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CLOWNS . The term clown is used here as a gloss for a cluster of figures that appear in the religious events of various peoples and that have certain attributes in common. It is, therefore, a term of analysis employed in thinking about the place of such figures in religious performance. This usage is not intended to be homologous with the perceptions of any given people, whose culture is likely to connote more particularistic significance to such characters and their cognates. Instead, it is suggested in this article that what ritual-clown figures have in common with one another is a certain logic of composition. Characters of such composition then have crucial functions for the rituals and dramas within which they perform.

The etymology of the word clown in the English language suggests the logic of composition for such figures. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term appeared in English usage in the second half of the sixteenth century: it originally meant "clod," "clot," or "lump." Clod and clot were long synonymous. Clod connotes the coagulation of liquids and a lumpish adhesion of materials. Clot connotes a semisolid lump formed by congelation and coagulation. Put together, clown, clod, and clot connote an entity that is unfinished or incomplete in its internal organization: one that hangs together in a loose and clumsy way. The clown is lumpish in its imperfectbut congealing and adheringfusion of attributes. It also has a sense of frozen motion, of congealed liquidity, that connotes processuality and dynamism rather than structure and stasis. In the European tradition, the clown had affinities to festival fools, folk fools, and holy fools, all of whom had the tendency to melt the solidity of the world. The word fool, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, derives from the Latin follis, which literally means "bellows" but is also used in the sense of "windbag." The term buffoon, with connotations similar to those of fool, is cognate with the Italian buffare, "to puff." In the derivation of fool there is a sense of lightness and motion, and so of processuality. Given the likely affinity between the clown and the fool, there is in the clown a figure that is integrated in a clumsy fashion and that adheres to itself with an incipient sense of internal movement.

Clowns are ambiguous and ambivalent figures. Within their variegated composition they subsume attributes that contradict and invert one another. The clown in ritual is at once a character of solemnity and fun, of gravity and hilarity, of danger and absurdity, of wisdom and idiocy, and of the sacred and the profane. The interior logic of composition of such a figure is not homogeneous. It is neither wholly one attribute of a set nor another. Given this sense of neither/nor, such figures subsume holistically, albeit lumpishly, all of their contradictory sets of attributes.

These contradictions within the ritual clown rarely are resolved. Instead, whichever attribute a clown presents in performance, the projection of its contrary always is imminent. Thus the opposing attributes within the figure continuously oscillate among themselves. Given this attribute of internal oscillation, such clown figures can be said to subsume within themselves a notion of border or boundary that they straddle and across which they move, back and forth, for as long as they remain true to type. The ritual clown is an eminently paradoxical figure: It is neither wise nor foolish, yet it is both without being wholly one or the other. As a paradoxical being, the figure evokes inconsistencies of meaning and referential ambiguities in ritual contexts that otherwise have an appearance of solidity and stability. The clown is a construct with a sense of incompleteness, yet whole (a lump), that is in a condition of transformation (congelation) but that is somehow out of place in context (a clod).

Externally, the ritual clown appears as an ill-formed unity. Pueblo Indian clowns of the American Southwest are lumpish in form or painted in stripes of contrasting colors. Other clowns often are particolored or piecemeal beings that hang together loosely. Internally, the ritual clown manifests qualities of multiplicity and fluidity: it is fluctuating and unstable. This interior organization can be summated as a condition of self-transformation: the figure is continually in motion within itself, and so it remains permanently unfinished. It is a powerful figurative rendition of processuality. This makes it a powerful solvent of contexts and structures within which it is located. These attributes are crucial to the roles it performs within ritual and ceremonial occasions.

Clowns seem to have especial affinities to the boundaries of ritualistic occasions. In European folk rites and dramas that were associated with seasonal transitions, especially those from winter to spring, and so with notions of the regeneration of natural and social orders, folk fools at times played the role of master of ceremony. These characters tended to be killed and revived in these events, and so they bridged and mediated cosmic transitions. Among the Tewa, Hopi, and Zuni Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, ritual clowns were indisputable masters of the boundary. More generally, where such clown figures are common in ceremonials, they either control the overall organization of sequencing of events or they appear during the interludes between phases of rites. In either instance, they are located in transitional zones that connote the sequential movement or transformation of ritual from one context to another. Given that these figures encompass a notion of boundary within the composition of their beingone through which they endlessly oscillatetheir affinity to the external boundaries of ritual events, and to those within ritual, should be clear. They are ambulatory manifestations of boundariness, for their composition resonates with, and so is keyed to, borders of ritual in terms of its spatial and sequential ordering.

