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Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Circus’: A Masterpiece of Melancholy and Mirth

Chaplin's The Circus was released in 1928 when cinema was rocked by the sound revolution. It follows the stratospheric success of The Gold Rush (1925) but arrived during one of the artist's toughest periods
Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus (1928)

PLOT

Mistaken for a thief, Charlot embarks on one of his rollicking escapes. By chance, he ends up in a circus and is mistaken for a clown, inadvertently earning sensational success. Love adds its twist: the little tramp falls for the beautiful equestrienne, the daughter of the cunning owner who employs him but doesn’t pay him fairly. The girl helps him to see the truth…

by Mauro Gervasini

The Circus is to Charlie Chaplin what Sherlock Jr. (1924) is to Buster Keaton: two films of absolute perfection. Choosing to love one (Chaplin) over the other (Keaton) is possible, as Gene Wilder/Fronkensteen would say, but it’s a futile exercise. Both must be revered because we need them, especially in times like these, ravaged and cowardly. To return to thinking and seeing sublime cinema, and perhaps, who knows, its unrepeatable geometric essence (images + emotions in motion: compassion, empathy, amusement). The Circus was released in 1928 when cinema was rocked by the sound revolution. It’s Chaplin’s fourth feature film (out of a total of 11), following the stratospheric success of The Gold Rush (1925) but arrived during one of the artist’s toughest periods. His divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey, was having severe repercussions, and her lawyers were trying to freeze his assets and money pending a court judgment. All these elements (the epochal change in the seventh art and his private life) shook the film from the writing phase. Paradoxically, it turns out to be the most melancholic of Charlot’s long films up to that point, with our vagabond destined for sentimental checkmate because the woman he loves adores another, leaving him only a Rostand (read: Cyrano) role, subdued and resigned. Then, almost as the ultimate form of resistance to the “new attraction,” i.e., talking cinema. The Circus is one of the most frenetic and overwhelming films of the silent comic epic, with all its characteristics codified in the 1920s pushed to ever more daring consequences: from hyperkinetic chases to the reversal of the common use of objects, from the comedian’s clumsiness mistaken for lunar talent to the establishment of an order that is no longer the same as before (and here there’s a case of very modern and interesting female emancipation from the father-figure). A policeman chases the vagabond. Nothing more canonical from Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops downwards. But here two things happen: chased and chaser end up in a maze of mirrors, completely losing their bearings (anticipating the iconic final sequence of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai) and then on the circus ring atop a swirling top that vastly increases their speed and that of the scene. It’s there that the audience (the diegetic one of the circus, but we imagine also the real one of the hall, at the time) goes wild. Not to mention that Chaplin at one point rivals a mechanical puppet and stars in various circus acts demonstrating once more his flexible and extraordinary physicality. The Circus. According to historians Bordwell and Thompson, among the most convinced supporters of this work, which was long neglected by the artist himself, a kind of cross-fade is taking place: on one side a declining form of spectacle that Chaplin had frequented as a young man and to which he would return as an old man (Limelight); on the other hand, the emerging cinema, with its other tricks. The Circus has fascinated filmmakers of every latitude, up to Fellini naturally, here there’s already a melancholic vision with the sad clowns, see at the beginning when they are reprimanded by the owner-dictator. Only in 1969, at almost 80 years old, did Charles Chaplin reconcile with The Circus, tied to such a painful moment in his life, consenting to a new edition and taking care of the soundtrack, even singing the song that can now be heard on the opening titles.

FilmTV, No. 51, December 19, 2023

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S ‘THE CIRCUS’: A CLOSER LOOK AT ITS MOST ICONIC MOMENTS

Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus is a marvelous blaze of inventions. Let’s take a closer look at the seven best scenes from the movie, exploring how Chaplin’s blend of humor, pathos, and daring physicality creates moments of unforgettable cinema.

Opening Chase: The film opens with a classic Chaplin scenario: the Tramp is mistakenly pursued by a policeman, believing him to be a pickpocket. The chase that ensues is a masterful blend of comedy and athleticism, with Chaplin utilizing the circus environment to his advantage, dodging and weaving through an array of obstacles in a manner that is both hilarious and thrilling.

The Hot Dog Stand: The Tramp, so broke and hungry, seizes an unexpected opportunity that allows him to fill his stomach for free. Perhaps hunger doesn’t cloud the brain, but sharpens it. He’s watching an attraction and next to him, a petty thief robs a distinguished gentleman. The man notices and the thief, to avoid getting caught, slips the wallet and pocket watch to the Tramp unnoticed. The thief then tails him to reclaim his loot, and the two end up in front of a hot dog stand. Convinced he doesn’t have enough money to buy one, the Tramp notices a child in his father’s arms holding the coveted sandwich. It’s just a moment: the Tramp fills him with cooing and slowly devours it all, bite after bite, not forgetting to add mustard.

Mirror Maze: In a memorable sequence, the Tramp and the pursuing policeman find themselves lost in a maze of mirrors. This sequence is not only visually striking but also comedically effective, as both characters struggle to navigate the confusing reflections. It’s a brilliant example of Chaplin’s ability to combine physical comedy with more surreal elements, anticipating similar iconic scenes in future films.

The Lion’s Cage: The scene inside the lion’s cage is a tour de force. The big cat is snoring away. The Tramp, fleeing from a mischievous donkey, inadvertently locks himself in there. How to get out? He opens a trapdoor, but on the other side pops up a tiger. The sweet acrobat he’s in love with passes by, but seeing him inside, she faints. He tries to make no noise. He doesn’t want to wake the lion. Unexpectedly, a little dog arrives and starts barking. He then tries to wake the girl and, as she comes to, the Tramp notices the lion has also awoken. But it seems the most docile animal in the whole circus, so much so that he starts to show off. The girl opens the door for him but he plays the hero, until the beast roars and the Tramp shoots off like a rocket, ending up climbing a pole.
This sequence interested Andr√© Bazin. For him, everything revolved around the issue of realism in cinema. The fact that the Tramp is framed in the cage together with the lion makes the scene much more real. In fictional films, says Bazin, it happens that the film gains more sense, more truth, thanks to these “moments of reality” that integrate with the imaginary. Clearly, today, with digital special effects, everything is possible.

Tightrope Walking: In an effort to impress the equestrienne he loves, the Tramp attempts to walk a tightrope. Unbeknownst to him, a group of mischievous monkeys also gets on the rope, causing chaos. The scene is a perfect storm of tension and comedy, showcasing Chaplin’s incredible physicality and timing as he tries to maintain his balance while dealing with the troublesome primates.

Boxing Match: The Tramp finds himself participating in a boxing match to earn some money. He uses a unique fighting technique where he hides behind the referee and tries to avoid his opponent’s blows. The choreography of this scene is exquisite, with precise comedic timing and movements, making it one of the most memorable and hilarious sequences in the film.

The Ending: As the circus packs up and moves on, the Tramp is left behind, alone in the ring. It’s a poignant moment that transitions from the joy and chaos of the circus to a somber, reflective mood. Chaplin sits alone, contemplating his loneliness and the transient nature of joy. This ending is a beautiful mixture of comedy and pathos, a trademark of Chaplin’s work, leaving the audience both touched and contemplative.

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