The Circus

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January 21, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

If Chaplin preaches one thing in his films, it’s that there can be an immense amount of happiness found even in suffering. With that thesis statement in mind The Circus is perhaps the point where Chaplin’s life and art intersected most vividly. A bitter divorce from his second wife, Lita Gray (originally intended to play the female lead here and last seen as an angel “vamping” Charlie in The Kid’s dream sequence—she was but 12 years old there), forced Chaplin to hide his negatives and edit in secret and also by a fire that ultimately burnt down his studio. The Circus was a film dogged by crises. It all culminated in a nervous breakdown for Chaplin and, apparently, decades later in his autobiography he never once mentioned this film. It seems some things can’t be solved simply with a smile.

Chaplin’s refusal to comment is unfortunate however because, as difficult circumstances can sometimes prompt, he made an absolute gem of a film in spite of everything. This time around the Tramp gets framed by another pickpocket who is trying to evade the police. Starved as usual the Tramp is astonished to find a wallet full of money in his pocket and decides to ask no questions but of course soon the pickpocket who originally stole the money as well as the police are after him. This leads to a fantastically realised chase into a fairground, a hall of mirrors and finally a set-piece with Chaplin doing a superb impersonation of an automaton to blend in with a series of robotic figures in the park.

The tone is set and it becomes obvious that this is Chaplin at his absolute comedic best. Eventually, having busted up a circus performance and proving an inadvertent hit with the crowd, he is hired by a circus leader who we know to be cruel because of the abuse he heaps upon his pretty daughter (the Tramp’s love interest). We have a number of superb comic sequences throughout here as Chaplin, thinking he’s just a props man, is lined up to “ruin” every night’s performance of the circus to the crowd’s riotous laughter. Still, he has a job and he’s happy. The Tramp needs only one more thing, his love. It’s there that the problems arrive as a new act, a tightrope walker named Rex, intervenes and it becomes clear very quickly that the girl much prefers this suitor.

Again drama and comedy intermingle as the Tramp tries desperately to learn the craft of tightrope walking in order to usurp his rival. His efforts are, of course, in vain and in a wonderful twist, showing Chaplin’s good nature, the Tramp concedes defeat, acknowledging that the happiness of the girl must come first. This is not before he does take to the tightrope with a bunch of meddling monkeys in tow. This is one film where Chaplin doesn’t miss a gag. Every prop, every sequence, every person seems perfectly placed and shaped to extract the maximum amount of comedy out of the story. Of course within the film the Tramp can only be funny when he is unaware that people are laughing and so as he learns of his real role within the circus, as the main attraction, his star fades.

The final shot is filled with poignancy as the circus rides away and the Tramp decides, much like his erstwhile canine TV pal The Littlest Hobo, that he should just move on elsewhere. Remarkably the final shot was almost ruined as the caravans were stolen by a college student one night to be used as wood for a mammoth bonfire. Those wacky students, eh? And this after Chaplin’s entire studio had already burned down. Luckily he manged to rescue them in time allowing them to resume shooting the next day.

Also interesting is a full, and intricate, ten minute sequence that Chaplin conceived and filmed while waiting for new sets to be built after the fire. It saw himself, Rex the tightrope walker and the female lead going out for a meal and getting into an encounter with two heavyweight boxers. The boxers are identical twins played by the same man, a technique allowed through excellent implementation of double exposures all done within camera. The sequence is interesting although it never made the final cut of the film. Given that Chaplin shot several hundred takes over just a few days to make this sequence, it does show a remarkable level of self control for him to decide to excise it from the final cut when he realised it wasn’t needed. Luckily the DVD includes it as it stands as a fine, ten minute short on its own. Also interesting that the sequence opens with a dollying shot down what is Sunset Boulevard in 1925. For that alone it’s worth checking out as the area looks nothing like it does now.

Also included on the DVD is footage from the film’s Los Angeles premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre complete with a full circus show before the film and large animal models set up outside the cinema. I might take this time to congratulate France’s Mk2, Warner Brothers and the Charlie Chaplin Foundation for their sterling job on the DVDs for these films. They are absolutely comprehensive affairs featuring all sorts of stock footage, out-takes, deleted scenes, home videos and each film also gets an individual 26 minute long documentary devoted to it which thus far has included contributions from the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Emir Kusturica, Liv Ullman and many others. Bravo folks, bravo.

Anyway, The Circus is Chaplin on top form and I’d wouldn’t be at all surprised if, having watched all his features, this one came out to be my favourite.

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