10 September 2008

The Circus (1928)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 69 mins.

If you have a favorite director, or a few favorites, then odds are you have the answer to this question forever resting on the tip of your tongue: What is his or her most underrated film?

With regards to Charles Chaplin, one of my favorite directors, the answer is his 1928 film The Circus. Perpetually underrated in ways I've never quite seemed to fathom, The Circus contains some of the biggest laughs in any of Chaplin's films – more laughs, I'd argue, than City Lights (although the latter is superior overall) and nearly as many as Modern Times. In fact, there might be more laughs packed into the first twenty minutes of The Circus than the first twenty minutes of any other film I've ever seen, and I like to think I've seen my fair share of comedies.

Perhaps The Circus is lost in the shuffle because it came three years after The Gold Rush and three years before City Lights. When something quite good is stuck between two somethings that are always bandied about in the discussion of greatest motion pictures, it is inevitable that it might become lost or passed over. The Circus is hardly mentioned in official discussions of Chaplin, and Chaplin himself failed to mention it in his autobiography (it was made during one of the many tumultuous times in his life). Again, let me say that this is a shame. Although it can't compete with the charm of his more romantic and heartbreaking films, and it doesn't possess the famous set-pieces of dancing dinner rolls or a factory worker spooling through machinery, that doesn't mean it's worth brushing aside.

Possessing one of his sturdier plots, The Circus opens with the penniless Tramp, who is accused of pickpocketing and runs under the local big top to escape. His manic evasion of the police inadvertently breathes new life into a failing circus, particularly ruining a lousy magician's routine in a spectacularly funny way. The audience wakes up and suddenly starts laughing, and the sound of laughter might as well be the ringing of a cashier's machine for the stern ringmaster (Allan Garcia). Convinced the Tramp must join the show, he hires him on the spot only to realize when the Tramp attempts to be funny, it's painfully not. The ringmaster keeps him on anyway, hoping chaos will ensue as long as the Tramp is somewhere near the circus. The ringmaster's step-daughter (Merna Kennedy) steals the Tramp's heart, and all seems well until a tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker), who also has eyes for the step-daughter, butts into the Tramp's life.

The jokes are priceless: the ruined magic show, the botched session where the Tramp tries to learn how scripted clowns work, becoming caught in the lion's cage, battling monkeys on the high-wire. The drama however, especially toward the end, is not as effective. The Circus reminds me a great deal of The Kid, which used drama more effectively than humor and is admirable for doing so. The inverse is true for The Circus. It and The Kid are both second-tier Chaplin, precipitously close to hitting the bull's-eye but still missing one or two elements. As has been said many times and many ways though, a second-tier work from a great director is a hell of a lot better than a first-tier work from an average director.

When discussing Chaplin there is a running motif of what-went-wrong-behind-the-scenes, and I think it's so interesting because he had an uncanny knack of looking remarkably graceful on-stage while his off-stage world fell apart – the crying clown literally personified. The Circus might be his most disastrous experience making movies, including fires that burned down sets, development laboratories that accidentally destroyed negatives, and the onslaught of his second divorce, this time from Lita Grey. (Having learned his lesson during The Kid about what divorcing wives might try to take from him, he hid the negatives of The Circus.) The parallels are haunting; as Combustible Celluloid writer Jeffrey M. Anderson notes, the film was "perhaps more personal than anyone might have suspected at the time." A distraught funny man forced to be funny – are we talking about the Tramp in The Circus or Chaplin making The Circus?

Although he is better known and more highly praised for other films, The Circus was one of two films that garnered Chaplin an Oscar. Originally nominated for Best Actor and the defunct Best Director of a Comedy, the Academy ended up giving him an honorary award "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing." It was his only Oscar for quite some time. Chaplin openly disdained the Academy Awards, not unjustifiably I believe, and according to his son he reportedly used his statuette for The Circus as a doorstop. Needless to say, it didn't sit too well with the Academy, which was apparently as hoity-toity in 1929 as they are today. City Lights and Modern Times were not nominated for a single award. He wouldn't win again until 1972, when he was given an honorary award for his entire career, and then one more in 1973, for the score of Limelight, finally given a U.S. release.

I will probably find myself for the rest of my days as a Chaplin-loving film-goer giving the "Rah-rah-rah!" to The Circus. You're more likely to see his better known movies, and those are better than no Chaplin in your life. But if you haven't seen it already, I urge you to dig a little deeper into the man's work because a gem like The Circus lies right below the surface.


Farzan 11 September, 2008  

Another excellent review. Keep doing what you do

Sam Juliano,  17 September, 2008  

I am sorry to have gotten to this so late, but you have indeed penned another marvelous treatment of a Chaplin classic, that for me ranks fourth behind the big three. I always felt THE GREAT DICTATOR waS overestimated, and I do love MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT. In addition to the segments you rightly site, I would add to that the slapstick of the early part of the film, like when the Tramp eats the little girl's ice cream cone. In fact, the first reel of the film ranks among the funniest in all of Chaplin.

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