Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Circus

A Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is mistaken for a pickpocket and chased through a circus by the police. Once in the big top he outwits the cops and gets more laughs in doing so than the circus clowns so is offered a job by the ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia). On his first morning at work the tramp meets a beautiful young dancer (Merna Kennedy) who is hungry after being punished by the ringmaster who is also her father. The tramp falls instantly in love and shares what little food he has. Despite being a hit with the audience the tramp is unaware and like the dancer is mistreated by the ringmaster. No sooner does he become self aware he begins to act with hubris, making working conditions better for himself and his love. The tramp’s intentions are soon interrupted however with the arrival of a handsome young tightrope walker (Harry Crocker).

Almost forgotten by Chaplin and his audience for sixty years, more recently The Circus has become known as one of actor/director’s defining works. Featuring some of his best comic creations and earning points for the sheer hardship of production, The Circus is amongst Chaplin’s better films and ranks as one of my favourites.

Amazingly The Circus is the only one of Chaplin’s feature films which does not get even a single mention in his autobiography. It is almost as though he wished to forget it as production took place during one of the most tumultuous times of his career. The film took two years to make, an exceedingly long time for the 1920s and this was due in part to a terrible fire which ripped through the set and also because production had to be halted after Chaplin was served divorce papers by his second wife Lita Grey. Her lawyers attempted to take the film’s negatives as part of the divorce settlement and Chaplin was forced to hide them away before continuing. With all that was going on during its production it isn’t surprising that Chaplin wanted to forget it. Luckily for us he returned to the film in 1967, creating a new score and even singing Swing High Little Girl over the titles. This was the version I saw. To hear Chaplin, whose voice I’ve barely heard before, sing over the beginning of one of his best films is a joy.

The Circus features what is probably my favourite 90 seconds of Chaplin’s entire sixty year career. While being chased by the police early on he enters a mirror maze and causes confusion inside, ducking and diving out of the reach of the police officer who never really knows where he is. On a technical level this is also impressive as despite there being around twenty mirrors on screen you never once see the camera. After escaping the hall of mirrors Chaplin finds himself and the real pickpocket (Steve Murphy) being chased into an automaton Noah’s Ark experience. The following scene is the highlight of the film as Chaplin and the pickpocket are forced to act as automatons to fool the police. Chaplin uses this as a chance to repeatedly hit the pickpocket on the head and is able to produce an automaton style laugh after each whack. The way Chaplin moves and the genius of the idea are both extraordinary. Another scene which had me laughing was when Chaplin was cleaning and took a goldfish out of its tank to clean. The stupidity and surrealism are excellent.

As well as the trademark slapstick and trodden on character there are a few aspects of the film which will surprise even Chaplin aficionados. There are several fairly brutal beatings which Merna Kennedy endures from her father. These aren’t brutal in the vein of a Korean thriller but by silent comedy and especially Chaplin standards they are almost horrific. I did not expect to see it but it gave the tramp a reason to stand up and fight back and also created a feeling of hatred towards the villain of the piece. Something else that struck me was Chaplin’s stunt work. He isn’t usually remembered for his stunts, at least not as much as fellow silent clowns Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd but here Chaplin performs some deft defying aerial tricks. The tightrope scene is simply incredible, especially given the fact that Chaplin was unable to tightrope walk before the film. This scene is also one of the comedic highlights. In an earlier scene, he also shares a small cage with a huge lion. This scene took over 200 takes to get right so there were 200 chances for the director to be mauled. That shows dedication to perfection.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards at the first ever Oscar ceremony but was taken out of the running by the Academy in favour of giving the film a special award for acting, writing, directing and producing. The Jazz Singer was the only other film to receive a special award during the next five years. Talking of The Jazz Singer I read an interesting analysis of the film from Jeffery Vance. (The following ideas are not my own). Vance suggests that the film is semi autobiographical in nature and gives the following reasons. The Tramp enters the circus and revolutionizes the cheap knockabout comedy, becoming an enormous star. By the end of the film though the circus is packing up and leaving him behind. Vance suggests that this is how Chaplin was feeling about his own place in cinema as the first successful talkie The Jazz Singer was released just four days before Chaplin shot his ending. To me this is an interesting analysis which holds some weight.

Chaplin gives us a selfless ending which makes sense but it isn’t the ending that the audience want. The final shot is almost a direct replica of a shot he used in many of his films but most notably The Tramp and Modern Times. For me The Circus is a joyous 70 minutes of comic gold and quite rightly ranks alongside the likes of City Lights and The Gold Rush as Chaplin’s greatest films.       


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