Sundays are the perfect time to sit relax and watch something from back in the day. I am used to watching older films every Sunday with my dad and although they weren’t silent films (more Westerns, WW2 films or Roger Corman films). So, I thought it was best to look back a little farther and enjoy the silent era for you to watch on a Sunday. I have found most of these on YouTube, so they are easily found if you want to check it out. In time this will grow to include the films I watched with my dad, but for now, let’s focus on the silent era. Today’s pick is an utter classic, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928).
Charlie Chaplin reprises his role as The Tramp who is framed for stealing a wallet (when in fact he was just stealing bites off a hotdog from a baby). He tries to escape the police while a struggling circus is in town. Accidentally he becomes part of the show. With the help of ringmasters poor stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy), he learns the tricks of the trade and tries to make a career from his newly stumbled upon the profession.
The Circus had one of the most tumultuous productions ever known, film negatives scratched and almost unusable had to be painstakingly restored. A fire delayed production for a month as it ravaged the studio. Even the circus tent feel victim to luck. To top all of this off, Chaplin going through a divorce with Lita Grey, causing the film’s production and release to be delayed for a full 8 months. It appeared at a time that The Circus was never going to get made. Happily, it did and we get to witness one of Chaplin’s greatest films.
There was a time that critics supposed that Chaplin could not succeed in the longer format of cinema. They felt that The Gold Rush was a fluke. Chaplin had set out to prove them oh so very wrong.
Chaplin plays to his strengths in the first 15 minutes of the film by aping up the slapstick as he and the actual crook try to escape the police. Mimicking the dolls and trying to evade capture (twice) in a hall of mirrors is peak slapstick and still, elicit laughs today. (Honestly, when was the last time you saw a funny hall of mirrors scene, it is almost exclusively made for horror nowadays (looking your way US and IT: Chapter 2)). This results in an accidental charade in the circus ring, while they are open. Much to the delight of the audience, they love “The Funny Man”. This scene was honestly great and the fact that Chaplin was able to hook the audience in with what would occur during his usual 2 or 3 reel films and then move beyond that to develop the story is very smart writing. He had us, now where does he take us?
We then go through a little melodrama with The Tramp falling madly in love with the oft beaten horseback rider Merna. There is a great connection between the two and this helps playoff the will they won’t they for a portion of the film. Everyone is playing their respective roles expertly and you would not think at all that there was such troubles onset as they were.
Usually, in these films and films today to be fair the hero gets the girl. Chaplin had no intention of making sure The Tramp got the girl, no matter how much he cared for Merna. No, The Tramp was written to be smart enough to know when the girl has eyes for another and that attempting to change her mind is a fruitless effort. Even when she tries to leave with him. This truly shows that Chaplin had more focus on The Tramps next adventures and it was unlikely that he was going to ever get the girl. This isn’t James Bond after all. He gains friends and that is all. He didn’t need anyone else all that much.
Of course, the film is probably most likely remembered for the tightrope scene and what a scene it was. A true spectacle and one that would have worked a treat during its era. Nowadays it still brings laughter as slapstick will never truly die out. It took Chaplin 700 takes to perfect this sequence with editing making the sequence all the more unforgettable. A great silent film comedy that should never be forgotten.
The Circus has been critiqued as a multitude of 2 reels Chaplin’s put into one, but despite the opening scene, all of the circus antics, the 200 take lion sequence (in which he really was inside the cage with the lion) and the for mentioned tightrope scene, the overarching story is there. This is a homage to a time gone by, where such clowns and magicians in the early 20th Century profited greatly. But the introduction of the film helped show audiences that these talents were simply an old hat. It is only when The Tramp is spontaneous and causing havoc all around him is the crowd enraptured. They need and want something different and Chaplin tried to show that.
A simple tightrope walk is impressive, but that about when an untrained man is up there with monkeys attacking him as his trousers fall down? That is the type of chaos people want to see. This could also be a thinly veiled swipe at sound films (The Circus wrapped mere days before the release of The Jazz Singer). In this instance, the clowns and standard acts that audiences are used to are no match for the new and world opening sound films. Hearing people talk on screen is a technical marvel, why would an audience bother with what they had before?
In the end, we have a picture that was right for the times and more likely than not more on the nose than it intended to be. Without a doubt, The Circus would entertain families today and that is the charm of Chaplin driving this film to its success. A great film sadly sandwiched between two better-known pieces of his work. Don’t forget The Circus, it is a great watch.
Rating – *****