Chaplin’s Circus”, a film originally released in 1928, does a remarkable job
of preserving early twentieth century circus clown history.
In 1969, Chaplin released it with a musical sound track that he composed.
It is available now on DVD for us to study and enjoy.
opening title sequence of the musical version, Charlie Chaplin can be heard
singing one of his compositions. Singing
was definitely a part of the American circus in the 1920’s.
During that decade many shows started with a big production number or
spec that included a song by a prima donna who was seated on a horse or
elephant. Singing clowns had been
very popular during the 1800’s, but had declined after the turn of the
century. Here are some of the last
performances by singing clowns that I have been able to locate:
James Swetham (1897 Great American Shows), Peco and Bosco (1898 J.
Augustus Jones One-Ring Show), an unidentified clown (1900 The Great Rhoda Royal
Australian Railroad Shows), Albert Gaston (1905
Frank A. Robbins Circus), Miss Kate Dooley (1907 The Great Van Amburg
Shows), Millie Clio (1908 Frank A. Robbins Circus), Mary Koster (1909 Frank A.
Robbins Circus), Slivers Oaks (1911 Frank A. Robbins Circus), and William Langer
(1912 Howe’s Great London Shows). These
were all American circuses despite the titles.
Some proprietors thought giving their show a foreign name gave it a
greater aura of quality.
opening title sequence of “Circus” ends with a shot of a star in the center
of a white circle. The shot irises
out to reveal that the circle is a paper covered hoop being held by a clown.
The circus term for a paper covered hoop is “balloon.”
Suddenly a beautiful young equestrienne, played by Merna Kennedy, bursts
through the center of the hoop and lands on the back of her horse.
Clowns often served as “object holders” for equestrian acts.
In addition to balloons, a clown might hold one end of a streamer to
serve as hurdle for the rider. A
clown holding a balloon for an equestrian became one of the iconic images of the
circus and was used on many posters and program covers.
dismounts from her horse at the end of the act, the clowns rush into the ring
and begin playing “ring around the rosey.”
That isn’t quite accurate. During
this era clowns did participate in equestrian acts.
They were careful not to be distractions while the rider was performing
tricks, and then would do carefully prepared bits to give the rider a breather
or while horses were being exchanged. Then
when the act concluded the clowns would pose with the rider to accept the
meet Charlie in the midway of a county fair where he is unfairly accused of
being a thief. Fleeing the police,
Charlie runs into the circus tent, trips over the ring curb, and trips over the
ring curb again going in the opposite direction.
He is thrown out of the circus, even though he is an instant success with
the audience. This is a
reenactment of the Tom Belling story. Belling
was an American acrobat and equestrian performing in
with a European circus in
1869. He was suspended for a
performance as punishment for mistakes he made during his act.
Unable to participate in the circus he got bored during the show time.
He put on clothes that didn’t fit properly and donned a wig backwards
to amuse his friends in the dressing room by impersonating the manager of the
show. When the manager discovered
him, Belling ran into the tent trying to escape.
He fell over the ring curb into the ring.
In trying to exit, he fell over the ring curb again.
The delighted audience yelled Auguste, which is German for fool.
The manager insisted that he continue portraying the character and
according to circus legend a new type of clown character was born.
movie, while still fleeing the police, Charlie returns to the tent where the
clowns are performing the Revolving Table act.
The clowns try to jump up on a large spinning platform and run in place
like they are on a treadmill. Because
they also have to contend with centripetal force they often fall and are thrown
off. Chaplin and a policeman jump
onto the table and continue their chase with hilarious results.
This act was introduced by Bert Mayo on the 1912 Sparks Circus.
It was a great success and was quickly copied by other circuses.
Between 1913 and 1925 most circuses included the Revolving Table.
Often shows had one in each of their three rings.
A review of the 1914 Al G. Barnes Circus in Billboard
magazine described the act this way, “Circus
Roulette Wheels, or revolving tables.
Watch the rubes try to ride them – you’ll laugh.