This delineation of ritual clowns is quite distinct from those modern clowns of the European tradition of the circus and from stock figures of comedy. Circus clown performances usually consist of at least a pair of clowns who are distinguished categorically from one another. The white-faced clown is an epitome of "culture": he is formal, elegant, authoritative, rigid, and overcivilized. By contrast, the "auguste" clown is thoroughly sloppy, ill kempt, amoral, and chaotic: he inverts the attributes of the white-faced clown and is identified with those of "nature." In performance these two clowns are viable in tandem, so that their respective sets of characteristics complement each other.

These clowns also have an intimate relation to boundaries; but theirs is an exterior one, for a sense of boundary is established by their interplay in performance rather than by their being part of the logic of composition of either or both of them. Thus the boundary between, say, categories of "nature" and "culture" becomes located somewhere between these two figures instead of within one or both of them. Each figure itself has a homogeneous and stable composition, and so the contrast of opposites is evident only when they are together: they manipulate boundaries only as a duo. By way of contrast, the ritual clown dissolves boundaries by itself. Stock comic figures that appear in ritual dramas, and whose ethnographic provenance seems much more extensive than that of ritual clowns, also tend to have homogeneous and internally stable compositions. In general they lack, in and of themselves, the transformative capacities that are integral to clowns in ritual.

Nonetheless, figures that approximate the attributes of ritual clowns, as these are delineated here, do have a fairly widespread distribution among peoples of the world, some of whom are mentioned here, although lack of space prevents adducing these. Clowns in ceremonial and ritual are reported for the Mayo and Yaqui peoples of northern Mexico, for the Pueblo Indian peoples of the American Southwest, and for other native peoples of California, the Great Plains, and the Northwest Coast of North America. In European traditions, festival fools were prominent in various English dramas of springtime and in the Swiss-German Fastnachtsspiele; they had affinities to the Italian tradition of buffo and perhaps to picaresque literary works. Clownlike figures are reported in the Turkish puppet theater, in some Iranian improvisatory folk theater, and in the traditional Szechwan theater of China. Such figures also are found in modern Javanese ludruk performances and in the Javanese puppet theater. They appear quite elaborated in various South Indian traditions: in Carnatic puppet performances, in Kannada yaksagana dance dramas, in the kutiyattam dramatic tradition of Kerala, and in Tamil karakam dances and terukkuttu street dramas as well as in the stories of the sixteenth-century Tamil and Telugu court jester Tenali Rama. The provenance of such figures extends south to Sri Lanka and north to the tradition of dance dramas in Tibetan monasteries.

There is a multiplicity and duplicity in clowns, a radical emphasis on the disharmonic that at first sight appears out of place in many of the ceremonies and dramas in which they appear. And a sense of unease pervades many of the explanations of why they are there. The commonest, and the least satisfactory, is that clowns provide comic relief, either from the seriousness and tedium of the ritual medium itself or from the everyday suppression of forbidden themes that clowns raise to overt and conscious scrutiny. There are various versions of this thesis. Thus, such figures are said to enable members of audiences to think or to behave in otherwise repressed ways, or it is said that these clowns exist in order to violate taboo, given the need to evoke themes that must be suppressed in the everyday contexts of life. These approaches readily lend themselves to varieties of psychologistic reductionism, such that clowns are said to concretize and to release unconscious psychic tensions by bringing them to conscious thought. An added explanation is that these figures reduce the tension and anxiety that are generated by awesome and mysterious sacrality, since, through harmless burlesque, the frightening is made familiar and known.

Clowns in ritual and drama do indeed invert, mock, and satirize both taken-for-granted conventions of life and those that are sacralized and venerated, whether through gentle irony, through dramatic allegory, or through scatological burlesque. Yet, within the same occasions, they often are the righteous upholders of morality and propriety. Such groups as the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest explicitly recognize that clowns underline moral precepts by their amoral antics. The Hopi state that clowns show life as it should not be. Others, such as the Tewa, Zuni, and Mayo Indians, accord explicit sacred and moral stature to their clowns. Among the Mayo, these are more figures of fright than of amusement. Still other peoples seem to refrain from exegesis and simply summate clowns in ritual as figures of fun.

