Carny (1980)

One look at the trio of stars that grace the promotional materials for this movie, and you might think that I chose this for B-Movie Enema because that’s Gary fucking Busey in clown makeup. If not that, maybe it’s burlesque dancer Jodie Foster. Both of those are good choices, but, alas, I chose Carny for one reason…

It’s my fuckin’ blog and I chose what I want.

Seriously. Get off my back. I want to watch a movie with good, non-weirdo Gary Busey playing a carnival barking con man and a young sexy Jodie Foster exotic dancing. I don’t know what the fuck you think you have to say that is any better of an idea. To be honest, I’ve wanted to do either this or Bugsy Malone for a long time on the blog. I really have no idea why. Bugsy Malone is easy to explain because it’s a kid mobster musical movie. That screams fun to me. Carny… Well, this one seemed a little more serious. A little more like it maybe has something to do with these young, talented actors.

Carny is the DVD I have.

So… It won out.

The third member of the trio of stars to grace the cover and poster for this movie is Robbie Robertson. Not the Spider-Man character. This Robbie Robertson is best known as being one of the key elements of the hugely influential Canadian southern rock band The Band. Robertson is just off the perfection that is The Last Waltz. Seriously, that is one of the very finest of all rock documentaries ever made. Fuck, it’s maybe THE greatest rock and roll movie ever made. It was the final concert of The Band that was a huge show, and it was captured on film by Martin Scorsese.

I freakin’ love The Band. Their music is so amazingly well written, composed, and so memorable. I’m not sure there are many better southern rock ballads than “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Weight”, or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. The Band didn’t just influence modern bands like Wilco or The Flaming Lips. No, they influenced musicians that existed DURING their time. These include The Eagles, Elton John, and The Grateful Dead. Think about that, The Grateful Dead, themselves an influence, were influenced by a Canadian band performing southern rock. Shit, ELTON JOHN is listed among those they influenced. That’s a hell of a career The Band had despite it not surviving the 70s.

So Robbie Robertson was a huge star in rock, but not so much in movies. In fact, this was his first movie (not including the documentary where he’s himself in The Last Waltz). He wasn’t in another movie until 1995’s The Crossing Guard. Meanwhile, Jodie Foster was already a huge young star having been nominated for an Academy Award for Taxi Driver a few years prior. That, of course, was also directed by Scorsese. She was also in another Scorsese picture, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, even before that. She had been around since the late 60s having been in a lot of TV. Naturally, her popularity grew to completely new heights in the 90s after already winning an Oscar for The Accused, a powerful drama about a woman who has to defend her own honor while standing up to a group of drunken jackals who raped her.

By then, she was a good actress, but it was her turn as young, determined FBI Agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs that made the 90s hers for the taking. With two Oscars in tow, and the commanding lead in one of the very best thrillers ever made, she continued to crank out solid roles in pretty damn good movies like 1994’s Maverick and Nell (another movie she got an Oscar nomination for) and 1997’s fantastically overlooked Contact. In 1992, she even got to direct a sweet little family drama called Little Man Tate that wasn’t quite as powerful, but a very pleasant little movie about a single mom and her exceptional son. I could go into detail about more great films she was in, but let’s talk about Gary Busey instead.

By 1980, Busey had been a bit of a veteran, just as Foster was. He did a combination of whatever movie roles he could get and a lot of TV. It was 1978, though, that he hit the big time as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story. He was nominated for Best Actor in a really crowded field that year (the other nominees were Robert De Niro for The Deer Hunter, Sir Laurence Olivier for The Boys from Brazil, Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait, and the eventual winner Jon Voight for Coming Home – all super powerful or impactful films with heavy hitter stars). Busey continued to score some pretty big roles into the 80s and 90s which included films like Point Break, Predator 2, and Lethal Weapon. However, he had a terrible accident in 1988 while riding his motorcycle without a helmet that fractured his skull and caused permanent brain damage.

