DVD Review Of The Circus

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/29/06


  One can argue that Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in greater films than his neglected 1928 gem, The Circus, his last fully silent film, which he also wrote with Joseph Plunkett, but one cannot reasonably argue that he made a funnier film; nor can one argue that The Circus is not a great film itself. Yet, critics, fans of Chaplin, and even Chaplin himself, long overlooked this great film. The reason has more to do with the highly publicized divorce trial from Lita Grey that Chaplin endured while filming the feature over two years, as well as a host of other production disasters. Chaplin was so paranoid he felt his wife would try to steal the film, so hid the negatives. The film was not even mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography, nor was it screened in the years after its release, until, in 1970, Chaplin rereleased it with a new score that he composed.

  As a Chaplin aficionado, I can state that no Chaplin film goes as long- 69 minutes, with such sustained laughter. There are more memorable gags in this one film than in any other film he made- or perhaps anyone has made since, and it deservedly won him his first Academy Award at the first ceremony in 1929. It was a special award for Versatility And Genius In Writing, Acting, Directing, And Producing. Obviously, these were the days before schlock like Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Monster, and Titanic were considered ‘great films,’ worthy of such awards. Yet, even had Chaplin not buried the film in his vault for decades, the very fact that it was made between two of his greatest critical and financial successes, The Gold Rush and City Lights, two indisputable silent film era masterpieces, may have fated the film to its nearly forgotten status anyway.

  Fortunately, perception and reality, while often one in politics, are not so in reality. What separates The Circus from other Chaplin classics in a positive vein is that his Tramp character hearkens back more to the rowdy and mischievous figure of the great Mutual and Essanay short films of the 1910s, not the 1920s sentimentalized Tramp. And unlike the later Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight, there is no political pandering nor artistic self-absorption- even when depicting the terrible pre-Great Depression poverty and hunger that abounds at the circus. And in contrast with his three other great works from that era- The Kid, The Gold Rush, and City Lights, The Circus is not in the least bit schmaltzy. Yes, Chaplin did schmaltz better than any other film star, and raised it to an art, for who can forget his scenes of separation from Jackie Coogan in The Kid, his dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush, or the empyreal ending of City Lights? But, let’s face it, he came damned near to cheesiness in those scenes, a point that his greatest detractors point to when denigrating Chaplin, especially against his two greatest comic rivals and contemporaries- Harold Lloyd and, especially, Buster Keaton.

  In The Circus, however, this is all gone, despite another love story that works out poorly for The Tramp. There are no heartstrings tugged in this film, as in The Kid, perhaps because, instead of starring opposite a child, Chaplin plays some of his greatest scenes against animals- those other notorious scene stealers. For example, watch the hilarious scenes where a braying ass chases Chaplin, or where the circus magician’s table unleashes all sorts of animals from his two hats, or when Chaplin dashes into a sleeping lion’s cage to avoid the ass, and accidentally locks himself in. His first attempt at egress finds that the next door cage houses a tiger- who is awake. Then a yipping dog barks at Chaplin, who prays for its silence. Remarkably, the scene was filmed with a real lion, not an obvious fake animal. How Chaplin got away with it under his insurance company’s eyes is a mystery. Then, of course, there is the climactic tightrope walking scene, when the rogue monkeys harass and depants Chaplin, whose safety wire and brace have come off.

  Now, recall the dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush, and compare it with the scene where Chaplin is angered when the circus owner’s (Allan Garcia’s) daughter, Merna the bareback horse rider (Merna Kennedy), whom he’ll fall in love with, takes his unattended sandwich. The schmaltzy Chaplin would have cued the ‘feminine Chaplin’ who always flirts to come out. But, in this scene, Chaplin takes back his food, as anyone would, is angered, and only slowly falls to the girl’s charms. By its end he even gives her the egg he boiled. And, as great as the ending in City Lights is, especially in its ending the film where other films would add a coda, the ending of The Circus is perhaps just a notch below, if that. The Tramp has gotten over his envy of his rival for the girl’s affections, Rex the tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), sets them up for marriage, and pretends to want to tag along with the circus as it packs up to move. Instead, he stays behind, and all that is left is the circus ring of burnt and dug up soil. The Tramp walks off into the horizon as blackness irises in on him. Real emotion can be felt for the perennial loser who rose above his baser instincts, for even in the last shot, right before The Tramp accepts his desolate fate, there is a look of absolute fury on his face, something that was only present in the earlier shorts, and never appeared again in later Chaplin films. Yet, he gets over it, crumples up the remainder of circus poster with Merna’s emblem, and merely kicks it away with his foot before exiting stage background.