There are two signal difficulties with discussions of ritual clowning that rely on one or another version of catharsis or of satirical inversion to explain the existence of these contrary characters. In the first instance, either or both of these functions can be and are performed by figures of much simpler composition. Stock comic characters, who appear in ceremonial and dramatic activities, and whose composition is homogeneous and not transformative, often meet such requirements. These are the quintessential butts, bunglers, and schemers, whose rollicking antics and exaggerated amorality serve onlookers with a license to frolic with the unspeakable, and perhaps with the unthinkable, in the security of knowing or feeling that these are unnatural and temporary versions of order that will revert to their moral counterparts and so will reaffirm righteous values and conduct. Why then should clown figures of such complex and inconstant composition be equated in role and function with these facile and straightforward stock comic characters? The likely answer is that they should not be, and that ritual clowns carry out other tasks more in keeping with their own interior organization.

The second difficulty in discussions of ritual clowning is that these clowns are treated as if they reflect, in unmediated ways, themes of more general cultural and psychological significance. In other words, clowns are torn from the contexts of their appearance and performance without any explanation of their presence there. Yet, first and foremost, and prior to a consideration of their significance for more abstract motifs of psychic balance and cultural values, it is in terms of the occasions of their appearance that the presence of clowns should be explicated.

That clowns in ritual are living studies in vivid contrast and in shades of comparison is indicative of their status in performance. As interlocutors and as commentators, their affinities are to boundaries that separate ceremonial or narrative action from the mundane or that distinguish between different phases or contexts within ritual performance itself. In a sense, they keep one foot within an ongoing context of participation and experience, while the other foot is already leading into another. As such, they are agents of change, mediators who dissolve and transform the fixity of categories of performance and narrative that boundaries organize and integrate.

Ritual and ceremonial occasions have programs or texts, prescribed or inscribed, that are their elementary organization. Occasions in which clowns appear are always composed of more than a single adumbrated context of meaning and experience. That is, these occasions are constituted of a number of phases that contrast with one another in their programmatic purpose and that must be shifted, one into another, in sequence. Written or oral texts and programs often suggest that such transitions are accomplished simply because they are inscribed or prescribed. Yet, in the practice of performance, each phase or context of an occasion has the tendency to adumbrate and to reify itself in stable and seamless ways that wholly engross participants in its experience. This lack of discordance works against the necessary decomposition or deconstruction of context, in order to make way for the next, and so to enable the overall occasion to be shifted in sequence through its constituent phases, as specified by program or text.

The design of the clown is precisely that of a whirligigone that swirls in counterpoint to the adumbration and concordance of any ritual context in which it is located. As it revolves within itself, the clown gathers up the interwoven strands of the coherence of context, mixes them up, and so contradicts their integration and unravels them. Just as the clown upends any configuration of meaning into which it enters, so it takes apart context and opens the way to the cohering of alternative patterns of meaning.

Such occasions often have a sense of climax that arouses within the participants the recognition of some transcendent reality and seamless truth. Then the inherently reflexive properties of the clown must be stilled. Otherwise, true to its own rhythm and logic, it would continue to raise questions and doubts about such contexts, and so it would signify that even the experience of transcendence is artificial and transitory. This likely would destroy the significance of the truths of transcendence for the participants. Therefore, a common fate of clowns in ritual is their demise as contrary, oscillating, reflexive characters. Either they are tamed and brought to heel, or their internal composition is made homogeneous. Then they no longer arouse reflectiveness among participants, for their presence no longer causes the participants to doubt the validity of transcendent experiences. At this point, clowns simply reinforce the values of such truths or revelations in straightforward ways.

