So here's the idea: (non-comedic) acrobatic performers usually execute a series of graceful tricks in order of apparent difficulty. Comedy acrobats use many of the same skills, and may perhaps finish with a flourish of standard tricks, but their m.o. is to emphasize clumsiness or eccentric movement over grace, and indeed to transform whatever (heavy metal) apparatus they're on into one big obstacle. That pedestal, that ladder becomes an excuse for missteps, pratfalls, and (hopefully mock) pain. Getting there is more than half the fun.
Here are five stellar examples:
Our first heavy metal impaler is the great Catalan clown, Charlie Rivel, doing his comedy trapeze act. This is from 1943, when he would have already been 46 or 47. For more on Rivel, see my post from last spring. Apologies for the poor video quality, but it's the best I've got right now.
Next is Larry Griswold, the "Diving Fool," a Vaudevillian and a gymnastics instructor who with George Nissen (you've probably rolled on Nissen mats) developed and popularized the trampoline. Griswold was an international star during the 50s and 60s. Here he is on the Frank Sinatra Show in 1951, like Rivel about 46 years old. A thank you to New York clown and impressario Audrey Crabtree for alerting me to this clip.
One year later (1952), and we have the acrobatic duo Tom & Jerry (not to be confused with the cartoon cat and mouse) on the high bars on an episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour hosted by Abbott & Costello. The comedic partnering could be better, but some terrific moves. Not sure who Tom & Jerry were, though one writer on YouTube suggests that "the Aussie brothers, the Shipways, were around about this time; there is a chance this video clip was them."
In 1962, the comedian Jimmy Durante — who in the early sound film era had been forced upon Buster Keaton as a co-star in a series of MGM movie shorts — starred as a circus owner and sad tramp clown in the Hollywood extravaganza, Jumbo, directed by Billy Rose. Here we see his character perform a comedy wire act, complete with Impaling Oneself on Heavy Metal.
I know what you're thinking: there's no way Jimmy Durante pulled off all those tricks. And you would be correct. He was doubled by the wirewalker Linon (right), whose name does not appear in the movie's credits. This was in the days before unions negotiated the full credits we now see at the end of every film. Still, hardly fair to Linon.
But fast forward half a decade to December 26, 1967, and Jimmy Durante is hosting the television show Hollywood Palace on an episode featuring a variety of circus performers, including none other than "The Great Linon." To his credit, in the intro to the act, Durante goes out of his way to award Linon a retroactive Jumbo credit, in sheepish-comedic fashion. Here's the intro and Linon's act.
And as for Linon himself, although he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show six times and Hollywood Palace twice, I haven't been able to find any biographical information on him, not even a first name. Nothing in Thétard, Adrian, Jando, Speaight, Rémy, etc. Anyone?
Finally, in a similar vein but of more recent vintage, here's the clown Walter Galetti doing a nice bounding rope act full of mishaps that by now should be looking familiar. Notice that though he has some serious ropewalking chops, he actually doesn't start walking on it until well after the 6-minute mark.