Clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right – what a month it’s been for coulrophobes. With Stephen King’s iconic child-snatcher Pennywise back in cinemas with It Chapter Two (2019) and Todd Phillips’ incoming Joker (2019) winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, those with a fear of balloon-wielding bozos will be forgiven a rise in anxiety levels.
Initially, this list was going to serve as something of a corrective to the increasingly fevered perception of clowns in the popular imagination, tainted by the likes of Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise in the 1990 TV incarnation of It, or the spate of real-life creepy clown sightings that peaked in October 2016.
Yet cinematic history has largely proved unkind to its circus chumps, with those not actively psychotic often cast as the butt of society’s jokes. Breaks doled out to these mirth-makers on the silver screen are few and far between.
Of course, the cultural role of the sad clown long predates cinema, just as it does the 17th-century pierrot, a figure central to Italy’s commedia dell’arte, most famously incarnated as the eponymous lead of Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci.
Given the cultural heritage afforded those who just want to raise a smile, it’s perhaps no surprise that there are more than a few screws loose in the rundown below. As Pagliaccio himself proved, the road from painted prankster to knife-wielding maniac can be a short one for the wronged clown.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Director Victor Sjöström
“In the grim comedy of life…” begins the opening title card for Swedish master Victor Sjöström’s dark tale of masochism and humiliation. It could serve as the opening words for many a film on our list, but few can lay claim to such abject levels of grimness. Lon Chaney stars as a scientist labouring to prove the origins of man under the patronage of a wealthy baron. When it comes time to present his findings to the Academy of Sciences, the baron passes the research off as his own, publicly slapping Chaney’s face when he contests.
“He slapped me, Marie,” he says to the wife who swiftly leaves him for the baron. “I would have killed him, but they laughed – laughed as if I were a clown.” Broken, he joins the circus as The Man Who Gets Slapped, re-enacting his humiliation on stage every night, inviting a hoard of clowns to smack him in the face as he slowly goes mad. Dark stuff indeed, and pregnant with twisted imagery of the clowns haunting his waking dreams. It culminates in vengeful murder and the freeing of a circus lion, implored by the riven man to “Come, give me the last slap.”
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Director Paul Leni
Carl Laemmle, head honcho at Universal, had a taste for the darker corners of literary adaptation. While the studio’s celebrated monster franchise didn’t properly kick off until Dracula (1931), Laemmle had already mounted spectacular productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both starring Lon Chaney. He returned to the work of Victor Hugo for this lesser-known adaptation, with Conrad Veidt in the title role of a travelling player known as The Laughing Man.
Following an insult to King James II, a nobleman is killed and his son sold to a band of “gypsy traders in stolen children… carving flesh so they resemble monstrous clowns and jesters.” The boy is handed a permanent smile, etched into his face “so he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.” Veidt is the exiled boy as an adult, thought dead but heir to a fortune, and in love with the blind girl (Mary Philbin) he rescued as a baby. German émigré director Paul Leni lends the startling expressionist charge, but the film belongs to Veidt’s extraordinary emotional range, all transmitted from behind an unyielding rictus grin.
The Circus (1928)
Director Charles Chaplin
“Bring on the funny man!” demand the crowds in the big top. The Little Man has just caused havoc, escaping from the police into a circus tent where a shudder of clowns are failing to raise a laugh. “He’s a sensation but he doesn’t know it,” says the ringmaster as the tramp brings the house down. “Keep him on as a property man.”
“A low-brow comedy for high-brows” is how Chaplin described The Circus, which might just lay claim to being the funniest of his feature films. Developed under the working title The Clown, the film came into being following second thoughts on an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, The Suicide Club. If there’s a rejoinder to binary notions of the clown as either depressed or evil, it’s surely to be found in Chaplin’s unabashed romanticism. “It’s purely romantic in the treatment,” said Chaplin, “It’s a very funny comedy; it has lots of invention and little reality.”
Director Charles Chaplin
As early as 1922, Charles Chaplin had plans to bring the story of Pagliaccio to the screen. It took him 30 years, within which time the tale he chose to tell instead took on much more personal overtones. “I mean to make this the greatest picture of my career,” he said. “Whether it makes me or breaks me, I want just once to put that on screen which I feel to be my best work.” What emerged was one of cinema’s great romantic tragedies.
Centred on Calvero (Chaplin), an ageing clown who rescues a young dancer (Claire Bloom) from suicide and nurses her back to health, encouraging her back on to the stage and into the arms of an admirer, even as she falls in love with him, Limelight began life as Footlights, a novel. Uniting Chaplin on screen with his contemporary Buster Keaton for a late set-piece, the film would touchingly speak to the filmmaker’s past and present fears of obsolescence, albeit with an unabated artistic surety.
As his son, Charles Chaplin Jr, beautifully put it: “Calvero is the Little Fellow grown older and wiser, and more melancholy, always trying to better himself but never succeeding. This theme gives away my father’s own basic feeling of insecurity. Inwardly he is still the Little Fellow, with the unhappy feeling that he is something of a failure because he hasn’t accomplished all he wished to in his life. It is the philosophy of a perfectionist who, try as he may, and work as hard as he can, still never achieves that final goal which seems to hover tantalisingly just out of reach.”
Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)
Director Ingmar Bergman
Made the same year but released after Summer with Monika (1953), the picture that served as Ingmar Bergman’s international breakthrough, Sawdust and Tinsel would prove another early success for the Swedish master, especially in the US, where it was more enticingly titled The Naked Night. Its most famous sequence comes early, as Frost the circus clown (Anders Ek) retrieves his naked wife (Gudrun Brost) from the sea, where she’s been showing off her body to a group of soldiers in fragile, needy desperation.