This depiction of the clown in ritual recognizes that the especial properties of this figure are a function of its unusual design, and so, too, of its place during religious and dramatic occasions. If the figure of the clown is apprehended as a complex device that unlocks perception to an awareness of the artifice of textual coherence, then it is comprehended also as a dynamic device that enables certain religious occasions to be enacted and accomplished. It is then incumbent upon further thought to search other ceremonial media, in which clowns have no place, for analogous mechanisms that accomplish transformation of context and transitions between contexts and so enable these occasions to progress in sequence through their programs.

See Also

Drama; Masks; Tricksters.


Useful overviews of fools and of clownlike figures in European traditions are found in Enid Welsford's The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London, 1935) and in Barbara Swain's Fools and Folly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (New York, 1932). The complex and contrastive characters of clown figures are discussed evocatively in William Willeford's The Fool and His Sceptre (London, 1969). The clown as a solvent of perception and of structure is implied strongly in Wolfgang M. Zucker's "The Clown as the Lord of Disorder," in Holy Laughter, edited by M. Conrad Hyers (New York, 1969). The logic of composition of ritual clowns discussed in this article is expanded and elaborated in my article "The Ritual-Clown: Attributes and Affinities," Anthropos 76 (1981): 321370. Paul Bouissac makes a semiotic analysis of the nature-culture distinction in modern European circus clown performances in "Clown Performances as Metacultural Texts," a chapter in his Circus and Culture (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), pp. 151175. A clear, if simple, example of a cathartic explanation of ritual clowning is John J. Honigmann's "An Interpretation of the Social-Psychological Functions of the Ritual Clown," Character and Personality 10 (19411942): 220226. The view that the activity of ritual clowns should be explicated first and foremost with reference to wider themes of culture, outside the contexts of performance, is put ably by Laura Makarius in her article "Ritual Clowns and Symbolical Behavior," Diogenes 69 (1970): 4473. In an ethnographic vein, there are few accessible and complete accounts of ritual clowning in context. One decent description is of a Tewa Pueblo Indian rite, in Vera Laski's Seeking Life (Philadelphia, 1958). Louis A. Hieb's "The Ritual Clown: Humor and Ethics," in Forms of Play of Native North Americans, edited by Edward Norbeck and Claire R. Farrer (Saint Paul, Minn., 1979), pp. 171188, argues against cross-cultural delineations of ritual clowns, since the meanings of such figures are highly specific to particular cultures. Clowning as Critical Practice: Performance Humor in the South Pacific (Pittsburgh, 1992), edited by William R. Mitchell, is a rich and insightful collection on the prominent roles of clowning practices in Pacific societies. Chapter Five, on "Clowning and Chiasm," in Claire R. Farrer's, Living Life's Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision (Albuquerque, 1991) contains a fertile discussion of clowns in ritual. Abdellah Hammoudi's, The Victim and Its Masks: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Mahgreb (Chicago, 1993) has a rich analysis of a ritual in which clowning is prominent.

Don Handelman (1987 and 2005)

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clown The word comes from Low German, and originally described the peasant through uncomplimentary association with the soil that he tilled. ‘Clown’ meant ‘clod, clot, lump’, with more acerbic overtones of ‘clumsy, loutish, lumpish fellow’ and a female ‘hoyden or lusty bouncing girl’. A clown was someone with rude manners, undisciplined physicality, and an inability to control appetites or impulses. The uncivilized nature of such a rustic stereotype was sometimes symbolized by wild acrobatic dancing, as in Chaucer's Hous of Fame:Tho come ther leapynge in a route
And gunne choppen al aboute
Every man upon the crowne
That al the halle gan to sowne
and in the Scots poem, ‘Cocklebie Sow’:Thay movit in thair mad muting …
For merrit was thair menstralis …
For thay hard speik of men gud
And small thairof vndirstud
Bot hurlit furth vpoun heid

Despite moral disapproval, which until the sixteenth century led to the more common title of ‘fool’, their energetic antics were popular and the clown was a box-office draw when professional theatres began in 1576. One clown, William Kemp, danced his way, in nine days, from London to Norwich in 1600, probably to rebuild his fame after being sacked from Shakespeare's Company for speaking more than was set down for him. (See Hamlet III.ii.45–7.) In Shakespeare's and Jonson's plays, the term ‘clown’ is often pejorative.

