvelous Ashtons. He was the original big mouth; the ravine between his teeth was so wide, one could use it to store manhole covers, sideways. His successful run of hits for Warners in the ‘30s made him a household name, but none were odder than the tale of a bumpkin who runs off to join the circus, in part to romance the company’s premier female impersonator-cum-bareback rider.

Practical effects mavens will want to take note. Examples of split-screen technology in silent films can be found as far back as 1913 in Lois Weber’s Suspense. The Circus Clown contains one of the earliest instances of the process found in a talkie. The device was most popular when it came to “twinning” an actor, or in this case, having Brown appear in the same frame as both retired roustabout Pop Howard and his aptly-named son, Happy. Pop did his best to hide his years in the circus from Happy, but to no avail: the boy was destined to follow in his father’s size 21E clodhoppers. The production smacks of authenticity, bringing together a background cast consisting of dozens of three-ring notables popular in the day. Brown did many of his own stunts; he may not be the man flying on the trapeze in longshot, but in closeup he performs his fair share of floating through the air and contorting on a trampoline.

It’s been said that running away from home to live life as a carny was every boy’s dream, but you couldn’t prove it by this coulrophobe. My first encounter with the Ringling Bros. proved to be my last: caged animals and nerve-rattling gunshots fired by a gaggle of sad-faced clowns, combined with the stomach-curdling stench of fresh elephant droppings, landed a fatal one-two punch to this four-year-old’s central nervous system. The same can’t be said of our star acrobat wannabe. Even before one tentpole is pounded, Happy is smitten with specialty act siren, Mlle. La Tour, or as his friends call her, Jack (Don Dillaway). The ragbag gang of spiteful carnival workers gather outside Mlle. La Tour’s tent and eavesdrop as Happy, seduced by the twinkling decolletage, happily agrees to zip her up. Aboard the circus train, he gets invited into Jack’s private accommodations for a prank that ends with the confused Romeo being shot at while running through the sleeping car.

The lion wasn’t born that could out-roar Happy (or human siren Brown), which explains why he spends his days in a cage scratching Leo’s mane. Before Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, lions were employed as monsters to scare comedians silly. (Remember the reflection in the glass that separated The 3 Stooges from a real-life king of beasts? Or better still: the stuffed FAO Schwarz roarer used for the reverse-angles?) Happy mistakes aggressive Dynamite for a passive Leo, proving beyond a doubt that boys and girls aren’t the only thing he can’t differentiate between.

Par for the course, a Warner Bros. picture from this period packs a lot of story into a scant running time, in this case, a fleet 64 minutes. Jack is but one of a superabundance of potential love interests to keep Happy merry. The knife-thrower, convinced that it’s Happy making time with his old lady, whistles one in the direction of our hero. Earlier in the show, Happy saves young Dickie (Ronnie Cosby) from being trampled by a Clydesdale. Certain that Alice (Patricia Ellis) is the boy’s birth mother — and not an aunt looking after her nephew until Frank (Gordon Wescott), her shiftless drunk of a brother, straightens out — Happy continues his filtration with Jack. Midway gossip pegs Frank as a teetotaler until that tragic day two years ago when his wife accidentally slipped from his grip and fell to her death.

Circus owner Mr. Sheldon (Charles C. Wilson) is not thrilled at the risky prospect of Frank’s return to the center ring, but Alice vouches for him, promising to accept full responsibility for her brother’s behavior. Alice then walks in on a fight over a bottle that ends with Happy pretending that the hooch he wrested from Frank’s grasp was his. To prove it, career abstainer Happy downs a healthy couple of swigs and screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (Groucho’s songwriters of choice) proceed to play the drunk gag to the fullest. When Happy overhears Jack reveling in the deception, he reacts with what today would be considered fag-bashing, but in 1934 passed for comic relief. We end with Happy finally getting the recognition due him, but not before Pops gets the best of Ward Bond. Oddly enough, this one has never found a home on home video. Bootleg copies await your attention on eBay, or set an alarm for the next time it plays TCM.

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The Circus Clown: Joe E. Brown at cross-purposes with crossdresser Don Dillaway.
The Circus Clown: Joe E. Brown at cross-purposes with crossdresser Don Dillaway.

It’s a circus of reviews this week, starting with Joe E. Brown as the rube roustabout who follows elephants with a shovel with the same fervor as he does the comely cross-dressing equestrian toying with his affections.

