Running Away from the Circus

The Circus: written and directed by Charlie Chaplin; starring Charlie Chaplin (The Little Tramp), Merna Kennedy (A Circus Rider) and Harry Crocker (Rex, A Tightrope Waker) (1928): Chaplin’s last fully silent film is a small gem. It lacks the almost epic comic scale of some of his other features that include The Gold Rush and City Lights, but it is nonetheless filled with comic setpieces of often astonishing ingenuity.

The Little Tramp gets hired by a circus after he’s discovered to be an inadvertant comic genius. He falls in love with the stepdaughter of the Ringmaster/Owner, who is constantly mistreated by her stepfather. That’s pretty much the entire spoiler-free plot.

Chaplin can suffer quite a bit when compared to contemporary Buster Keaton as a director, at least when one looks at shot-to-shot composition and the exploitation of the unique qualities of film. Chaplin generally uses the shot as a proscenium arch: he’s interested in what he can do within the mise-en-scene. And a lot of his physical comedy relies upon startling the viewer with what seem to be impossible feats, simply filmed.

But what physical comedy! There’s something ridiculously amusing about the Tramp’s reaction to good news in this film (and others), for instance: he runs around kicking people in the stomach. Why? I have no idea. But it’s hilarious.

Chaplin made this film while in the midst of a court trial. His studio burned down during production. And the footage of him performing a tightrop scene while actually 40 feet above the ground was damaged, forcing him to quickly do what he considered an inferior (but much safer) reshoot. And after The Circus was completed, Chaplin had a nervous breakdown. Frankly, it’s amazing the film wasn’t a tragedy. Recommended.

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