You’ll also marvel at the skill with which dogs jump over the hurdles
while riding the wheels. After the failure of many men, who try to ride the
wheels, Tot and Tiny, world’s smallest ponies, ride them at top speed with the
greatest of ease. It’s a wonder
toured with the Funs-A-Poppin Circus in 1982 and 1983, I saw Heidi Wendamy use a
small revolving table in her dog act. The
kids in the audience always started laughing when her dog Babe jumped onto the
table and joyfully trotted in place. Sometimes
Babe would start racing which made the table spin faster and the laughter would
actual circus clowns are hired for circus movies.
However, the clowns in Chaplin’s film are all members of his stock
acting troupe. The Old Clown is
Henry Bergman who played leading roles in other Chaplin movies, including Hank
Curtis in The Gold Rush. He also
worked creatively with Chaplin behind the camera.
The other clowns are Albert Austin, Henie Conklin, Armand Triller, John
Rand, and Harry Crocker. They all
had played roles in Chaplin’s short films and earlier features.
Crocker played additional roles in “Circus.”
He was also the Disgruntled Prop Man demanding their back pay, and he was
Rex, the wire walker, Chaplin’s romantic rival.
may not have had circus experience, but they performed acts based on those
performed by clowns in circuses of that era.
film, Charlie is invited to audition to be a clown with the circus.
First the clowns demonstrate a routine called William Tell.
A clown archer is going to shoot an apple off his assistant’s head.
However, before he has a chance to attempt the stunt his hungry assistant
eats the apple. When Charlie
attempts to repeat the act he is dismayed by finding a worm in the apple.
He decides to perform the act using a banana, which does not fit the
famous legend. The bonus features in
my DVD copy of “Charlie Chaplin’s Circus” includes a film clip of two
unidentified circus clowns performing the William Tell act in 1900.
clowns demonstrate the Barber act, another classic clown routine, to Charlie
during the audition. (The Barber act
was performed on the 1908 Campbell Bros. Circus and the 1917 Coop and Lent
Circus.) In “Circus”, two
barbers are in the center of the ring with chairs.
A single customer enters. Each
barber directs the customer to their chair so he ends up pacing back and forth
between the two chairs. Finally he
throws up his arms in frustration. After
handing the first barber his hat and cane, he sits in the first chair.
When the second barber directs him over to his chair, the customer agrees
to move. When the first barber gets
down on his knees to beg him to move back, the customer declares that he is
going to stay where he is. Both
barbers get buckets of whipped shaving soap and large brushes.
The second barber stands between the two chairs, with his back to the
first barber, and begins lathering the customer’s face.
In retaliation for stealing his customer, the first barber kicks his
co-worker in the seat. He wipes a
brush full of soap across the second barber’s face when he turns around.
The first barber yanks the customer over to his chair and begins to
lather his face. The second barber
retaliates by hitting his co-worker in the face with a brush full of soap.
The barbers take turns brushing soap in each other’s face.
cuts to the Ringmaster ordering Charlie to take the role of the first barber and
repeat the act. Everything goes fine
until it is time for Charlie to get hit with the soap filled brush.
He dodges out of the way. His
partner explains that he has to hit him. Charlie
agrees, but automatically ducks again. The
Ringmaster orders him to stand still. The
second barber hits him with the brush, and then continues to slap on more soap.
Charlie is so shocked that he forgets what he is supposed to do.
His partner tells him, but he doesn’t understand.
Charlie turns towards the Ringmaster who yells for him to hit his partner
with soap. Because Charlie’s face
is covered with so much soap he can’t see that his frustrated partner sat down
in a chair. Charlie flails in the
air with brushes full of soap. His
partner stands up and takes Charlie’s hand so he knows where to aim the soap.
Just as Charlie begins his swing, the Ringmaster charges into the ring to
tell Charlie he has failed the audition. Charlie
hits the Ringmaster full in the face by mistake.
Charlie makes wide gestures while trying to explain that he can’t see,
unintentionally hitting the Ringmaster in the face with soap two more times.
