by Sam Juliano
Swing Little Girl, Swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look at the ground,
If you’re looking at rainbows, look up to the sky,
You’ll never find rainbows, if you’re looking down,
Life may be dreary, but never the same,
Some days it’s sunshine, some days it’s rain.
Swing little girl, Swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look to the ground,
If you’re looking at rainbows, look up to the sky,
But never, no never, look down.
-Charles Chaplin, 1969
When the immortality of Charles Chaplin is broached, one will readily identify the uproarious ingenuity of the conveyor belt and winding gear sequences in Modern Times, the eating of the shoe and the dinner roll dance in The Gold Rush, or the continuing drunk vs. sober saga of the millionaire played by Harry Myers in City Lights. Likewise, cineastes will no doubt recollect Monsieur Verdoux’s continued failed attempts at murdering Arabella, the hysterical vocals inflections in The Great Dictator or the spirited slapstick in Shoulder Arms when the doughboy goes undercover dressed as a tree. All of these films have multiple moments of comic inspiration, and still others like One A.M., A Dog’s Life and The Kid would serve as springboard for further discussion. Since it first appeared in 1928 The Circus has steadfastly held down the dubious position as Chaplin’s most underrated film, and the one that has received short shrift in both summary assessment and in the unavoidable rankings of the master’s canon. Yet The Circus has been favorably re-evaluated in recent years, and is now being seen by many as one of the silent clown’s supreme masterpieces, a film that boasts the strongest first reel of any of his films, and one that includes some of the best set pieces.
The film’s initial failure to click with the public had much to do with Chaplin’s own indifference. The star never mentioned the film in his autobiography, purportedly as a result of the ill-timing of its conception, execution and release, all of which transpired at a time the artist was winding down his marriage with Lita Grey. At the height of the legal battle, production of The Circus was brought to a total halt for eight months, when the lawyers sought to seize the studio assets. Chaplin was forced to smuggle such of the film as was already shot to safe hiding. Too much had been expected by the public after the previous phenomenon known as The Gold Rush, and Chaplin was so drained that he postponed production to spend some time in Europe. As if his domestic troubles were not enough, the film seemed fated to catastrophe of every kind. Even before shooting began, the huge circus tent which provides the principal setting for the film was destroyed by gales. After four weeks of filming, Chaplin discovered that bad laboratory work had made everything already shot unusable. In the ninth month of shooting, a fire raged through the studio, destroying sets and props. After the well-publicized reports of Chaplin’s endless takes of the set piece that actually prompted the film’s conception -the tightrope walker whose agility is challenged by a pack of monkeys- the star was anxious to wrap up production and put all the troubles and bad vibes that surrounded the production both personally and professionally and move on to the project that would eventually be seen by many as his greatest triumph (City Lights), and the bookend that would surely doom the work in the middle, in comparative terms. The fact that Chaplin received an Academy Award for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing” The Circus, almost seems beside the point, when factoring in that Chaplin was removed for official competition in four competitive categories to pave the way for the one win. The film did reasonably well at the box office, though not nearly as impressively as The Gold Rush.
Chaplin explained the advent of The Circus in interviews. It sprang from the central image of a tight rope walker being severely tested by a brood of monkeys who pulled down his pants and grope at his face while he’s trying to maintain his balance in a dangerous situation. The entire film was built around this central idea, and the finished product ultimately bears some striking similarities with his 1916 mutual short “The Vagabond” which concerns a young girl who is victimized and brutalized by a gypsy in a romantic triangle that features thwarted romance with a heroine. The film begins with a credit sequence that is underscored by Chaplin himself, who at 81 years old was still the singer of choice for the lovingly nostalgic “Swing Little Girl” that immediately sets the melancholic tone of the film that is fully consummated in the arresting finale when Charlie says goodbye to the wagons on the move. One of the reasons why Chaplin is considered the consummate genius is that he wrote and often performed his own scores, one of which was the unforgettable composition he created for Modern Times, one which yielded the universally adored song “Smile”, covered over many decades. Chaplin’s melodic gift was remarkable, but importantly it underscored his laughter with a pathos that never lost sight that life was economically tough. Much like his two great comic clown contemporaries, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Chaplin knew that laughter always came at a price, a fact he brought to full fruition in the tragicomedy City Lights, arguably his supreme masterpiece. In any event, Chaplin’s late life reconciliation with The Circus is a testament to the film’s enduring popularity and Chaplin’s private admission that in this case the end justified the means.