It’s easy to joke about how he acts, but, of course, it’s kind of sad that it’s continued to affect him in a way that has made it difficult for him to continue the prominent roles he once enjoyed.

Alright… Enough of this shit. Let’s get into Carny where we can make fun of Busey wearing clown makeup instead of having incredible brain trauma.

So right out of the gate we see former Academy Award nominated actor Gary Busey, and OH MY GOD…

Just coming out of the gate hot with a close up of clown Gary Busey. I feel like if you were going to open the movie with a close up of one of the stars on the poster, there was one best way, one okay way, and the way they went. Again, I don’t want to make too much light of Busey’s condition post accident, and this is way before that, but good lord, this is jarring. Then, add in some not un-spooky carnival and circus music and you find yourself really looking for to either seeing Jodie Foster soon, or at least Meg Foster (who is also in this movie).

Anyway, we do learn that Tim Thomerson is also in this movie, and that’s awesome because we haven’t seen him for ages. Well, at least not since we did Trancers way back in 2017. Also, Robbie Robertson is credited with a credit on the story as well. It’s interesting to think about how he always said he wrote music with The Band. He would typically say that he would be writing movies with his lyrics. I have a feeling he was quite enamored with movies as a youngster and carried that over to his music career, and then here – just a few years after The Last Waltz, he’s coming up with a story and starring in a movie.

So while Frankie (Busey) is getting ready to do his thing, Patch (Robertson) is walking around the carnival grounds. He’s partially helping some of the various carnival game runners and barkers, but he’s also taking money from some too. For example, he’s clearly taking payment from some to gin up business, but he also pays for entrance to the burlesque tent, but, instead of taking his change, he takes his $5 bill back. So I’m not sure if he’s got a racket or what, but he works with Frankie.

Speaking of Frankie, he is an obnoxious clown (not being facetious here, he really is purposely obnoxious). He calls himself Bozo and he’s in the dunk tank. Bozo makes fun of people who approach the game and just says things to make people want to dunk him. Busey is killing it as this annoying jerkass who is totally playing that up as part of his schtick. Nobody would want to dunk a sad clown or a kind old man clown. No, you gotta be like Bozo and be ridiculously annoying to make people want to throw baseballs at a target to give you some comeuppance. It’s a perfect game in that regard. It’s a skill not many people have but if you poke the right amount of fun at people or heckle them in a sort of way a caricature artist might, people will line up, give dollars to shut you up.

We also get our first appearance of Jodie Foster as Donna. Donna seems like a disaffected youth who is somewhat uninterested in whatever her boyfriend, Mickey, is talking to her about. He’s a letterman athlete and he gets a little snippy with one of the carnies who he catches cheating on one of the games. She just doesn’t seem all that fascinated with anything going on. It’s like that attitude you’d have as a kid when you did things just to do them. A mid-fall Friday or Saturday night cruise with your friends that you only do because one of your friends has his license and it’s better than being inside all weekend. That’s the kind of energy Donna is giving off.

She’s hardly said anything, but things come to a bit of a head when Bozo rips on Mickey a little bit. Naturally, when Bozo starts commenting on Donna, Mickey, of course, starts trying to be all macho. Donna starts to take a bit of a shine to Frankie’s unabashed wit. As he keeps twisting the verbal knife into Mickey’s frail masculinity, Mickey only gets madder and madder. It takes Patch to finally drag the kid away from the game to give someone else a shot at Bozo. However… The damage has been done.

After Mickey acts all pissy about Donna laughing at some of Bozo’s jokes, he decides to get rubbed up on by the burlesque dancers and he gets added to their show, leaving her basically alone in the wee minutes of the midway’s operating time. She decides to get something to eat and is a bit weirded out by “On-Your-Mark” played by the great Elisha Cook, Jr. But it gives Frankie, now out of makeup and completely dry and out of character, to talk to Donna and immediately intuit that she’s 18 and will be 19 in December thanks to the birthstone ring on her finger. He also figures out her name by asking for the first letter and the number of letters.

