Tuesday , May 21 2024
A Joe E. Brown circus flick from the '30s dabbles with drag comedy.

Movie Review: Circus Clown (1934)

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.

Since the comedian originally started out as a circus performer, he's able to do most of his acrobatic moments on camera by himself, though reports vary as to whether he actually performed the movie's climactic trapeze work or had a double do it. Our hero has taken the place of Alice's alcoholic brother Frank on the trapeze, a subplot that primarily exists to provide a romantic complication between Happy and Alice after our hero temporarily enables Frank's drinking problems by pretending to be a lush himself. It's only a minor bump in the storyline — much like the female impersonator bit — so we never really doubt that Alice and Happy won't be smooching by movie's end.

As '30s comedies go, Circus Clown can't compete with one of Brown's best (the baseball comedy, Alibi Ike, for instance), though it has its agreeable moments. It captures its circus backyard milieu quite nicely, though I can't help wishing that director Ray Enright had given us a good pan of the show's sideshow performers in the movie's sole Ten-in-One scene. The drag set-up never gets as comically outlandish as you wish, but perhaps that's putting 21st century standards on a movie produced during the same time that the censorious Hays Office was gaining power.

At this writing, Brown's circus pic does not appear to be available on DVD or Blu-ray, though, perhaps, its presence as part of a TCM bloc signifies its eventual release as part of a set of '30s-era Brown comedies. If there's not a single moment in Clown which makes me laugh as hard as Osgood Fielding III's tango with a dismayed "Daphne," the movie's essential good nature carries it in a way that many modern movie comedies can't match. I credit Brown's easygoing performance for this: the man clearly had a way in front of the camera, even if the vehicles he selected weren't always up to his comedic talents.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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