The Ringmaster orders Charlie to get out, and stay out.
Charlie failed his clown audition, he is hired as a prop man.
He is so inept that he becomes the comedy hit of the circus.
Again, this has precedent in early twentieth century circus and
theatrical clowning. Marceline Orbes,
resident clown at
’s Hippodrome Theater,
provided inept help to the prop men. For
example, when the group of prop men assembled the circus ring curb they inserted
pegs to hold the sections together. Marceline,
following them, would remove the last peg and take it to the first man in line
to use for the next section. Following
a brief retirement from clowning to make an unsuccessful attempt at running his
own restaurant, Marceline toured with the 1920 Sells Floto Circus.
film, Charlie is no longer pursued by the police once he is hired by the circus.
However, now he is tormented by a mule that keeps chasing him.
Just about every circus in the first quarter of the twentieth century
featured at least one clown act with a mule, and many had several different mule
acts. In 1923, eight-year-old Mark
Anthony attended a circus in
Mark said, “There was a clown working a gag with a donkey, and at that
moment, I knew I was going to be a clown.”
scene of “Charlie Chaplin’s Circus”, the mule begins bucking by kicking up
its hind feet. That is something
these animals do naturally. Clowns
based acts on mules trained to buck on cue.
A very popular act during this era was known as the Football Mule.
A ball similar to a beach ball would be placed behind a mule.
When it bucked the ball would go sailing into the audience.
The clowns would retrieve the ball so the mule could kick it again.
Another common act was the Unrideable Mule.
A clown would enter riding a mule, and invite audience members to attempt
to ride the animal. After a
volunteer mounted the mule, the clown cued it to buck, sending the audience
member crashing to the ground. (This
act is no longer performed because of the potential for an audience member being
injured.) An act frequently listed
in circus programs of this era is clowns riding mules in hurdle races.
It was also common for clowns to drive a cart pulled by a mule.
Since singing was an important part of the circus, it was naturally
burlesqued by the clowns. Often a
prima donna’s performance would be followed by the clowns presenting a singing
Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton are often considered the triumvirate of
silent comedy. They each were highly
successful professionally and artistically.
Comparing their work reveals that while they had their own distinct
performance styles they influenced and inspired each other.
Lloyd, often referred to as the King of Daredevil Comedy, released
“Safety Last”, his great thrill comedy masterpiece, in 1923.
The climax of Lloyd’s movie is a long extended human fly sequence
filmed on the side of a tall building in
The movie provided one of the most famous silent movie images, Harold
Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock that has started to tilt away from the
top of a sky scraper. The success of
“Safety Last” inspired Chaplin to make his own thrill comedy concluding with
a routine filmed high in the air.
was a natural setting for a high comedy thrill routine because this was an era
of clowns performing in aerial acts. Walter
Guice was known for his clown aerial horizontal bar act that he performed with
various partners from 1906 until 1939. The
1919 edition of the Sells Floto Circus featured Comedy Bar acts by the
Livingston Trio and by Stokes & Engine.
The same show had a comedy revolving ladder act by Hendricks &
Livingston. That year Bert Doss joined the Flying Wards trapeze act as a clown.
The Sells Floto Circus had a comedy aerial bar act performed by the Blanche
Brothers in 1920. Jim White clowned
in John Tunello’s high ladder act with the 1921 Lincoln Bros. Circus.
There was a specific precedent for clown high wire acts.
Tom Bosco had performed a comedy high wire act on the J. Augustus Jones
One-Ring Show in 1898. Freddie Biggs
performed a comedy high wire act as a clown from 1913-1920 on the Sells-Floto
Circus. Chaplin decided to end his
movie with a comedy high wire act. Then
he worked backwards to create a script motivating his presence on the wire.
film, Chaplin wanted to add a further complication that he needed to deal with
while trapped on the wire without an avenue of escape.
He decided to have a group of monkeys swarm onto the wire.
Clowns of this era worked with a variety of animals, including monkeys.