In just 15 minutes, you see Gary Busey just knock this movie out of the park. When we first see him and he’s applying his makeup, you see a frustrated or tortured or possibly generally unhappy person who is maybe not exactly loving his life. He makes the light above him swing while he stares menacingly back at himself. Then we see him in his job as Bozo and he’s wild, and funny, and full of life. But now, we’re seeing a third element of his character – a kind, soft spoken, and almost charismatic young dude. He’s treating Jodie Foster’s Donna with more respect in 30 seconds than we’ve seen her boyfriend Mickey pay her in the last five minutes.

Now, time for a shameless plug. In November, you’ll see me cover She Freak from 1967 on B-Movie Enema: The Series. It’s basically a remake of the classic horror film Freaks from the 30s, but with a heavy coat of schlocky cheapness applied to it. While somewhat interesting, She Freak does also have that feel to it that makes you want to go to a fair or a carnival and roam the various aisles, ride the different rides, and just take in the calm late summer night that is totally present here. What She Freak doesn’t have is what Gary Busey is bringing, a real fully fleshed out character that we know everything we need to get us started in these first 15-20 minutes.

He is literally owning this movie – and he shares the marquee with Jodie Foster and the guy from The Band.

After he gets her name, she’s a little freaked out, but what’s worse, apparently Mickey didn’t last long in the burlesque show and he’s coming to see what the hell this dude is doing with his girl. Mickey wants to settle things with Frankie and prove he’s a big man. Frankie busts into his Bozo voice to verbally jab at the kid. Just when things get real heated, well, Patch is there to settle it right quick.

Donna runs off at first, but Mickey catches up. Being the good guy Mickey is, he blames her at first, but apologizes. Elsewhere, Frankie and Patch pick up a couple girls. The next morning, we see that they really did pick up a couple girls and had a night full of sex. It’s also clear from previous scenes, and very apparent the following morning, Frankie has a coughing issue.

As they make small talk about Frankie wanting to get a hat like Patch’s and Patch being concerned about his hairline and getting older, Frankie sees Donna looking for him. Donna starts asking some of the other carnies where Bozo is, and the carnies are real weird to her because she’s clearly not one of them. Frankie finds her and she asks him questions about how he knew her birth month and her name. He reveals that he knew the month because of her ring, and the name because he’s really trying to learn those types of things for other midway games.

After Frankie and Patch clear up some trouble that was happening between one of the carnies and one of the local people giving the carnival a place to set up, Frankie and Donna walk off and decide to continue their chat and then… Whoa. That was some conversation!

So yeah, before Frankie goes on that night, he and Donna did the dirty. She watches him put on his Bozo makeup and asks how long he’s been a clown. He says that clowns are funny and there ain’t no clowns around the carnival. He wears the makeup as a mask because he’s meant to be scary and annoying. He talks about how many things have been thrown at him like firecrackers and such.

She laments the town she lives in. She’s tired of the small town and the expectations she’s burdened with to marry Mickey. She reveals that she’s just a waitress and would love to have the money to buy a bus ticket and get out of town. Frankie comes up with a swell idea. Well, two swell ideas… First, she should travel with them. All they do is go from town to town and see different parts of the country.

The second great idea? Make out with her and show her how she can help remove clown makeup.

Like a song off Abbey Road, she decides to leave in the night and join Frankie and the carnival. Patch is not too pleased to hear that Donna is joining them for the next carnival in Raleigh. He’s right to mention that they are crossing state lines so Donna had better be 18. When they set up in Raleigh, the carnival owner is not so sure about this “teen jailbait” that Frankie’s brought along.

On top of that, Patch is not so sure about Donna’s presence either. She plays housewife for Frankie and Patch while they work. She cooks for them, she wants to make sure that Frankie eats well because of his constant dunking in the water and whatnot, he’s likely to catch cold. Patch claims that Frankie never catches cold. But… I ain’t so sure about that.