The tears of a clown are barely held back, as Frost’s face contorts beneath his pale make-up, unable to avoid the abject humiliation of the laughs cast his way. The film soon shifts focus away from the clown and onto the ringmaster (Åke Grönberg) and his mistress, played by Bergman regular – and erstwhile Monika – Harriet Andersson, but the theme of sexual debasement lingers. Not one of Bergman’s greatest, perhaps, but as key a transitional work as it is a part of the cuckold-clown canon; seemingly as populous as the sad-clown and killer-clown subgenres.
La strada (1954)
Director Federico Fellini
In La strada, Fellini’s wife and leading lady Giulietta Masina gave life to one of cinema’s most recognised clowns in Gelsomina, the poor village girl sold to strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) in a bid to feed her family. Fellini clearly felt strong kinship with the clown figure, fashioning an entire documentary for Italian television on the subject some years later with The Clowns (1970).
La strada, which would belatedly win the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1956, straddled the divide between the neorealist aesthetic and his more indulgent – and fancifully grotesque – later works, telling a timeworn tale as seemingly born out of myth as it was the generic rituals of the commedia dell’arte. Martin Scorsese, one of the film’s biggest fans, seems most irresistibly drawn to the figure of Zampanò, and he’s spoken often of the character’s influence on figures in his own filmography. His may be the more complex figure here, but it’s Masina, in her naivety, who lends the emotional pull, delivering a character who seems to transcend any and all generic precedents.
The Day the Clown Cried (1972, unreleased)
Director Jerry Lewis
Although it’s an important inclusion on any list of clown films, there’s only so much we can say about Jerry Lewis’ 1972 film maudit. Only a handful of people have ever laid eyes on The Day the Clown Cried, a Holocaust drama suppressed by its maker upon completion. It’s one of cinema’s holy grails, with just a single copy allegedly locked away in the Library of Congress, with stipulations that it not be publicly screened until at least 2024. Others say that a complete version of the film no longer exists, so perhaps all we’ll ever get to see are the 31 minutes that leaked online in 2015 following a German TV documentary on its production.
The film follows a clown sent to Auschwitz for insulting Hitler, where he’s tasked with entertaining the children of the camp. Comedian Harry Shearer, one of the few who saw the film back in 1979, described it as “so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy… wildly misplaced”. Lewis himself was rarely drawn on the film, and the expectations levelled at it, stating in 2013 that it could now only possibly be: “Better than Citizen Kane, or the worst piece of shit that anyone ever loaded on the projector.”
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Director Stephen Chiodo
No one could come out of Killer Klowns from Outer Space arguing that they didn’t get what was advertised. The sole directorial feature from FX guy Stephen Chiodo – responsible for creating those other space pests, Critters (1986) – it’s a film that proves wholly committed to the single idea summed up in its title.
“Killer clowns? From outer space?” asks the disbelieving sheriff when an interstellar big-top lands in the forest outside a small town. Soon the titular trio are on the rampage, shooting citizens with popcorn guns that turn them into candyfloss cocoons (“Nobody stores cotton candy like this!”) and unleashing attack dogs fashioned out of balloons. Episodic and overextended, sure, but also sincere in its homage to 50s sci-fi, it makes the most of its cheerfully designed Spitting Image-style creature work. The very notion of evaluative criticism dies a swift death in the face of a giant clown-ex-machina descending for the finale.
Director Tim Burton
A couple of important questions here. Firstly, is the Joker even a clown? At the risk of alienating a contingent of Batman superfans with strong opinions on the matter, we’ll just say that there appears to be plenty of online discussion on the matter, and defer to his alternate moniker, The Clown Prince of Crime.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, if we’ve only room for one Joker here, which one makes the cut? Do we go with small-screen originator, Cesar Romero? The Oscar-winning Heath Ledger? Voice-lender Mark Hamill, or new kid on the blocks of Gotham, Joaquin Phoenix?
Robin Williams might have been added to the list, having been offered the, let’s face it, lead role in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster when Jack Nicholson paused for thought before accepting. It wasn’t to be, of course, and this was an easy pick for us, much like the astronomical residual payday was an easy win for Jack. It’s a big, beautiful performance for the ages. All of the above are too, one might argue – but only one of them cuts a slick groove to Prince.
Quick Change (1990)
Director Howard Franklin and Bill Murray
“What kind of clown are you?” asks the bank security guard of the bozo with a gun. “The crying on the inside kind, I guess,” he replies. It makes for a great introduction to the deserves-to-be-way-better-known Quick Change, with a close-up of the ever-dolorous Bill Murray in clown make-up, an exaggerated upturned smile painted over that wearied sulk.
The clown business only concerns the first act here, a bank robbery performed by Murray and his co-conspirators (Geena Davis, Randy Quaid). With dynamite strapped to his chest and loot soon strapped to his body, he outwits Jason Robards’ police chief with demands for helicopters and a monster truck before defrocking the clown and sauntering out the front door.
The rest of the picture – on which Murray shares his only directing credit – plays as a daylight cousin to the likes of After Hours (1985) and Sleepwalk (1986), with its episodic, random encounters and caustic take on a pre-gentrified NYC. A comedy, and a funny one at that, but one whose social satire cuts deeper than its surface laughs.