Film: Golden Clown, The / Klovnen (1926)

January 29, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: After reaching the apex of his career in wonderful Paris, a clown sees his marriage crumbling, and soon his career, pushing him to murder.

Special Features:  n/a




Director A.W. Sandberg and co-writer Poul Knudsen went all-out in crafting a 128 min. remake of Sandberg’s 1917 version of Klovnen / The Golden Clown.

Reportedly based on an actual case of a famous clown who lived in disgrace after being acquitted for beating a child to death for mockery, Sandberg’s tale may not be very deep on characters, but it’s redeemed by a plethora of small moments and character nuances which little by little add texture to an epic finale, unfolding with layers of cruel twists & turns before there is some degree of closure for the characters, and the audience.

Sweden’s Gösta Ekman is British circus clown Joe Higgins, a man of skill, humour, and agility, and a heart for Daisy (Karina Bell), the acrobatic daughter of circus owner and ringleader James Bunding (Maurice de Féraudy). As an early intertitle proclaims, a passing convertible packed with snooty rich folks will change the lives of the future couple soon after the circus has erected its tent in a town field.

The gift of a gold bracelet to Daisy may have been intended to lure her into the arms of admirer, Parisian costume designer and “expert philanderer” Marcel Phillipe (Robert Schmidt), but its delayed conveyance to Daisy enables her father to make a greater decision for the family – sell the bracelet for francs and pay off some debts, plus enable Joe and Daisy to have their first proper date out on the town – a night full of innocent embarrassment, but events that also bond the couple.

Daisy’s quietly peering parents are delighted by their daughter’s blossoming romance, and almost hours after their small wedding celebration, a Parisian showman gives Joe the offer of a lifetime: migrate to the city of lights, and build a career as the country’s most celebrated and beloved clown.

What follows is an artist’s spectacular ascension, but the eve he’s bestowed a medal by the country and made an honorary artistic administrator, Daisy succumbs to playboy Marcel, endangering her marriage.

Sandberg crafted a lot of small scenes which flesh out Joe’s meteoric rise, and while Daisy isn’t exactly the film’s second-most vital character, she represents the kind of bliss that can only lasts if men and women fight to remain faithful. Daisy’s parents live in the same massive apartment as their daughter and son-in-law, and although not exactly necessary to the plot – in a Hollywood production, their roles would’ve been radically reduced once Joe and Daisy hit Paris – their ongoing presence provides contrast to the extreme high and low points of the younger couple.

Maurice and his wife have stayed together because of love, understanding, and humour, and realistic expectations of marriage – tolerance, compromise, fidelity – and the pair’s immutable togetherness makes Daisy and Joe’s union seem a little naïve and childish, yet Sandberg doesn’t rush Daisy’s dalliance and breakup with Joe: they unfold gradually, through looks, a gift, and the slow erosion of fidelity until Daisy’s first evening of lust happens… and her first lie keeps Joe unaware that his marriage is doomed.



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At more than 2 hours, the melodrama can feel leadened – a period review in Photoplay branded the drama as “stupid” and typical of Nordic heavy-handedness – but if one gets into the film’s groove and appreciates both the dramatic nuances and directorial touches, The Golden Clown is a rewarding and insanely epic melodrama.

Joe goes a little crazy, but neither brutally nor emotionally, nor in one grand swerve. He’s often just several beats away from reclaiming her (and saving her), and Sandberg ratchets the tension of these missed opportunities to ridiculous degrees, using multiple montages and cross-cutting to elongate the losses and bungling which cause Joe to tumble from his perch as France’s most renowned clown – a stature evidenced by very clever shots in which his name flashes above known neon entities, like Peugeot motors and the Moulin Rouge club.

Daisy’s final visit to her parents and slow walk out of the building is brutally cross-cut with Joe missing her at every turn, and his bungling with the front door lock is especially cruel. (Like some turn-of-the-century Berlin apartments, a tenant’s key unlocked the main and separate unit doors, so Joe’s hasty return to the 3rd floor and scramble down to unlock the entrance makes sense.)