  This sense of a narrative bildingsroman that the audience is left with is recapitulated within the structure of the film, and its effect upon the viewer, which starts off with some of the greatest gags in film history- like the pickpocket scene, and the hall of mirrors brilliance, which prefigured Orson Welles’ brilliantly derivative scene, two decades later, in The Lady From Shanghai. That scene ends with another great gag, as he and the pickpocket (Steve Murphy) pretend to be funhouse automata to fool the stolid cops. Only slowly do we get a sense of character development, as Chaplin warms to the girl, is despondent when she falls for Rex, and even within his subtle subversion of his English dance hall roots. We see how The Tramp is funny only unintentionally, or being chased by the ass. When he tries to be funny he is not, at least to the other circus performers. But, his subversion of classic commedia dell arte is brilliant, for he is really critiquing the gags that brought him superstardom a decade earlier, but which were considered passé, even in 1928. Yet, the film is also very much of its age and for the ages, as well. It is a work of absurdism, in the very situations that come up over and again- especially considering the hall of mirrors sequence, yet also a herald of what would wrongly be called Postmodernism, for it is highly recursive and self-referential, as it is a film by a comedian about the craft of comedy- witness when Chaplin repeatedly knocks the pickpocket over the head with a cudgel, as they pose as automata, then mechanically laughs. In this manner, the film is the grandfather to films like Federico Fellini’s or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.

  There are other great scenes, such as the circus barber and William Tell routines (with a wormy apple), when Chaplin and the pickpocket are in parallel flight from two cops, when Chaplin steals bites of a sweet from a toddler looking back over his father’s shoulder, when he meets Merna, and assumes she’s the sword swallower from the circus poster- a sly subversion of the sexual prudery of the era, as well as a couple dozen other briefer gags, but the film also shows Chaplin growing technically- such as when he uses a double exposure in a brief fantasy sequence that shows him leaving his body to knock out Rex. Cinematographer Roland Totheroh uses mostly static camera shots, although the high wire shots play with angles and close-ups. The scene was shot in over seven hundred takes, but are so skillfully edited together that they flow beautifully, and were obviously the inspiration for similar scenes a quarter century later, in Fellini’s La Strada.

  As for the DVD? It is part of a two box set of Chaplin’s classics out on DVD, put out by the French film company MK2, distributed through Warner Home Video. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection has The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 has The Circus, The Kid, City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux- perhaps the only other Chaplin film as wrongfully neglected as The Circus, A King In New York with A Woman Of Paris, The Chaplin Revue, and Richard Schickel’s 2003 documentary, Charlie: The Life And Art Of Charles Chaplin. The Circus is given two disks. Disk One is just the film- the 1970 reissue version, and Disk Two has many special features, such as a five minute introduction to the film by biographer David Robinson, and a half hour French made documentary by François Ede, called Chaplin Today: The Circus, on the history of the film, and features Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica’s comments. There are a few deleted scenes without audio, a week’s worth of outtakes during filming, home movie shots, a few other minor segments- such as shots of the film’s premiere, as well as trailers for the film- one from France and one from America- both for the 1970 reissue of the film.

  As pure comedy, perhaps the only film that has as ceaseless a run of comic gags that all work is the 1960s all-star comedy classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but that film could lay no claim to great nor higher art. Perhaps the only downside to The Circus- or rather the DVD, is that it does not offer the original film from 1928, replete with a silent film organ score- say by the great silent organist Rosa Rio? Instead, we only have the overwrought, and didactic musical score Chaplin composed in 1970. His opening rendition of the saccharine Swing Little Girl, sung over the opening titles, is plain bad- both as music and as sung, but thankfully passes quickly. As with his unfortunate 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush- with added narration, this music guides the audience too much, although the film’s main theme, I must admit, wins you over at the end. Fortunately, that film’s DVD comes with both the 1942 reissue and the 1925 original- which is superior. Some artists never know when to leave greatness alone. Even so, The Circus is the purest and least flawed Chaplin feature film ever made, in that it distills every single aspect of his greatness and, yes, even that grossly overused term- genius. For anyone with a love of pure cinema, silent cinema, and its history, this film and DVD is a must to see and own. But, if you have heart problems, I advise you to be wary, because it is so funny it could literally hurt you….but wouldn’t that be the best way to go?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice blog.]

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