Baby Peggy stars as a kidnapped tot who ends up performing at the circus. There’s a goofy detective, an ineffectual father, a cute dog and all the other expected silent kiddie comedy tropes.
This is my contribution to the At the Circus! Blogathon hosted by Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms. Be sure to read the other great posts!
Despite its title, Circus Clowns contains only about 1/3 circus and even fewer clowns. It’s one of dozens of Baby Peggy shorts that were ground out in the early 1920s to take advantage of her popularity.
A circus comes to town but a clever detective named I. M. Brilliant (Earl Montgomery, at this point he was Mr. Vera Reynolds) is more interested in his newest case. It seems that Mr. and Mrs. R. Smith’s daughter, Peggy, has been kidnapped and they want to hire the detective to find her and bring her home.
Peggy, meanwhile, is in no real danger. It’s not clear whether she was kidnapped or just wanted to run away to join the circus but our tiny heroine has taken to the colorful atmosphere of the big tent like a duck to water. Assisted by her beloved dog, Brownie, Peggy entertains the crowd with her skills as an animal trainer and bareback rider. The brilliant detective snatches up the child and brings her home to her family. You would think this would be the conclusion of the picture but there are several stale dog antics that need to play out.
(There are times when you watch a silent film and wonder if they really just wanted to fill out the reel and so everything up to and including the kitchen sink was thrown in.)
Let’s start with the positives. The entire reason a circus setting was chose, I am convinced, is so the filmmakers could costume Baby Peggy in a darling little tutu and a little clown suit. And guess what? It was a good call! Peggy is adorable and works well with Brownie, her canine co-star.
However, the adult co-stars of the picture pretty much spend their time mugging and reacting to antics. The grownups just don’t leave a very strong impression. This could have been overcome by more Baby Peggy Antics but, alas, the writing is also not up to snuff. No matter how anarchic the film, for a gag to be really successful, there must be a logical progression from Point A to Point B. It’s not enough to just run around acting zany, there must be a reason for this behavior. It can be a bizarre reason but it should make sense to the character.
For example, when Peggy’s movie father goes looking for her, he spots a pair of children playing. One is a little boy and the little girl is twice Peggy’s age and a blonde to boot. And so the father grabs both tots, which inevitably leads to him being accused of kidnapping. I think the joke was supposed to be he was just asking about Peggy but why did he feel the need to grab the kids? The accused-of-kidnapping gag could have worked if the film had either established the father has being extremely nearsighted or if the kids in question had been wearing Peggy’s trademark brunette bob. Heck, it would have even worked better if the film had made it clear he intended to grab a kid—any kid—just to get his bereft wife to stop crying.
The one gag in the film that really works is when the detective asks to see some of the missing child’s toys and her parents casually show him a meat cleaver, a pistol and a cherry bomb. However, the joke is not continued and Peggy is shown to be a fairly normal child with absolutely no homicidal tendencies. This is clearly a mistake and I have to say that I was quite disappointed. Why not make Peggy an active accomplice in her own kidnapping? Have her knock over a few banks too! We’re talking comedy gold here. Come to think of it, they never do explain whether or not Peggy was actually kidnapped.
Confession: I thought the opening gag with armless man who smoked with his magical beard was hilarious. What does this say about me? In fact, most of the scenes that actually take place at the circus are amusing, probably because they are the most Peggy-centric. I mean, look at that lil’ clown suit! (I also liked the telegram delivery man riding a unicycle.)
The picture was written by its director, Fred Hibbard. Hibbard was a pseudonym for Fred Fischbach (sometimes spelled Fishback), a Sennett veteran who had to change his name due to his connections to the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Fischbach, along with Arbuckle and actor Lowell Sherman, had gone to San Francisco for the fatal 1921 Labor Day bash that ended with Virginia Rappe’s death. The scandal is so famous that it’s still namechecked in pop culture (usually getting every single detail wrong) and all elements of it remain a subject for hot debate. (Here’s my review of The Frozen North, which debunks the myth that the scandal caused a feud between, of all people, William S. Hart and Buster Keaton.)
Starting in 1921, Fischbach began to be credited as Fred Hibbard and he continued to write and direct comedy shorts until his sudden death from a lung infection in 1925. (Arbuckle died in 1933, Sherman in 1934.) While the anarchic Keystone spirit is present in his filmmaking, Hibbard’s direction lacks a certain spark and the whole thing ends up being rather generic.
In the end, Circus Clowns is a trifle that relies on the charisma of its star and mails in the rest of the picture. While individual elements of the short work well, the whole thing falls down due to a general lack of cohesion. Wacky things happen because that’s what’s supposed to happen in a comedy, right?
Circus Clowns will be fun for fans of Baby Peggy and includes some cute animal antics but it’s not exactly a comedic masterpiece.
Where can I see it?
Circus Clowns was released on DVD as an extra on The Family Secret, also starring Baby Peggy. As you can see from the screen grabs, the image quality is excellent and all the films on the disc feature scores from Ben Model.