Even Frankie is a little weird about this set up now. Patch calls Donna his girlfriend. Frankie calls her THEIR girlfriend. That’s weird. I mean, it was Frankie’s idea that she come along. He’s the one who had at least one sex with her. Well, before we see exactly how Frankie plans to deal with her, she notices that Tim Thomerson and his girlfriend who works at the burlesque tent are engaged to get married. There’s a big party that goes down due to the carnival getting rained out.

As everyone parties and celebrates the engagement, we are serenaded by the “fat man” who turns out to be a hell of a guitar player and singer. This only makes Donna want to stick around more and become more integrated with the show.

There are bigger problems, though. In North Carolina, they can’t have their freakshow. There’s some sort of law about oddities and games of chance, etc. So there’s a bit of extra pressure on the owner of the carnival and Frankie to have to grease palms to continue operating. We’ve seen in previous scenes that this is often a major strain on the show, and on Patch’s mind.

There’s a personal strain happening too. Patch is offered a pair of twins called Bobbie and Billie. Of course, Patch wants to share the twins with Frankie. But uh oh Spaghettios, Donna is here. Patch is like, “We can’t pass this up, man – TWINS!” Frankie is like, “Yeah, but what do I do with Donna? I can’t send her to a movie! Why not you take ‘double duty’ and go it alone, bro?” But Patch is like, “Yeah, but I really need some help with this, I don’t wanna fuck this up and shit!”

With Frankie turning down the Doublemint Twins and passing them off onto Patch in favor of Donna, Patch is not digging this change. When he gets back to their trailer, Patch hears Frankie and Donna giggling and carrying on in the bedroom. Patch decides to have a drink and a smoke and apparently sleep on the couch. That’s when he notices the Fat Man going out in the rain in a moo moo and almost looking like he’s taking a shower.

There are a lot of elements to this movie that come across less like a plot and more like a study of a lifestyle than anything else. While most of the movie focuses directly on Patch and Frankie as lifelong carnies and performers (and possibly either not decent people or outright liars and con men), we are viewing the movie and everything going on through Donna’s eyes. What we see through her eyes is the fun and the comradery and the partying like with extended family that look after each other.

However, there’s a darker side it it and that’s what we see in Patch’s part of this tale. It’s not all fun and games. It is constant strife living on the road and never having roots. It’s hard to put on the show when you have to grease palms. It is even harder when extended rain washes out an entire stint in a town. On top of that, you’re treated like the Europeans treated the Romani. You’re looked at as freaks or untrustworthy because you set up these games and attractions that are meant to bilk you of your money. They go to a diner full of truckers and while Donna’s in the bathroom, Frankie says they work for a shipping company. When she comes out of the bathroom, she let’s it slip that they are carnies. They are roughed up and tossed out. It’s not a great life.

Patch wants Donna gone. He thinks she will ruin what they have going on and potentially bring heat down on them for being a runaway. Patch thinks of her as an outsider and now that she’s got her peek of the inside, it’s time to dump her off. Donna decides to get work as a dancer. At least then she would have a reason to be there.

Well, she’s got what it takes. However, she is not going to be a full on nude dancer. She’ll work on the “side” behind the nude dancers where she won’t show anything. With that knowledge, Patch decides to manipulate the situation so that the guy who runs the burlesque show would force Donna to go out on stage as a full on stripper. When she hesitates, some of the jackals in the tent decide to get a little more rowdy than usual. A couple of the guys tear off her corset and proceed to literally throw her.

Like, seriously, they pick her up and throw her to the ground. Donna admits that she thought he was ready for something like that, but realizes that maybe she isn’t. It is also said that Patch convinced the old guy running the show that she was ready, which only serves as a cold realization that Patch tried to wash her out. Donna does say, though, that it was her idea to try to go full stripper to get Patch off the hook for the brawl that happened.

