Perhaps its fitting that I saw Chaplin’s The Circus on the day that another slight and charming silent movie was to be named the best picture of 2011 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If The Artist does end up having a good evening, perhaps it can be further encouraged that The Circus, hardly the Tramp’s best work, has held up so well, and it wasn’t even nominated for anything.
Chaplin is a tough nut to crack. I always prefer Buster Keaton who I consider to be a far finer filmmaker but when you’re in a theater with Charlie there’s some elemental about his slapstick, his simple goofiness. No, simple isn’t the word, his his perfect goofiness. It is perfect. All of his movies have a perfect internal logic. The bag of flour goes up on a rope. The other end of the rope is tied to a wheel. Charlie emerges with cane in hand. His cane pulls the rope loose from the wheel. The bag of flour falls on Charlie’s head. That’s not one of his best gags in The Circus, but you know what, it’s funny just that same.
In the movie, the Tramp wants a job in the circus so he can be near a pretty girl who is a ballerina in the show (played by Merna Kennedy; in titles her character is referred to as “the girl” except in one case when we find out she is also named Merna). After utterly failing an audition to be a clown, he steps in as a property man when the others go on strike and his bumbling mishaps in the ring so amuse the audience he becomes a sensation. The cruel and cheap circus owner (Al Garcia) keeps him on as the props guy and keeps him oblivious that he’s the star attraction until the ballerina clues him in. He thinks he’s got a real chance with his love until a handsome tightrope walker (Harry Crocker) is brought on and immediately captures her attention. Sullen now, the Tramp is no longer funny and is eventually dismissed. When the ballerina leaves to be with him, he selflessly gives her up to his rival so that she can have a better life than he can provide.
Of course, like a Marx Brothers movie, the overall plot of a Chaplin film is less important than the bits that string it together, and The Circus has some good ones. There is a moment when the Tramp is trapped in a lion’s cage after swallowing a horse pill (don’t ask). It beautifully adds to the tension with funnier and funnier complications without letting the audience fully laugh they way they’d like as the lurking danger of the lion is always there. The same is achieved during the bravura setpiece when the Tramp must step in for the tightrope walker. At first, he is suspended by a hidden rope and therefore pulls off impossible stunts, then the rope is severed, unbeknownst to the Tramp, and he continues to act as if its there, his confidence keeping him on the rope. Suddenly he’s made aware of his vulnerability and tries to get across the rope as monkeys climb all over him. All of it is funny but it doesn’t get as big of a laugh as other parts because the audience has to leave room to gasp as well. Chaplin is some kind of performer to be able to not only convincingly walk a tightrope but to also convincingly walk a tight rope nervously and still stay on.
The audition for the circus most perfectly reveals Chaplin’s instinct for setting up and paying off as the Tramp is shown how a trick is supposed to be performed and then deconstructs it magnificently. There is a specific moment that I come back to. When the Tramp is told to watch the other clowns perform he pulls a chair from underneath the circus owner to sit on and when the circus owner sits down he falls to the floor. Fairly standard stuff. But the same gag is set up again but this time when the Tramp realizes he’s about to commit the same mistake of stealing the man’s chair he quickly returns it as the man is sitting down, playing with the audience’s expectation. Ten out of ten other filmmakers would have settled for the same gag twice, it would have been funny a second time, and Chaplin shows that he’s not against the idea of running gags (in The Circus, it’s established that the show’s donkey chases after the Tramp and we must get a dozen shots of that donkey chasing after Chaplin). I don’t know exactly what that gesture says about Chaplin except that there was a reason that he was the most popular film star in the world.
I said earlier that The Circus wasn’t one of Chaplin’s best and it isn’t. It would rate far below City Lights (1931), The Gold Rush (1925), or Modern Times (1936) in terms of his silent films. Chaplin himself doesn’t even mention it in his autobiography and it was one of the ten most successful silent movies of the period. Much is made of the fact that the production couldn’t have been fun, as studio fires delayed production, scratches on the negatives required endless reshoots, everyone could hear the footsteps of the talkies behind them and not least of all, Chaplin was served with divorce papers during production. Do any of these troubles come through in this lovely film? Perhaps that’s a testiment of how great Chaplin is. Achievements like a The Circus are rare.