Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE CIRCUS CLOWN (1934)

If movie fans remember Joe E. Brown at all, it's as the addled millionaire in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), who can't figure out that Jack Lemmon is only impersonating a woman until Lemmon takes his wig off in the final scene. Brown's famous response is, "Well, nobody's perfect." He was less forgiving a quarter-century earlier in Ray Enright's Circus Clown. In that film, Brown is his typical small-town dope, an aspiring acrobat with the circus in his blood, though his father (also Brown) tries to suppress it. When a circus comes to town, Happy Howard runs away with it, in part because he's smitten with a husky blonde equestrienne. We learn early, if we couldn't tell at first glance, that the blonde is too husky to be true, and not even a blonde. The circus folk rib Happy about it for most of the picture, uniting to keep the otherwise-open secret from the clueless rube. He finally learns the truth while drunk. To explain that, we have to back up a little. There's a time during the middle of the picture when it forgets about the female-impersonator subplot. During this interval Happy falls for a genuine female aerialist (Patricia Ellis), whose brother eventually rejoins the circus. The brother is a wreck, blaming himself for his wife's death in an aerial accident. He's become a lush, and before his comeback performance Happy finds him drinking from a bottle. Fearing for his girl's safety, Happy tries to snatch the bottle from him. As they struggle over it, the girl enters the tent. This provokes the sort of tragicomic moment they don't make anymore. Happy has just made good, turning an accidental intervention in an acrobat act into a spectacular spontaneous spree on the trampoline and inspiring the circus boss to offer him a contract as a performer. Now, however, it's more important to him that the girl not think badly of her brother, so he attempts career suicide. He explains to her that, in fact, he'd been trying to force a drink on the brother, who'd been fighting him off. Convinced that he has to sell this well, Happy proceeds to guzzle down the bottle. As far as we know he's never had a drink before, much less been drunk. He staggers through a herd of elephants before halting at the equestrians' tent, where he at last overhears the terrible truth about the big blonde. Inhibitions washed away, he plunges into the tent. We watch from outside as the tent threatens to implode, and we see inside as Happy knocks his tormentor for a loop. At last he emerges, brandishing the wig like a pioneer's scalp, only to plant it on the hippo who pulls his wagon in the circus parade.

Ruin follows this hollow triumph, of course, as Happy's spree costs him his contract. But this is a comedy so we know he'll make good again. The chance comes when the circus returns to his hometown. The girl's brother, who does his flying in clown makeup, is hopelessly soused when Happy finds him in the tent. There's nothing to do but lay him out and don the costume and makeup himself. Happy is no aerialist but he is an acrobat, so against the odds he makes it through the trapeze act as his father feuds with a heckling Ward Bond in the stands. His dad can tell it's Happy up there because not even clown makeup can hide the breadth of Joe E. Brown's mouth, and that's how we can tell that Brown is doing at least some of the trapeze stunts himself.  Actual flying is beyond him, I presume, and since Enright can't film close enough to the flying  to see anyone's face in detail there's no point in sending Brown out there. But there's a bit where Happy swings back and forth from his perch, the gag being that each time he struggles to stay where he's landed but can't keep his balance, and in that scene it looks like Brown himself to me. Circus Clown is another reminder, alongside his baseball comedies, that Brown, best known even in his heyday for his mouth and his yelling, was probably second only to Buster Keaton as a slapstick athlete.

Speaking of Keaton, Brown and his handlers at Warner Bros. really show up Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by knowing how to exploit the star's athleticism in a way Metro never really did with Buster. It's really the simplest thing: make his character an athlete, for goodness' sake! While M-G-M, and possibly Keaton himself, were too invested in the archetype of a bumbler who redeems himself, Brown's best comedies present him as a sort of idiot-savant, someone with indisputable physical skills marred by stupidity or some deeper character flaw. In Circus Clown, as opposed to the subtler baseball films, Brown's flaw is raw stupidity, or at best hopeless naivete, but it's exhilarating to see him on the trampoline, especially when you consider that he was about four years older, at age 43, than the deteriorating Keaton. Just to show off, he even plays the father on the trampoline, in full costume and old-man makeup, and remembers to show that he's not quite as spry as his son. If anything, Brown's way with his voice is often the most annoying thing about his films, as here when he tells a boy a bedtime story (it's Peter Pan, for what that's worth) in an insufferably high-pitched baby voice, or when he gets into a roaring competition with a lion. But when he lays off that stuff, Brown is arguably the best physical comic of Pre-Code cinema. Circus Clown was his last Pre-Code picture, the cross-dressing angle qualifying it easily for the Parade. His decline is coincidental with the advent of Code Enforcement, but can't really be blamed on it, since his comedy actually has little to do with the risque or raunchy. I haven't seen much of his later stuff so I can't really describe his decline, but I'll let you know what happened when I get a chance to see it. Until then, I recommend Joe E. Brown again as one of Hollywood's most underrated clowns.

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