No Clowning Around In Hollywood

"can't sleep, clown will eat me..."

“Can’t sleep, clown will eat me…”

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…


Carny; The Clown; Dumbo

Carny (1980)
“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.

Dumbo (1941)
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; Halloween; He Who Gets Slapped

The Greatest Show on Earth; Halloween; He Who Gets Slapped

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.


Halloween (1978)
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; Killer Klown from Outer Space; La Strada

House of 1000 Corpses; Killer Klowns from Outer Space; La Strada

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; Little Big Top; Octopussy

Laugh, Clown, Laugh; Little Big Top; Octopussy


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.


Octopussy (1983)
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; Shakes the Clown; Short Cuts

Quick Change; Shakes the Clown; Short Cuts


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; Spawn; Stephen King's It; Uncle Buck

The Simpsons Movie; Spawn; Stephen King’s It; Uncle Buck


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.


Spawn (1997)
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!”


Honorable Mentions:

The Pirate; Poltergeist


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.


Poltergeist (1982)
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!

  • George D. Allen

    This is one scary post. And under a “Missing” icon, add Helmut Doork (Jerry Lewis) from “The Day the Clown Cried”!

  • kent gravett

    Great heartbreaker of a clown in a Bergman film from thew early 50’s. Released in the USA as “The Naked Night” but orginal title of “Twilight of a Clown’ follows a small circus clown losing his wife to a lion tamer and the consquences of it all. A usual Bergman type of film but has the power of a heartbreaking story. Not shown much and usually underated.

  • Jack West

    Don’t forget “A THOUSAND CLOWNS” which doesn’t have a single clown in it.

  • Steve in Sacramento

    I haven’t seen too many of these movies, but the article was funny. Love the icons!

  • Jason Marcewicz

    George–As you know it was never actually released, but The Day the Clown Cried definitely would’ve made the list.
    Kent–A great contribution! Sorry I overlooked that one. (Seems that Hollywood isn’t the only place where clowns are not “funny: ha-ha” but “funny: strange.”

  • Stacy Borans

    Great post–Iwanted to suggest Funny Bones but that technically isn’t about clowns, per se. It’s more the whole circus atmosphere.

  • John

    It seems to me that Jesus in “Godspell” has a clown face-make of that what you will.

  • trish

    To Stacy: As I love Funny Bones, I must differ with you – it’s not about a “circus atmosphere” at all, save the end of the movie; but as for the end of the movie, I will say the Lee Evans plays the most creepy looking clown going. The makeup and the faces he makes just makes me go (((shudder))).

  • Glenn Walker

    Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me…

    Seriously, it might be an interesting counterpoint to list and examine movies where clowns -are- happy. Although I doubt there are many…

  • Marie

    A super post with very worthy comments – much information I can use in my abbreviated history of film class.
    I am so intrigued with the whole concept of the clown. As mentioned here, the clown WAS originally funny for heavens sake so what happened? Though Hollywood may have well been “ahead of the curve” I’m sure the concept of the scary clown comes from somewhere else and picked up by the movies. I am out of touch with the circus and so did not know that children no longer find the clown funny. (Hey you young parents (or grandparents) out there – does this mean little ones cry if the clown gets close?)
    So the circus clown reign is no more?
    There was even a television commercial that showed a little mechanical toy clown terrorizing a whole family. When did the clown turn lethal? Sounds like a good research topic.

  • Nick

    Thank god for this list! I’ve been on a epic, mostly fruitless, quest to find Clown movies (the few that there are) where the clowns aren’t supposed to be “scary” (why, pop-culture, why?) and are just—well, -human-. This post has been more than helpful, thank you so much!

  • vmacek

    After reading a ‘Smithsonian’ article on clown fear, I’m coming to terms with the fact that clowns have always been kind of chaotic and suspect, and the wholesome kid-friendly tv clown was as much of an aberration as the current deconstructed monster clown. Still, I’m with Nick here and would like to add to the list of sympathetic clowns with:
    – Tod Browning’s “Freaks”, where Phroso the clown is one of the good guys. We see him in makeup only briefly, but underneath he’s a hard working regular Joe who’s friends with all the title sideshow folk and gets romantically linked with a similarly decent-minded animal trainer.
    – “One Step Beyond” had ‘The Clown’, who befriended an abused child-like woman (Yvette Mimieux) and avenged her when her loutish husband killed her. Mind you, the clown is on the side of good, but he does amp up the fear factor when we keep seeing him, in reflections, right behind the lout, reaching for his neck…

  • Bruce Reber

    What about Ronald McDonald, “The Hamburger-Happy Clown”? Although he was a TV clown, it would be interesting to see how you rate him, Mr. Marcewicz. A possible future blog topic – TV clowns, what few of them there were.

  • Bruce Reber

    IMO the fear of clowns may have a connection to Satan, and that all clowns (especially the creepy ones) are his evil minions. Just a thought.

  • Bruce Reber

    “Happy Clown” – how’s that for an oxymoron?!