Monday 30 August 2021

Week 35: the death of an English clown

100 years ago this week: Week 35

Looking back a century can sometimes take you even further into the past. The death of one of the best known clowns in France sparked nostalgia in journalists for the belle époque, a simpler time of joy, prosperity and family trips to the circus and the music hall. If France had grown more morose as the twentieth century progressed, so had Footit the (English) clown.  

Take your seats for a celebration of the life of a melancholic clown.

the king of clowns is dead

Footit is dead. The news won't upset small boys of today; it will though throw a shadow of grief into the hearts of big children.

Footit is dead, and like all older people who were really something, he takes into his tomb shreds of the past. He leaves us like a sad perfume, like a faded memory.

He takes with him a little piece of pre-war Paris, of the Paris he loved and which loved him. I doubt he will ever be replaced.


At the end of the summer of 1921, Footit the clown passed away, far from a ring and far from the stage. As the newspapers all pointed out when reporting on his death, Footit had given up clowning several years ago, and the end of his life was marked by anonymity and suffering. He ran a bar, not too far from the circus where he made his name, but a long distance from the limelight.

How did an English clown end up in Paris? Born in Manchester on April 24, 1864, George Footit was the son of circus performers. He grew up on the road, and began working at his parent’s circus at the age of 12. When he was 16, he joined a French circus company and moved to France. He began performing as a horse rider and clown (not necessarily at the same time!) and began to make a name for himself. In 1886 he was recruited by the prestigious cirque Medrano.

Chocolat and Footit
It was in 1895 that his career really took off. He joined the Nouveau cirque, and formed a double act with Chocolat, the country’s first black clown. The pair performed together in the ring for the next 15 years, creating a brand that transcended the circus, with their names and identities appearing regularly in adverts and films. They were almost always seen together after their shows too, at the Irish and American Bar near la Madeleine.

The tears of a clown

With his career still at a high and the double act still immensely popular, George Footit took the surprising decision to quit the troupe. Despite his success – and contrary to his public persona - Footit was not a happy man. His marriage had broken down and he wanted to get his sons into the business. He started up his own circus, but the company never found a public. Fed up with the life of the circus, Footit instead chose to run a bar in Paris.

Those who saw Footit at the bar, especially towards the end of his life, struggled to connect the old man in front of them to the agile clown who had made them laugh a decade earlier.

Those who once saw him, dizzying with verve, with stupefying flexibility and bewildering agility, can hardly imagine a Footit bent over and defeated by age, shrunken, trembling, doddery and frail, with a poor suffering face, ravaged by the wrinkles added by old age to those which had been dug over the years by so many grimaces so regularly repeated!

In the months before his death there was talk of turning him into a comic film star, but Footit was already condemned, and he died on August 29, 1921, before anything had been agreed or signed.

The story of George Footit is perhaps not unusual. A funnyman who was melancholic when not on stage, dies young following many years of probable alcohol abuse. His partner, Chocolat had also died a few years earlier, depressed and an alcoholic. His story does tell us much though about the life of a clown at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was far from being a life of leisure.

A clown in this period was at once an acrobat and a stand-up comic. The act combined physical comedy with joke telling, requiring an immense quantity of preparation, concentration and effort to ensure the timing of the performance generated the required quantity of laughter. To perform such acts sometimes several times a day for a number of decades must have been exhausting, and this was after having begun performing at the age of 12. 

George Footit had retired from the stage, but he wasn’t forgotten when he died, and his influence was starting to be felt in another performing art. Would there have been Buster Keaton if there hadn’t been the belle époque clown? Chaplin himself recognised this debt in his film ‘The Circus’. Did he have in mind another Englishman when he made the film? In a strange – very possibly deliberate – quirk of fate, the French film ‘Chocolat’, a biopic of the life of Footit’s onstage partner, George Footit is played by James Thierrée – Charlie Chaplin’s grandson!


hels said...

It is a paradox, isn't it? Sad, boozy or depressed human inside and carefree, funny clown on the exterior. Making it worse, Footit had little support .. his family was back in the UK and his marriage broke up in France.

hdm said...

Bonjour, Adam
We are citing your blog post about the Swimming pool that sank in our next book! We don't have your last name though. If you email me, I can give you a more proper reference than Adam! Merci a vous! HDM

Adam said...

Hi hdm. I would gladly email you but I can't see an address anywhere!

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