Reading the description of the 1934 Joe E. Brown Circus Clown offered by Turner Classic Movies during a daytime marathon of Brown '30s comedies definitely piqued my interest. The story of a small town bumpkin who is smitten by an equestrian female impersonator into joining the circus, Clown grabbed me in two ways: first, I've long nursed an abiding fascination with old-fashioned circus and sideshow — and love to watch movies set in that milieu — and, second, Brown was the one who delivered the knock-out punchline to Jack Lemmon in the classic drag comedy, Some Like It Hot. While there's no way that this mild, kid-friendly comedy was gonna match Billy Wilder's film for big laffs, it could provide an intriguing contrast to Hot, I thought.
Brown's hero, Happy Howard, is the son of a former circus performer who dreams of joining the Big Top against his father's wishes. To this end, he spends all his free time practicing on a trampoline in the barn, though non-observant papa (also played by Brown) apparently remains oblivious to these goings-on for years. Things come to a head when the Busby-Bixley Circus comes to town, and both father and son sneak out to watch the show. There, our hero is twitterpated by the sight of the beautiful rider, "Mademoiselle La Tour," a female impersonator named Jack (Donald Dillaway), and he runs away to join the circus.
Once discovered, he's given a series of menial jobs (washing the elephants, babysitting the circus's tame lion Leo) as he dreams of some day being a big-shot midway performer. Though he still doesn't know the truth about the flirtatious "Mademoiselle," this subplot is largely relegated to the background as our hero befriends the fetching aerialist Alice (Patricia Ellis) and her nephew Dickie, whose father is an alcoholic aerial clown billed as Laffo. The cute kid scenes are, thankfully, kept to a minimum.
The flick's big moments of extended comedy include a sequence where our hero gets pushed into being the target of a jealous knife-thrower's sideshow act ("Don't throw any more," Happy advises as the knives head close and closer to his most sensitive area, "you're gonna ruin my suit!") and a bit where he mistakes an escaped savage lion for a tame one. There's also a moment where our big-mouthed hero gets into a yowling contest with one of the caged beasts; no surprise as to who wins that particular competition.