Clowning became more fashionable in the mid seventeenth century when interest in spectacle superceded that for dialogue. Added to the traditional features of clown behaviour — slapstick, rude gestures, and physical distortions — performers vied for success through energetic novelties. The Dutchman, Brederode, mentioned the lusty spring, the spinning, twirling, and turning of English comic dancers. The rope dancer, Jacob Hall, sometimes played straight, turning somersaults on a rope suspended over naked rapiers; as in circuses today the threat that his agility might end in disaster gave vicarious excitement. But sometimes he added an element of clown's satire on his spectators' motives, by suspending the rope over their heads; presumably they rose to the challenge.

After two centuries of being fashionable, physical comedy became respectable in the 1790s through the ‘total clowning’ of Joseph Grimaldi, which he claimed had resulted in every bone in his body having been broken during his professional life. After his early retirement it was regretted thatGone is the stride, four steps across the stage
Gone is the light vault o'er a turnpike gate.

Grimaldi astonished his audiences by his ability to make seemingly impossible physical movements. Comic innovation around 1800 also included a satiric reflection of the brutal physicality in the humour of Regency society bucks. Stage directions to Thomas Dibdin's Harlequin Hoax read:
To meet Columbine at the street door Harlequin throws himself out of a window and is caught with his head in a lamp iron; the lamplighter pours a gallon of oil down his throat … and sticks a lighted wick in his mouth, and a set of drunken bucks, having no better business on earth than to break lamps, knock his nob to shivers.

By a strange coincidence, Tom and Jerry were the names given to two such Regency buffoons in Pierce Egan's Life in London.

To a certain extent pantomime curbed the clown's physical expressiveness by pinning him down again with dialogue, but in silent pictures, where the only communication was through action, various comic techniques emerged. Chaplin reversed the brutalized humour Grimaldi lived with through the success of the little tramp in overcoming bullies with intelligent agility. And in Modern Times his athleticism was put to the test inside a machine adversary. But the greatest accolade for acrobatics, invention, and physical courage has to go to Harold Lloyd — ‘king of daredevil comedy’ — with his clownish climb up the skyscraper in Safety Last. This did involve a safety platform out of sight of the camera, but far enough below to make the use of it itself a hazard. During one ‘take’ Lloyd thought he might slip, so chose to fall deliberately so as to be able to aim for the centre and avoid bouncing off into the real void below. Despite the invitation to total trickery which filming allows, Safety Last retained a fair proportion of the traditional combination: clowning with risk-taking, particularly in the shots of Lloyd hanging off the clock face.

Circuses which excelled in this in the 1980s and 1990s were Circus Oz and Archaeos. Their acts included sitting and eating upside down on the theatre ceiling, sliding head first down a pole and coming to a halt inches before crashing into the floor, and playing with power machines. As the Circus owner, Signor Truzi, said to Coco the Clown, every clown has first to be an acrobat, then a trapeze artist and a tumbler; he must be able to do everything, and then he can think about being a clown. Such daring is partly in order to be noticed, but the great clown's ability to act out situations which combine comedy with danger are also a way of satirizing the most extreme and ludicrous possibilities thrown up by the society he lives in. The professional's talent in the twentieth century has been to appear incompetent in the face of overwhelming odds but to overcome these by the character's persistence and the performer's physical abilities.

Have we yet to see an astronaut variety?

Sandra Billington


Baskervill, C. R. (1965). The Elizabethan Jig. University of Chicago Press, New York.
Dardis, T. (1983). Harold Lloyd, the man on the clock. Viking Penguin, New York.
Findlater, R. (1955). Grimaldi King of Clowns. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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114. Clowns

