The Circus (1928, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker
This was to be the last true silent film made by Chaplin. The era of the Talkie had begun and audiences were no longer content to have their actors speechless. Chaplin’s following films would have elements of silent pictures in them and could easily be categorized that way, but make use of sound. Chaplin leaves the silent era with a bang, though. He pulls out all the stops, referencing the theater acts of his youth and adding the trademark Chaplin twist to them.
The Little Tramp happens upon a circus and become charmed with the ringmaster’s horse-riding daughter. The ringmaster sees potential in the Tramp as a clown in his show so he hires him one. The Tramp observed the ringmaster cruelly beating his daughter and sneaks her food when he can. Eventually, a handsome tightrope walker joins the circus and woos the daughter away. The Tramp begins to lose his edge as the hit of the circus and through a series of zany circumstances ends up having to step in for the tightrope walked in the film’s climactic sequence.
I laughed harder at this than I have most contemporary comedies. It’s not the slapstick, its the way Chaplin’s Tramp adds little flourishes of personality. The most symbolic sequence in the film is when the ringmaster has his troupe of clowns perform classic Vaudeville and dance hall comedic routines. The humor doesn’t come from the routines, but in how the Tramp bungles them up when it is his turn to perform. Chaplin understands that in the moments where another comedian would ham it up the Tramp will get the bigger laugh by playing dumb. What is also wonderful about the film is the feisty personality of the Tramp. He can be very feminine in his behavior, particularly when he attempts to woo the ringmaster’s daughter. Its very interesting that Chaplin takes the traditionally female role when courting, coyly casting his gaze downward, batting his eye lashes, and literally prancing. Juxtapose this against moments when the Tramp has had enough of his poor treatment from the ringmaster and he delivers comical blows.
While The Circus is one of the purest Chaplin comedies I’ve ever seen, it is not without its moments of typical Chaplin poignancy. The final scene of the film, as the Tramp sits alone in a field that the circus wagons once occupied, standing, then walking into the dusklight is very beautiful. The background of the film is marred with difficulty. Sets were rained out or burnt down. Footage was scratched beyond usage. And Chaplin was dealing with a messy public divorce and an IRS lawsuit. None of this is visible on the screen though, showing Chaplin was the consummate professional.