THE CIRCUS || 1928, USA || Comedy || Directed by – Charles Chaplin / Written by – Charles Chaplin / Produced by – Charles Chaplin / Cinematography – Roland Totheroh / Editing by – Charles Chaplin / Art direction – Charles D. Hall / Starring – Charles Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Henry Bergman / Running time: 70 mins.
When Charles Chaplin wrote his autobiography later in life, he simply failed to mention The Circus. This is certainly because of his difficulties to revisit such a tremendous personal turmoil he experienced during its production. The death of his mother. The end of his second and well documented tumultuous marriage with Lita Gray. His tax problems. Not to mention the impending threat of talking pictures, that risked his silent film art being outdated. Knowing all the tremendous pressures Chaplin had to overcome, it is remarkable that The Circus should stand out among the best of his works. Indeed, more than that, it is perhaps the culmination of his idealistic sense of humour, the kind that his character of the Little Tramp represented so well.
In this film, we meet him as he escapes arrest from wrongful accusation, by accidentally stumbling into a circus act in mid-performance and stealing the show. The circus manager notices and sees his potential in finally earning his failing business some profit, before shortly realizing that his new talent is quite unable to be funny on purpose.
This is the set-up, out of which no conventional storyline that is worthy of mention arises. The Circus is rather a perfect snapshot in the breezy unfolding of events of the life of its central character, who at the end of the film, remains unchanged and untouched by the circumstances that develop throughout the film, unlike, of course, the other supporting characters that populate its narrative. Unlike a film like The Gold Rush, with its well rounded storyline, or Modern Times, with its spectacular props and art direction, The Circus remains organically fixated upon its central beloved character’s physicality, much like in his pioneering two-reeler days. Even more than that, one could argue that the true origins of the film come from Chaplin’s days in the vaudeville circuit and music hall acts. Occasionally, the connection between the origins of the Tramp of the aformentioned two-reelers and The Circus is even more evident, as he is less sympathetic than in more recent previous outings, and this is introduced from the start, when we catch him in the act of literally stealing candies from a baby.
The impulsiveness in the progression of events makes the film feels fresh, exciting and quite energetic, not to mention that the hearty laughs it gets make it, to this day, one of the funniest films of all time. However, it is far from being a shallow exercise, particularly when we consider the plot is born out of poverty and hunger, two chief sources of inspiration in Chaplin’s cinema. For instance, the Tramp’s friendship with the beautiful and mistreated daughter of the circus manager begins out of an act of kindness, as they bond over sharing a piece of bread. Furthermore, the beauty of a film like this, and an auteur like Chaplin, is that in retrospect, we can notice other sources of inspiration related to the artistic struggles of its maker. When the attentions of the manager’s daughter turn to an Adonis-like tightrope walker, the Tramp chooses to learn how to walk on a tightrope himself in order to attract the attentions of the object of his infatuations. The connotations with adapting to another art form closely echoes Chaplin’s concerns with the birth of the talkies. This makes the ending all the more poignant, as the circus moves on and the Tramp is left behind, on his own, especially if we consider the circus tent to be a symbolic representation of the cinema screen. Luckily, his legacy, and even his days as a silent filmmaker, would not end there. – 5/5