I knew what to expect when the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) ended Friday night with “The Golden Clown,” a 1926 Danish film directed by A. W. Sandberg. The SFSFF often presents horror, science fiction and futuristic fantasies as its last film on one or more nights. In the past, the late hour at SFSFF has been reserved for such films as Fritz Lang’s futuristic “Metropolis (1928),” and Tod Browning’s horrific “West of Zanzibar (1928).”
The Golden Clown drifts towards the horrific and bizarre, but not until it frames itself as a nice and easy romantic drama. Gösta Ekman stars as the title character, Joe Higgins, whose melancholy clown act captures a wide audience in Paris. Joe becomes so popular that his bored wife Daisy (Karina Bell) — also a circus performer, but one who has quit the ring — carries on an affair with a businessman. Joe, so full of the buzz of his popularity, raises the level of his performance to become an icon, but he doesn’t suspect his wife until very late in the film.
The film begins in the provinces of France, as the itinerant Bunding circus travels to a new town. The circus troupe, run by a kindly man and wife played by Maurice de Féraudy and Kate Fabian, make meager profits but treat their performers very well. Joe adores the Bunding daughter Daisy, an acrobat who stands upright during her act on a moving horse. Nearby, a group of upper-class Parisians have a picnic. The picnickers soon depart, driving past the circus wagons, but their car breaks down and the Bundings must tow it town.
The high-class people, who include an impresario named Marcel Philippe (Robert Schmidt), stay in town to watch the Bunding act. Marcel is impressed by Joe’s performance as a white-faced clown, and invites him for an engagement to Paris. Joe eventually agrees, but marries Daisy first and only goes to Paris when he can bring the Bundings along with him. Soon, Joe, Daisy and her parents live in art-deco opulence as Joe Higgin’s clown act rises to great popularity and riches.
Joe and everyone else in the film remains nice and friendly for most of the running time. Since we see Joe’s passion so clearly at the beginning of the film, his reaction to Daisy’s infidelity comes as no surprise. The horrific and strange aspect comes into it when Joe acts out his revenge using his clown persona. A simple confrontation between Joe and his rival would have played out less interestingly. But the viewer wants to find out if the story involves the downfall of a popular clown.