The Circus (1928, Charles Chaplin)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Though it seems to have been an extended nightmare to produce thanks to both technical ambitions and interpersonal troubles, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus is the sort of film that seems to glow with the sheer pleasure of pure creativity. For anyone else, placing a familiar character like the Tramp at the center of a traveling circus might produce a series of funny blackout gags; the brilliant Chaplin is able to do much more than this, drawing what feels like the maximum amount of humor and pathos and inventive pleasure from a simple premise. Sandwiched between two infallible cinema classics, The Gold Rush and City Lights, it holds its own easily as the director and star’s most purely funny and chaotic film, with its mayhem and emotion both sustained expertly with not a trace of fat or desperation across a lean 66 minutes.
Much is often made of the minimal elegance of Buster Keaton’s The General, and it deserves such adulation, but The Circus operates on a similarly circular pattern while incrementally building on itself even more. Almost any of its big sequences could be the climax of its own short film, but each episode here effortlessly blends one by one into the next, forming a coherent story. Essentially the Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket, which causes him to stumble into a circus where — after a failed audition — he gains notoriety as an unintentionally funny prop man. He falls in love with a performer, Maria, whose heart turns out to belong to a talented tightrope walker; the Tramp misguidedly tries to prove himself by aping his rival’s act. Ironically, in a display of selflessness to guard Maria from her abusive dad — the ringmaster, inevitably — the Tramp fosters her marriage to Rex and walks dignified into the distance as the circus leaves him behind. It’s so beautifully simple, giving the genuinely robust and unorthodox characterization of the Tramp and the many comic sidelines so much space in which to thrive; even when the story threatens to dip into saccharine excess, as with some of the over-the-top villainy of the ringmaster played by Al Ernest Garcia, it corrects itself immediately.
Chaplin has so much to play with here: a supporting cast — led by Merna Kennedy — that’s crucially committed to playing straight against his antics, a slew of inspired ideas that examine every comedic possibility of the Big Top as setting, and the harrowing perils of tightropes, burly men, caged lions and angry donkeys. The impeccably, balletically timed comedy and wonderfully crazed chases and stunts of Chaplin’s two prior films are retained here but with a more focused, streamlined story, which means that this neatly ties together all the best laughter and derring-do of The Kid and The Gold Rush.
That story can be tonally tricky, of course; it owes a lot to the structure of Lon Chaney’s various big movies — a clumsy, leery misfit can’t “get” the girl because there’s someone better, and he’s almost always eventually effusive and humble, willing to Be the Bigger Man in this fantasy. The Circus is so much less morose, though, than a similarly structured film like Laugh, Clown, Laugh; its emotionally rich content becomes more compelling because so much energy and dedication is put into the lighter moments, which are so much more than simple slapstick. Monkeys crawling all over a tightrope walker is funny anyway, of course, as are many of the other simple gags and setpieces, but during the best scenes there’s so much more going on here than in a conventional, straightforward comedy. In so many scenes Chaplin is required for the story to be “accidentally” funny, on purpose, a nuanced trick equally dependent on acting, writing, editing and blocking. The unusual staging employed in scenes like the big bungled audition, meanwhile — he continually cuts to a shot of the Tramp and his future boss from behind, which helps to punctuate the facial reactions when we do return to either of them head-on — show a taste for the unusual but vivid, and briefly give a window into just how meticulous Chaplin was when he made his best films.
Though it’s technically a big step forward from The Kid and The Gold Rush, The Circus doesn’t have the cultural presence of the next three movies Chaplin made, including his undisputed masterpiece City Lights. Thanks to its directness as an exploration of character, a subtle unrequited love story and an expertly elevating string of comedic scores, it’s easily as accessible as Modern Times or The Great Dictator. Both are lovely, exhilarating films, but what slightly separates The Circus and City Lights from these as well as Chaplin’s earlier features is their perfect isolation from a world outside of their frame. There’s by no means anything wrong with the author’s later injection of social comment and politics, but these two films survive eternally, free of language and cultural barriers, because they are an experience unto themselves, divorced from everything under the sun save the viewer’s pure connection to a lovably flawed character and all of his mishaps and compassion. To be with Chaplin in this extended moment is to be completely lost in something pure and wholly uncorrupted.