The Circus Clown (1934)

Wasn’t it the late comedian George Miller who blessed us with one of the surefire pickup lines of all time: “Excuse me. You look familiar. Aren’t your parents circus folk?” If the person on the receiving end responds with a smile, there is a good chance your senses of humor are sympatico. Joe E. Brown will forever be remembered for delivering the “Nobody’s perfect” curtain line in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, but few recall that the comedian’s first brush with celluloid transvestism took place under the big top in this pre-code curiosity. Brown arrived in Hollywood with sawdust in his veins. In his youth, he performed with a troupe of traveling acrobats known as the Marvelous Ashtons. He was the original big mouth; the ravine between his teeth was so wide, one could use it to store manhole covers, sideways. His successful run of hits for Warners in the ‘30s made him a household name, but none were odder than the tale of a bumpkin who runs off to join the circus, in part to romance the company’s premier female impersonator-cum-bareback rider.

Practical effects mavens will want to take note. Examples of split-screen technology in silent films can be found as far back as 1913 in Lois Weber’s Suspense. The Circus Clown contains one of the earliest instances of the process found in a talkie. The device was most popular when it came to “twinning” an actor, or in this case, having Brown appear in the same frame as both retired roustabout Pop Howard and his aptly-named son, Happy. Pop did his best to hide his years in the circus from Happy, but to no avail: the boy was destined to follow in his father’s size 21E clodhoppers. The production smacks of authenticity, bringing together a background cast consisting of dozens of three-ring notables popular in the day. Brown did many of his own stunts; he may not be the man flying on the trapeze in longshot, but in closeup he performs his fair share of floating through the air and contorting on a trampoline.

It’s been said that running away from home to live life as a carny was every boy’s dream, but you couldn’t prove it by this coulrophobe. My first encounter with the Ringling Bros. proved to be my last: caged animals and nerve-rattling gunshots fired by a gaggle of sad-faced clowns, combined with the stomach-curdling stench of fresh elephant droppings, landed a fatal one-two punch to this four-year-old’s central nervous system. The same can’t be said of our star acrobat wannabe. Even before one tentpole is pounded, Happy is smitten with specialty act siren, Mlle. La Tour, or as his friends call her, Jack (Don Dillaway). The ragbag gang of spiteful carnival workers gather outside Mlle. La Tour’s tent and eavesdrop as Happy, seduced by the twinkling decolletage, happily agrees to zip her up. Aboard the circus train, he gets invited into Jack’s private accommodations for a prank that ends with the confused Romeo being shot at while running through the sleeping car.

The lion wasn’t born that could out-roar Happy (or human siren Brown), which explains why he spends his days in a cage scratching Leo’s mane. Before Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, lions were employed as monsters to scare comedians silly. (Remember the reflection in the glass that separated The 3 Stooges from a real-life king of beasts? Or better still: the stuffed FAO Schwarz roarer used for the reverse-angles?) Happy mistakes aggressive Dynamite for a passive Leo, proving beyond a doubt that boys and girls aren’t the only thing he can’t differentiate between.

Par for the course, a Warner Bros. picture from this period packs a lot of story into a scant running time, in this case, a fleet 64 minutes. Jack is but one of a superabundance of potential love interests to keep Happy merry. The knife-thrower, convinced that it’s Happy making time with his old lady, whistles one in the direction of our hero. Earlier in the show, Happy saves young Dickie (Ronnie Cosby) from being trampled by a Clydesdale. Certain that Alice (Patricia Ellis) is the boy’s birth mother — and not an aunt looking after her nephew until Frank (Gordon Wescott), her shiftless drunk of a brother, straightens out — Happy continues his filtration with Jack. Midway gossip pegs Frank as a teetotaler until that tragic day two years ago when his wife accidentally slipped from his grip and fell to her death.

Circus owner Mr. Sheldon (Charles C. Wilson) is not thrilled at the risky prospect of Frank’s return to the center ring, but Alice vouches for him, promising to accept full responsibility for her brother’s behavior. Alice then walks in on a fight over a bottle that ends with Happy pretending that the hooch he wrested from Frank’s grasp was his. To prove it, career abstainer Happy downs a healthy couple of swigs and screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (Groucho’s songwriters of choice) proceed to play the drunk gag to the fullest. When Happy overhears Jack reveling in the deception, he reacts with what today would be considered fag-bashing, but in 1934 passed for comic relief. We end with Happy finally getting the recognition due him, but not before Pops gets the best of Ward Bond. Oddly enough, this one has never found a home on home video. Bootleg copies await your attention on eBay, or set an alarm for the next time it plays TCM.

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