  1. Bardolph coney-catching rascal; follower of Falstaff. [Br. Lit.: Merry Wives of Windsor ]
  2. Bertoldo medieval jester, butt, and buffoon. [Ital. Folklore: Walsh Classical, 5455]
  3. Dagonet fool at the court of King Arthur, who knighted him. [Br. Lit.: Barnhart, 303]
  4. Feste playful fool. [Br. Lit.: Twelfth Night ]
  5. Geddes jester in the court of Mary Queen of Scots. [Scot. Hist.: Brewer Handbook, 380]
  6. Gobbo, Launcelot a wit-snapper, a merry devil. [Br. Lit.: Merchant of Venice ]
  7. harlequin comic character in commedia dellarte; dressed in multicolored tights in a diamond-shaped pattern. [Ital. Drama: NCE, 1194]
  8. Hop-Frog deformed dwarf ; court fool. [Am. Lit.: Hop-Frog in Portable Poe, 317329]
  9. Jocus Cupids companion and fool. [Rom. Lit.: Psychomachia ]
  10. Joey after Joseph Grimaldi, famous 19th-century clown. [Am. Hist.: Espy, 45]
  11. Jupe a clown in Slearys circus. [Br. Lit.: Hard Times ]
  12. Kelly, Emmett (18971979) foremost silent, sad-faced circus clown. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 83]
  13. McDonald, Ronald hamburger chains Pied Piper. [Am. Culture: Grinding ]
  14. Merry-Andrew Andrew Borde, Henry VIIIs> physician. [Br. Hist.: Wheeler, 241]
  15. Pagliacci clown Canio stabs his unfaithful wife and her lover. [Ital. Opera: Osborne Opera, 233]
  16. Patch court fool of Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Handbook, 380]
  17. Touchstone a motley-mined, roynish court jester. [Br. Lit.: As You Like It ]
  18. Yorick jester in the court of Denmark. [Br. Lit.: Hamlet ]


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clown, a comic character usually distinguished by garish makeup and costume whose antics are both humorously clumsy and acrobatic. The clown employs a broad, physical style of humor that is wordless or not as self-consciously verbal as the traditional fool or jester. Clownish figures appear in the farces and mimes of ancient Greece and Rome as foils to more serious characters. Probably the most famous clown, the arlecchino, or harlequin, grew out of the Italian commedia dell'arte in the late Middle Ages. The acrobatic harlequin wore a mask and carried a slapstick, which he repeatedly employed on other characters. One of these, the bald-headed, white-faced French character, Pierrot, had by the 19th-century developed into the now classic lovesick, melancholic clown. The modern clown's costume developed in Germany and England during the 18th-century with the evolution of such popular characters as Pickelherring, whose costume included oversized shoes, waistcoats, hats, and giant ruffs around his neck. One of the first circus clowns, established by Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s, was the "Jocy" character, a comically self-serving clown who alternated between arrogant gloating and cringing cowardice. Hard economic times, as during the Great Depression, made popular the hobo clown, best exemplified by Emmett Kelly. By that time, however, motion pictures, especially the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, began to supplant the live clown acts, relegating clowning to a circus sideshow entertainment.

See H. Sobol, Clowns (1982); C. Gaskin, A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown (1987).

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clown / kloun/ • n. 1. a comic entertainer, esp. one in a circus, wearing a traditional costume and exaggerated makeup. ∎  a comical, silly, playful person: I was always the class clown. ∎  a foolish or incompetent person. 2. archaic an unsophisticated country person; a rustic. • v. [intr.] behave in a comical way; act playfully: Harvey clowned around pretending to be a dog. DERIVATIVES: clown·ish adj. clown·ish·ly adv. clown·ish·ness n.

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clownbrown, Browne, clown, crown, down, downtown, drown, frown, gown, low-down, noun, renown, run-down, town, upside-down, uptown •crackdown • clampdown • Ashdown •markdown • letdown • meltdown •breakdown, shakedown, takedown •kick-down • thistledown • sit-down •climbdown • countdown •Southdown •godown, hoedown, showdown, slowdown •put-down • touchdown • tumbledown •comedown •rundown, sundown •shutdown • eiderdown • nightgown •pronoun • Jamestown • Freetown •midtown • Bridgetown • Kingstown •shanty town • Georgetown • Motown •hometown • toytown • Newtown •Charlottetown • Chinatown

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Clown ★★½ 1953

A brokendown funny man with a worshipful son obtains one last career opportunity. This “Champ”derived tearjerker features credible playing from Skelton and Considine as father and son, respectively. 91m/B VHS . Red Skelton, Jane Greer, Tim Considine, Steve Forrest; D: Robert Z. Leonard; C: Paul Vogel.

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clown rustic, ill-bred man; fool or buffoon, esp. on the stage. XVI. perh. of LG. orig.; cf. NFris. klönne, klünne clumsy fellow, klünj clod, lump, and the like.