In 1871 William Conrad performed a clown act with dogs and monkeys on the
John Robinson’s Circus. The Norris
and Rowe Show presented an unusual act in 1901; a fire department made up
entirely of dogs and monkeys that saved other animals from a burning building
and then extinguished the flames. In
1919 the Sells Floto Circus featured a clown fire department with monkey-manned
fire apparatus and safety nets. According
to Billboard magazine, “Because of their excellent simian support
in this number, the clowns have to work extraordinarily hard.”
Three shows featured clowns and monkeys in 1925, the year before Chaplin
began filming “Circus”. Clowns
on the Lee Bros. Circus presented high diving dogs and monkeys.
The Sparks Circus clown alley performed walk arounds with pigs, geese,
chickens, and a monkey. The most
important was the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus which included a monkey
performing a wire walking trick known as the Slide For Life.
quarters for the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus were in
and they spent part of each
year touring the region. The show
developed a working relationship with many of the movie studios and rented
animals for use in films. (The
circus equipment also was rented to studios.)
Even when the show was touring other parts of the country, they would
send animals back to Los Angeles for film appearances.
For example, in 1926 Austin King, a horse trainer, left for a month to
handle a herd of zebras trained to pull wagons on Cecil B. DeMille’s film
“The King of Kings”. (In the
film the zebras were hitched to chariots.) It
is logical to assume that Chaplin obtained the mule, monkeys, and other animals
he used in his film from the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus.
Settler performed a clown act with a dog and monkey on the Al G. Barnes Wild
Animal Circus in 1917. During the
1920’s the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus featured acts with monkeys,
sometimes presented by clowns. Describing
the 1922 Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus performance, Chang Reynolds wrote,
“Nearing the end of the program several monkeys scattered about the arena
performed clever comedy stunts on the trapeze and wire.”
These are probably the monkeys that appear on the wire in “Charlie
produced, wrote, directed, and starred in “Circus.”
In recognition of his amazing versatility, artistry, and skill he was
honored with a special Academy Award at the first
Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences banquet.
(They weren’t yet known as the Oscars.)
does this movie preserve the type of circus clowning common in the 1920’s, but
it also preserves the work of one of the most influential clowns in history.
Chaplin’s silent movies were studied by entertainers world wide and
were important influences upon circus and theatrical clowns in
Because Chaplin’s films remain available for our study today, modern
entertainers continue to be influenced by him.
In recognition of his contributions to the art of clowning Charlie
Chaplin was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 2001.
The 2 DVD
set I purchased of “Charlie Chaplin’s Circus” preserves another glimpse of
clowning in 1928. When the movie had
its West Coast Premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Syd Grauman produced a
live sideshow and circus as a preliminary performance.
Edwin “Poodles” Hanneford and Pepito, the Spanish Clown, performed in
the circus. A news reel of the
premiere is included as one of the DVD bonus features.
Poodles Hanneford is shown bursting through a large balloon held by
members of his riding act. He was a
world famous equestrian clown who was inducted into the International Clown Hall
of Fame in 1995. Pepito is briefly
shown in the news reel performing as a trainer of two animals portrayed by
people in costumes. Pepito is best
known for his work with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.
He taught Lucy his cello routine which she performed in the I Love Lucy
pilot and in the sixth episode (The Audition, November 19, 1951) of the series.
He was also a guest star in the 52 episode (Lucy’s Show Biz Swan Song,
December 22, 1952).
the dates in this article came from research by members of the Circus Historical
Society that has been published in their magazine titled Bandwagon.
A series of articles by Chang Reynolds detailing his research into the
history of the Al G. Barnes Circus was extremely helpful.
Many of these circus historians used an entertainment publication titled Billboard as a source of
information. Some of the circus
historians also combed local newspapers for reviews of circus performances and
reports of circus activities. Others
interviewed former circus employees late in their lives and recorded their
memories. I am grateful for their
time in effort in locating and preserving this information about the history of
Copyright 2011 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights
article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Clowning Around, published
by the World Clown Association.
information on the World Clown Association go to