So to get her out of the girly show, Frankie sets Donna up with a job doing the String Game, which is one of the midway games. She learns the, um, ROPES (no pun intended) from Gerta (Meg Foster). Gerta says things will get “hot”, or, in other words, people are going to try to fuck with Donna. Constantly. Because people are the worst.

Now… I gotta stop here for a second. Check out Meg Foster here.

I mean… She’s some sort of alien, or interdimensional being, or, I dunno, been where no man has gone before or something? Those eyes are not human. I’m not saying they are bad. I’m just saying they are not human. I do not think another person on earth has the same color eyes as she does. Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s carry on.

Before the carnival that night, there is a brief scene that is completely unrelated to anything else going on that is just fun. Patch, Donna, and Frankie are going somewhere in a car. They are all in the front seat. At first, Donna tries changing the radio to put some tunes on, but Patch stops her. Frankie is asleep next to her. So she decides to grab some shaving cream and spray it on Frankie’s face. It’s just a nice little character moment for Donna and Patch that almost makes you think they are starting to like each other at least a little bit.

As the show starts up in a new town, again, Heavy (the owner of the carnival) and Frankie have to grease the palms of a local “businessman”. This guy runs a massage parlor and takes a cut of all the gambling in the area. When Patch gives a cut, the tough guy says it isn’t good enough. Heavy gets irritated, but Patch says that this is what he’s getting and that’s that. Again, we see that this probably was not uncommon in the old days for carnivals to operate by being slippery in between laws, regulations, and other bosses who can throw some weight around and make life hard for the traveling show.

Meanwhile, Donna’s first day as a String Game girl is, well, pretty successful. Gerta calls out a pair of girls who seem to be “into” Donna and tells her to play with them a little bit. So the girls come over, put a dollar down and Donna tells them to, you know, tug on one of the strings to see if they are a winner. She really wants them to tug on that string. Tug it. Win something.

‘Tis true what they say about the Sting Game… You do win every time. The girls tell Donna they will be in the parking lot. Donna is like, “Yeah, sure.”

Patch saw it all go down. When Donna gets back to the trailer and tells him how she was able to con the girls out of several dollars by pretending to be into them, he’s drinking and doesn’t seem to care. Donna thinks that this should be good enough for her to meet his expectations of what a carny should be. He’s like, “Eh. Maybe. I guess. Hey, you look pretty good in those high waisted jeans, cowboy boots, and tank top, Jodie Foster.”

This is not so great because while some good ol’ boys start busting up people’s grifts at the various games, Frankie has to go get Patch to help clean up the problem guys. Naturally, Frankie finds Donna and Patch up on Cripple Creek, if you get my drift. Frankie goes back to work and he messes with the good ol’ boys who want to mess him up too. They eventually knock over Bozo’s water tank while the ringleader tears through the carnival with his truck. He hits and kills On-Your-Mark.

Frankie tries to figure out how they can fix the attraction and get back on the road and back to making money. Patch blames Frankie for what happened with him riling up the good ol’ boys which led to the destruction of their attraction and the death of the old man. Patch says they will make it right and then they will go their separate ways.

Now, the guys who wrecked the carnival were enforcers for the local crime boss who wanted to extort more money from the carnival. So more money is collected to hand over to the boss, but he’s still not satisfied. He wants $7500 for himself and Donna for his goon that killed the old man. Meanwhile, Donna is packing and planning to leave the carnival and get the fuck out.

Heavy asks Donna for help on one thing before she leaves. The deal is for Donna to get in her thinnest, silkiest top, her shortest of shorts, and her best cowboy boots and go over to meet the goon. Meanwhile, others are planning the mother of all cons. She begins to unbutton her top, but this enrages the goon who says he didn’t tell her to do that. So he tosses her onto the bed and ties her up. He then begins to tell her to beg to be done so much that “her ears will leak.” Uh… ew. Just when he wants her to say she’ll die for it, Frankie and Patch come in and grab him and Patch appears to slit his throat.