A traveling amusement park circus is turning off patrons with lame and redundant gags that include dancing on a turntable. Men yawn and read newspapers, while a younger boy screams out “rotten.” Meanwhile Charlie, like many of his generation, is out of work and is suffering the pangs of economic deprivation. He is the unwilling recipient of a wallet of money that was placing on his possession by a pickpocket who is running from the police. Prior to his own discovery of the scam he smiles at a baby who is munching on a hot dog while be held over his father’s shoulder. Charlie, unseen by the father, takes a few bites on the baby’s snack, while making faces to keep the toddler smiling, and even spreads some mustard on the dog he continues to eat. When the theft victim, an older man who has been searching for the person who robbed him, sees Charlie pull out his wallet he alerts a nearby policemen. Charlie, realizing he was set up then takes off, closely followed by the cop, and joined in escape by the pickpocket. Charlie enters a fun house, temporarily evading capture by losing himself in a hall of mirrors that dumbfounds the policeman. He slips back out and plays the role of the automoton, turning with mechanical agility, clutching his cane and turning periodically to laugh on cue. It’s one of the tramp’s most inspired moments and the laughter of course is mainly generated by his success in going undetected. Charlie and the cop burst through the tent flaps and onto the turntable, both darting in and out between the circus performers. The audience immediately responds with frenzied laughter, which is accentuated when Charlie continues to pop up in boxes that are part of a magician’s act. Eventually the magician’s full paraphernalia becomes part of the feigned performance, and the idea that the humor is completely accidental and unplanned is recognized by the film’s viewers but not by the circus audiences who of course have no idea Charlie’s antics are really a spillover from real life. The audience screams for “the Funny Man” after they again are regaled by the dullards who pose themselves as professional clowns. Of course the viewer is torn between their realization that the vagrant who is manufacturing laughs as an overlapper who is unknown by the circus patrons, is really not funny at all, but the man who plays him is perhaps the greatest comedic genius the film world has ever known. Charlie is quickly discovered by the opportunistic circus manager, a brutal slave driver who uses his ringmaster’s whip on his daughter, whenever her bareback riding did not live up to his expectations, and is instructed to show up the next morning to strut his stuff. Needless to say in tune with the film’s theme, humor is rarely achieved by practice, and the hapless tramp is a failure at this on demand test run. His vaudeville waddle is a disaster and the ringmaster orders him to watch the clowns do a William Tell routine, which is purposely compromised by the one who is to have the apple on his head keep pulling it off to take a bite from it. This is followed by a barber-shop routine, where buckets of lather are sloshed all over the place, and charlie is beside himself with laughter over a stunt that we in the audience know is not funny, nor really is intended to be. The funny part is when Charlie accidentally paints the ringmaster’s face with lather, an assault that temporarily terminates him, yet what leads to that point includes other lame gags that are so bad that they actually brings some laughter. One, has Charlie replace the apple on his head with a flat banana.
Charlie is rehired, fired, and then rehired again as a “property man” when the ringmaster ups the ante for deception, instructing another worker from letting Charlie know he has become the hit of the show, after a continued act of having a mule chase him into the ring, caused dishware to scatter. For continued encores over months charlie never realizes he’s the real star until the girl tells him. Charlie claims he knew it, but in fact he was completely clueless. For the audience, that revelation is genuinely funny. That leads to us to the film’s most celebrated set pieces: the first in a lion cage, which was actually a dangerous shoot. Chaplin did appear in a real lion’s cage, and his consternation was spontaneous and unfeigned. Then the stunt that was the idea from which the entire film emanated – the climactic tight rope sequence that boasts Chaplin’s amazing agility and inspired the pantomines that the actor-director claims were spontaneous.
That the tramp is left alone at the end, when his romantic interest marries and leaves with his blessing, injects this comedy of errors the sense of poignancy that elevates the material to the realm of pathos and solitude, and a reminder that success is often a mistake and is always fleeting. Chaplin’s The Circus boasts what may well be the funniest opening real in the icon’s catalogue, and then it proceeds in connecting the human elements that transform this extraordinary film into a story of loss and loneliness. Chaplin, ever aware that comedy is most resonant when it is played off deep emotions, fuels this early feature with a new definition of comedy and how it practically goes hand and hand with what some might consider failure and ineptitude. The Circus, alas is anything but.