Friday, September 21, 2007

LOU JACOBS: "Clown Face" (1971)

Master Clown Lou Jacobs' (and Knucklehead's) segment of the Charles and Ray Eames short CLOWN FACE, a 16 minute film of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns applying their makeup.


Jon Pult said...

Mr. Cashin,

First off, thanks for this. Oddly enough I've been reading Ballantine's Clown Alley of late and was telling a pal of mine I needed to get a copy of the Eames film. Secondly, sorry for the length of this, but I had a couple of questions for you and was wondering if you might send me your email address (to I only ask because I had sent one, asking about the importance of the clown nose and got no rersponse. I am sure it might just be that you are busy, but I was hoping you might answer a few clown related questions. I found your site doing research about Slivers Oakley (and an FYI, I'm in the middle of recording a cd of my own comic novelty songs "The Genial Orleanians Play the Complete Works of Sazerac the Clown," and am appending a new recording of "Slivers: Rag Eccentric" as recorded by a friend of mine as a little, and more musical, bonus), I add a few graphs of my first clumsy draft:

It starts out with a brief sketch of Grimaldi and the famous scenario with the doctor:

We might call Frank "Slivers" Oakley "America's Grimaldi," although he is almost unknown today. A reedy Swede, he was active in
the early twentieth Century, an age on the cusp of the emergence of film. He was born in 1871 and by 1903 was a bright star of Barnum and
Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. This was a time when being a star of the circus meant something, when those great traveling cities – Barnum
and Bailey, Ringling Brothers, the Great Forepaugh Shows -- were at the center of America's cultural life. "Slivers" was hailed as "Laugh-Maker-in-Chief of the America People by Popular Acclimation,"
and in his prime he might perform in front of 20,000 people a day. Interviewed in 1948, the great silent clown Buster Keaton was asked to
name the greatest comedians of all time, and he counted "Slivers" in that number. Oakley committed suicide in 1916, the year before Keaton
would make his screen debut in Butcher Boy.

Few artifacts remain attesting to Oakley's talent and reach. There are a few photos and cartoon renderings, varied newspaper
clippings, and a piece of sheet music: "Slivers: Rag Eccentric."
Composed by Harry Cook, it's the tune that accompanied Oakley's most famous routine, a pantomimed baseball game. The act was so popular that all the rings in the massive tent were cleared to make way for a lone and silent rail of a man, a "Sliver," acting out a scene from the
nation's pastime. Oakley's performance is described fondly in thumbnail in an obituary from a Detroit newspaper, and seems wholly based on exploring the idea that Americans hate umpires. After setting up a diamond in center ring, the famous cliché cry of "Kill the Umpire" is delineated in panto.

Oakley emerges as a catcher, with his "bird cage" mask and heavily padded mitt. He pops his fist in the glove a few times and sets up, crouching behind the plate. He feigns receiving a pitch, and then in the midst of the motion of tossing the horsehide back to his battery-mate he suddenly wheels to argue the call with the imaginary ump, throwing off the mask, gesticulating wildly and jawing with "him"
chin to chin. Later he takes a turn at bat, and, after working the count full, "hits" one in the gap but is thrown out trying "to stretch a three-bagger into a home run." Another rhubarb with the umpire
ensues. And by all accounts, by this time the crowd watching Slivers is delirious. "The entire act was in pantomime," the anonymous Detroit
writer states. "No one but Oakley was on the stage. But so realistic was every move and gesture, so convincing, that he never failed to carry the house."

You can find a picture of him in a recently published compendium of circus photographs taken by F.W. Glaser between 1901 and
1927. Flip past the photo of an elephant receiving a pedicure while perched atop two wooden half–barrels (a testament to the cooper's
art), and a picture of the famous pinhead "Zip, the What-is-it?" playing the violin at the entrance to Barnum's "Congress of Freaks," and there's "Slivers," "America's greatest chalk-face comedian."

Oakley's face is done up in standard clown white, with Harlequinade diamonds over the eyes. We can guess that the triangular shape on his nose, and his exaggerated mouth were made with red greasepaint. His shirt is a collarless number, its front filigreed with the braid of a bandsman, while his pants are a gleaming white and heavily starched. Each pant leg curves wildly outward, the right leg opening, and the left closing, a sort of human parentheses. Finally,on his feet are huge, exaggerated…feet. In the photo, Oakley holds his hand to his ear as if to hear something, his dirty palm facing the camera, (is it merely greasepaint, or the result of a bout of rousting? We can't
be sure). In his left arm, he cradles the handle of a bucket. His expression is deadpan, however, and his stony mien suggests that Oakley is wholly unaware that he is about to be hit with a cane
wielded by fellow clown Alex Seabert. The latter is precariously balanced on the back end of a mule. Seabert wears a curly shoulder length wig and his face is obscured, but the long putty nose is in the
tradition of the grotesque. He's wearing a tutu of the sort that might be worn by a lithe funambulist, and his muscular calves are sheathed in white tights. In the left corner is written in an ornate
hand "Oakley and Seabert," but there is no record as to whether this is perhaps the penultimate moment of their act together, preceding a
roaring "blow–off." The photo was taken on the Barnum and Bailey circus lot in 1903, the big top looms close behind, it's sidewall canvas sagging.

With the aid of the press clippings and the photos of the stained and billowing tents laid out on scruffy lots, of gilded cage wagons with their exotic cargo, giraffes and hippopotami, of an army of clowns and elegant equestriennes, we can try to put Oakley inside, under canvas, and imagine what it might have been like in mid-summer, in Omaha or French Lick, around the turn of the century. The heat amplifying the heady smells of elephant dung and sawdust, the din of the crowd, peppered with the cries of the candy butchers—"Cracker
Jack…Lemonade." Anticipation, the floor of the big top empty, and then release as the first strain of his jaunty namesake rag is played by the band, forty men strong. Here comes "Slivers"—"the only clown in the circus history for whom the three rings were ever cleared." Thousands of faces are focused on the silent figure in the center of
the big top. "Hardly human is Slivers. He is, rather, a vitilized caracture (sic); a Sunday comic supplement character, life-sized and animated; he endures blows, buffets, kicks, falls without a sound. The children, and at a circus everyone should be a child, watch him with rapture." They have probably all been waiting for this day, circus
day, and this moment. "Slivers" Oakley, the clown pictured on the heralds that have been pasted all over town for weeks. Peals of laughter. Surprise.

Anyway, it goes on from there.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... looks familiar. Great clip of a great clown.