To deal with the crime boss, Frankie takes him over to the freakshow tent where he sees what appears to be the goon’s body without its head. He takes off, but Frankie and Patch only pulled a con on him. They have drugged the goon and send him off. Patch and Frankie reconcile and it appears that Patch will eventually be the boss of the whole show. Donna is now seasoned and on her own in the String Game. Despite the murder of the old man, things seem to be rolling on as they always have at the Great American Carnival.

This is a really good movie. While I do understand some of the criticism that there seems to be so much more going on when it comes to the life of the carny, the movie is very well made and acted. Robbie Robertson plays his part really well despite not being an actor. Gary Busey is basically at the top of his game, and Jodie Foster… Well, she’s Jodie Foster. Sure, they could have maybe cut down on the crime boss storyline that played out through the last 30 minutes, and maybe they could have cut back some of the relationship stuff in how it played out, but, still, it’s a compelling movie and it treats the carnies in a way that we don’t often see.

Most of the time, as I said, we see them as only the freaks or the untrustworthy interlopers in town. But here, while they are still are kind of bilking people out of money, they are shown a little more human that we typically see. It’s a lot of performance for the carny. And before anyone talks about how carnies on the midway just take people’s money through rigged games, you might want to think twice about that because if you’ve been to a strip club, or served at a bar or restaurant by a really attractive person, or gambled, you’ve been bilked. Those just feel more “legitimate” and therefore fly under the radar of some sort of obvious rules that the carny is also using – in most cases. Sure, Tim Thomerson was totally rigging his game, but I digress.

This is a movie I wouldn’t have normally covered. It’s a little “too good” for B-Movie Enema. I admit I was sold on it by the cover. That does, though, mean that this is most definitely top tier business here. I’m glad that between this and Moonshine County Express, I had the opportunity to watch some top notch material. I’ll explain momentarily. This movie is, for at least right now, available on YouTube in the exact same quality that my DVD is and in widescreen. Though it is also officially available on all sorts of streaming platforms for digital rental or to own. This is Warner Archive Collection type of stuff, so it is also available on a relatively cheap DVD from Amazon. I’d recommend checking it out however you can (though the free option on YouTube will likely be your best shot if it is still there by the time this is published).

Okay, what say you to exiting this carnival and start to pack things up, yes? So next week is the final week before a month in which I will probably want to run my head through a brick wall at a speed fast enough to turn my brain and skull and head into absolute mush. Yes, October is going to be Resident Evil Sequel Month and I hate it. So, to make life at least somewhat livable, I am going to cover a sequel. A boner comedy sequel. Some time ago, I covered the hilarious Screwballs. Now it’s time to take a look at its follow-up, Loose Screws: Screwballs II!

So that might take away the pain… a little? Yes? Oh god I am not looking forward to Resident Evil Sequel Month.

Anyway, to stay on top of all that jazz and get notifications of new articles, you can either follow the blog right here on WordPress or you can follow the B-Movie Enema on Facebook and Twitter. That’s a good way to show your support for my constant stream of mental breakdown that will surely take place after the euphoric boner laughs of Screwballs II.

Be sure to head over to YouTube and subscribe to the B-Movie Enema Channel where season #2 of B-Movie Enema: The Series has taken off to much fanfare! This week’s movie, premiering tomorrow, Saturday, September 18, 2021, is the insane Canadian thriller Beyond the Seventh Door, so be sure to check it out!

Until next week, be good, be smart, and, I dunno… maybe don’t join the carnival?

4 thoughts on “Carny (1980)

    1. It’s a pretty good movie. Busey is great as a jerk clown at the dunk tank. This stands as a reminder that he was a heck of an actor before his accident.


      1. Thanks for your great work. My wife and I are gearing up for our month-long festival of blood, guts and laughter. Your YT channel is definitely going to make it better.
        Gary Busey makes me laugh, but I don’t ridicule him. I admire him for how well he plays the hand he has been dealt. Read you soon.

        Liked by 1 person

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