Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Day the Clown Died

"It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful, but I slipped up."
-Jerry Lewis commenting on The Day the Clown Cried 

No cinephile among us can resist the lure of an obscure film. Whether it's rumored to be a masterpiece or epic failure, there's something irresistible about an unseen or rarely viewed movie. It's why new releases, no matter how critically panned, always get at least a few adventurous viewers. It's why old movies, no matter how commercially unsound, never fade away completely. Hardcore fans just love the road less traveled, even if it's purported to be bumpy.
Recently, I've been going through Edward L Cahn's directorial catalog focusing specifically on his prolific and diverse genre work from 1955 to 1962. In this 7-year period, he made just shy of 50 b-movies, mostly for AIP, including westerns, horror, sci-fi, crime and family dramas. Cahn's films will never be considered great, or even good, but they are expectation breakers that do surprise, albeit mildly, for their better than average pacing, structure and execution. What set his work apart from other run-of-the-mill low budget filmmakers of the era is his consistently solid technical skills. Despite his immense output, none of Cahn's efforts appear slapdash, muddled, padded or error-riddled as is often the case of cost-conscious genre films from this era. The stories are formulaic and somewhat predictable, but Cahn's It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which concerns a monster loose on a spaceship, predated Ridley Scott's Alien by two decades, and Invisible Invaders, featuring slow-walking, non-voodoo zombies beat George Romero to the punch as well. However, I think Cahn's biggest strength is his well-paced, lean and to-the-point style which probably stems from his early background as an editor on major productions in the twenties. There's often an efficiency in storytelling that occurs in Cahn's films that speaks to his directorial ability to pre-edit his work a la John Sayles. His technical gaffs are limited as well which is surprising considering the speed, quantity and inexpensiveness of these productions. Though the stories are often straightforward presentations of their given sub-genre and the budgets are limited, the quality of execution and streamlined style of Edward L. Cahn always makes his features eminently watchable and pleasantly engaging. To be sure, none of his films will ever make any 'best of' lists, including my own, but they continue to surprise by how terrible they aren't.

I have to be honest. When I see a single-digit number of user ratings in IMdB, especially for a film that's widely available on a streaming service, I am more than a little intrigued. A grand total of 5 people had rated Edward L Cahn's The Clown and the Kid before I got to it, thereby qualifying it as obscure enough to watch despite the fact that neither clowns nor boys are ordinarily my thing. On the surface, the film sounded syrupy and maudlin to cringe-inducing proportions. And I knew the extreme low budget-ness was not going to help matters. But Cahn beat my low expectations yet again with his simple, uncluttered storytelling and resourcefulness. Even though the movie does indeed brim with sentimentality, the director delivers an enjoyable, innocent, sincere drama that beats the heck out of any live-action stuff of a similar vein that Disney would do in the 60's. Michael McGreevey, who would later co-star in a lot of Disney television and movies, plays the titular kid, Shawn. Don Keefer, who plays Shawn's dad, is the early incarnation of Moko the clown. At the start of the film, Shawn and Moko are performing a sort of clown and pony show at a carnival when Shawn's dad decides to move to Texas due to his failing health so that Shawn can attend the same orphanage where clown/dad was raised. We know dad is not long for this world when his nitroglycerin pills make an early appearance. In 60's movie and TV convention, when you see the heart meds come out, the character taking them will be gone within three scenes one way or another. Moko-dad, who undoubtedly understood this rule, makes some early check-out preparations with Shawn while on their drive to Texas. This scene, which is certainly manipulative, never comes off as cloying even when Shawn asks permission to cry. A lot of the credit goes to the veteran character actor Keefer for his good sense of timing and ability to steer the scene emotionally. But the real star of the film, John Lupton, shows up only after Moko-dad has shaken off his mortal coil. In an interesting twist, Lupton plays escaped convict, "Pete", who stumbles onto Shawn and soon-to-be-discovered-dead dad when he tries to steal some food from their camp. Pete gently cons Shawn into accompanying him the rest of the way to Texas and father-son friendship ensues. Pete assumes the Moko role, more out of self-preservation than design, and he and Shawn seek out employment on the way to the orphanage. A female amusement park owner eventually enters the picture and there are kindly nuns plus a smart horse as well. It all sounds gag-inducingly sweet, I know, but Cahn keeps it from going outright schmaltzy and Lupton never panders with his performance. Lupton, like Keefer, was a journeyman TV and movie character actor with a substantial amount of experience. I was recently very impressed by him in Mark Stevens'  1957 underrated western Gun Fever in which he played a tubercular gunfighter turned miner who harbors a dark past. In The Clown and the Kid both Lupton and Cahn are better than the movie they are working on, yet neither uses it as an excuse to phone in their work. Maybe that's what I admire most about Cahn, despite having cheap tools and inferior material he still takes the job seriously and delivers an adequate product.

Score: 5.75/10