Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July of 2010.
Used to be that folks would go to the circus and have a grand time. Under the big top people would munch on peanuts and popcorn as they were enthralled by the ringmaster, trapeze artists, lion tamers, acrobats, and, of course, the clowns. They were hysterical, an absolute delight to watch!
But lately clowns have fallen out of favor. Not only are people not entertained by the Bozos or Clarabells of the world anymore, there is a distinct feeling of repulsion and dread towards them.
It occurs to me that Hollywood was ahead of the curve on the topic of clowns in movies as, historically, it seems to have always taken a dim view of those performers who wish for nothing else but for us to laugh.
The most recognizable funny faces in either starring or supporting roles follow, accompanied by a brief summation. There are also icons that relate to each clown; here is the key:
So without further ado, send in the clowns…
“No clowns around here,” says Bozo (Gary Busey). “Clowns are funny; I’m scary!” He sure is, as he mercilessly taunts marks at his dunk tank. He doesn’t just abuse the carnival-goers, though. When he becomes romantically involved with a cute teenage runaway (Jodie Foster) he tells his best bud, Patch (Robbie Robertson), “it’s not my girlfriend, it’s our girlfriend.” Nice.
The Clown (1953)
Dodo Delwyn (Red Skelton) was once a major player in vaudeville, now reduced to taking pies in the face for cheap laughs. He also has a battle with the bottle (and gambling)—not the best atmosphere for raising his young son, Dink (Tim Considine). But with Dink and his agent’s help Dodo embarks on path to redemption…but at a steep cost.
While at center stage the circus clowns amuse their audience by performing all sorts of comic routines and pratfalls…at the expense of young Dumbo, who sadly endures their humiliations. When asked to take it easy on the floppy-eared pachyderm, Skinny the clown coldly retorts: “elephants ain’t got no feelings.”
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Even his fellow circus performers have no idea who Buttons the Clown is, especially since he never takes off his makeup (and, no, we’re not giving away who’s behind the greasepaint here). Turns out he’s really an on-the-lam doctor hiding out from detectives who are on his tail for the (implied) euthanasia of his wife.
We best remember a grown Michael Myers donning a “Captain Kirk” mask and stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). But let’s not forget that it was a six-year-old Myers who took a knife from his kitchen and proceeded upstairs to kill his wanton sister…all while dressed in a clown’s outfit and mask.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
In short order scientist Paul Beaumont’s (Lon Chaney) research is pilfered, he’s slapped, called a clown, and cuckolded. Humiliated, Paul assumes a clown’s identity, naming himself He Who Gets Slapped. He then falls for a beautiful circus performer…but his past catches up to him with bittersweet results.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie’s scuzzy horror flick features gas station owner/clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), the leader of a clan of white trash sociopaths. In a perverse twist, Spaulding rages against those who profess a disdain of clowns.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
They may look like clowns, but they’re actually space aliens looking for a good meal…humans! This z-grade black comedy contains a bevy of cool sight gags, including a Big Top spaceship, cotton candy guns, and killer shadow-puppets.
La Strada (1954)
Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded waif sold by her mother to a brutish Gypsy, Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Respectively performing as a clown and strongman in a circus, Zampano cruelly dominates her, even though she plainly cares for him. She eventually runs away into the arms of another circus performer, but a happy ending is not to be…
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
Travelling circus clown Tito (Chaney) finds and rears an abandoned baby girl. Now grown, his “daughter” (Loretta Young) becomes a wealthy suitor’s object of affection. Problem is, much to his dismay, Tito is attracted to her as well. Oh, boy. This can only end badly.
Little Big Top (2006)
The students at a struggling clown school are in dire need of some guidance. The good news: famous clown Seymour Smiles (Haig) has returned to his hometown. The bad: he’s a washed-up drunk who wants nothing more to do with the circus.
Agent 009 stumbles into a British embassy and dies while dressed in a clown outfit clutching a Fabergé egg. James Bond (Roger Moore) is sent to find out who killed him and what fiendish plot is in the works. Donning that same clown disguise, 007 finds that some circuses are not all fun and games.
Quick Change (1990)
What kind of clown is Grimm (Bill Murray)? “The cryin’ on the inside, I guess.” That’s for sure when he and his partners in crime come to realize that compared to their well-orchestrated bank heist, simply trying to get out of New York City is no laughing matter.
Shakes the Clown (1991)
Shakes the Clown (writer/director/star Bobcat Goldthwait) has pretty much hit rock bottom, the last straw losing out to his face-painted rival Binky (Tom Kenny) as the replacement host of a local TV kiddie show. Binky has also framed him for murder, something the drunken Shakes cannot disprove even to himself.
Short Cuts (1993)
Claire Kane (Anne Archer) may be a kids’ party clown but she’s no fool. Not like the married cop who falsely pulled her over just to hit on her. Or like her husband Stuart (Fred Ward), who went on a fishing trip with his buddies and discovered a body in the water but didn’t report it until days later so it wouldn’t spoil their outing.
The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Krusty is well known for his on-screen ebullience and off-screen depression, as well as his sub-standard products and promotions. His fast food restaurant’s latest menu item–a pork delicacy dubbed The Clogger (“If you can find a greasier sandwich, you’re in Mexico!”)–is just the latest item Krusty is shamelessly hawking.
Assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) dies, goes to Hell, and is returned to Earth as Spawn, a Hellspawn in the Devil’s army. But when he vacillates between choosing good and evil The Violator (John Leguizamo), a demon who has disguised himself as a grotesque, obese 3’10” clown, tries to trick him into starting the apocalypse.
Stephen King’s It (1990)
Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry): Sounds so happy-go-lucky, right? In his true form he’s actually a child-killing giant evil spider! Otherwise known as It, the fiend has been tormenting the youths of Derry, Maine and it’s the mission of childhood outsiders—“the Losers Club”—to destroy It.
Uncle Buck (1989)
Kids’ party chaperone Buck Russell (John Candy) isn’t thrilled when Pooter the Clown shows up making inappropriate comments and still half in the bag after a bachelor party the night before. After Buck calls him on it Pooter snarls, “I don’t have to take any s— from you. You know who I am? In the field of local, live home entertainment, I’m a god!”
The Pirate (1948)
More famous for singing “Be a Clown” than actually performing as one in this musical, Gene Kelly nonetheless tries to woo Judy Garland while avoiding the gallows.
The Freeling family is being haunted by spirits caught between dimensions. A particularly malevolent ghost, dubbed the Beast, briefly inhabits young Robbie’s clown puppet and terrorizes him one night.
One final note: I do know about the myriad of low-budget horror films portraying clowns as demonic. For sake of brevity and obviousness, I avoided those.
Are there any famous scenes or characters that I’ve forgotten? Does Hollywood truly have it in for clowns? Have your say in the comments section!