Sandberg technique is to keep motion within the frame – in close-ups and sustained shots there’s always back & forth action behind the subject – and scenes are cut to a brisk tempo that compresses time but never reduces small moments and performance nuances – decisions that enable the cast to radiate. Ekman and Bell have high-pitched moments, but like their co-stars, their performances are arguably more restrained than American colleagues: when Daisy starts to fall for Marcel, there’s a range of gradual reactions and behaviour instead of some mad self-flinging and ravishing; and Sandberg prefers to show the teasing, foreplay, and end results instead of the dirty gritty details.

It could also be a deliberate ploy to keep things just a little vague; for a moment we could believe Daisy didn’t sleep with Marcel, just as much later we feel Joe may well save Daisy from a suicide attempt; and in the end, Daisy may still be alive, allowing the couple to reunite and rebuild their lives. The same goes for Daisy’s expulsion from the apartment by her father: for a moment he may well give in to paternal duty, unlock the door and give her a second chance. It’s pitched melodrama, but it’s also brutal for audiences who are continuously denied the easy, happy or quick & cruel resolution.

When Marcel finds another lover, his latest conquest destroys him, and an auction scene is vicious in the way he sees the ex-lover with a new mark, and the little priceless, one-of-a-kind dolls he once treasured are tossed into a corner because they can’t even fetch two shitty francs.

Sandberg keeps chiseling away at each character’s dignity, documenting their loss of stature until the two rivals meet in what’s expected to be the film’s poetic finale: the same type of poor man’s circus where the pair first met and Marcel laid lay eyes on Daisy. The build-up to revenge is (unsurprisingly) elongated, but Joe’s given closure and absolved of murder because fate finally intervenes and metes out proper justice towards Marcel.



This is grand melodrama with an emotional Grand Guignol cruelties, and it’s hard to imagine any other actors inhabiting these roles, let along anyone attempting to eclipse Sandberg’s direction which is assured, and poetic in the use of images and ‘visual sounds.’ Joe’s rendition of “The Song of the Clown” is ostensibly silent, and regardless of what music is performed live, it’s Ekman’s marvelous performance that gives us the impression of hearing an actual song. The penultimate rendition – Joe in a striking golden outfit, and clowned musicians coming to life on painted steps – is performed, shot, and edited as if there’s sound, making it unfold like a demented Ziegfeld extravaganza.

Christen Jørgensen’s cinematography is gorgeous: the compositions are neat, clean, and filled with energy, while night scenes are tinted blue to add to already stark shots of Joe and Daisy snogging by her parents’ trailer, and the epic street chase that has Marcel following Joe in a slow-moving taxi.

The sense of being in Paris is accentuated by some lengthy shots of the city, including its landmarks, and a later sequence where Joe struggles to reach Daisy across a busy city street, but as high as Joe ascends in Paris’ creative community, there are no elaborate scenes of audience adulation; like a Michael Hanneke drama, Sandberg denies the clichéd cutaways and sticks to what the characters feel before and after those triumphs and bad behaviour, and although the decision may be purely budgetary, the camera’s always on the leading actors, with Ekman carrying the epic drama through its cruel twists.

Unavailable so far in North America on video, The Golden Clown was restored by the Danish Film Institute in 2006, and has appeared in Europe as a standalone DVD and Ekman-themed set in Denmark.

Stage-trained Gösta Ekman died at 47, and his best-known roles on this side of the pond may be F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) and the first version of Intermezzo (1936) with Ingrid Bergman. Karina Bell also appeared in Sandberg’s 1924 version of Little Dorrit and retired from film after 1933, as did Robert Schmidt, who also appeared with Bell in Sandberg’s David Copperfield (1922). French actor and scene-stealer Maurice de Féraudy shifted from directing to acting in his later years, and passed away in 1932.

The film work of cinematographer Jørgensen seems very compact, lensing 16 films, and ending with the German production Revolutionshochzeit (1928), directed by Sandberg and starting Ekman and Bell. Sandberg’s career did extend into the sound era, but concluded with the documentary Vikingerne, deres forfædre og efterkommere (1937), after which he died at 50 a year later.

The Golden Clown was apparently the only feature film scored by Walter Schrøder, and the 2006 restoration was recently screen at Toronto’s Revue Cinema with an energetic live performance by Jeff Rapsis.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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