Criterion: Chaplin's The Circus (****1/2) is a high wire act

The Circus – 1928

Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Henry Bergman

I’ve run away from the circus.

Merna – Circus Rider

Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, filmed during the release of the first successful “talkie” motion picture, The Jazz Singer, is a reminder of how perfect the doomed silent era films could be in the hands of an artist.

The story is a simple one. The Tramp (Chaplin) stumbles his way into a circus act. He finds a girl, Merna. Merna falls for the Rex, The Tightrope Act (not the Tramp). Rex is missing for the show. The Tramp takes his place. Tramp wins over Merna. Tramp gets Rex to take his place. Circus leaves the Tramp behind.

There’s more to it than this, of course. There are tons of sideshows and ridiculous events with almost everyone in the main cast getting an astounding stunt sequence. None is more amazing than Chaplin, though. This is his truly magical show.

The inherent weakness to the silent film for me is the obvious difference between the text on the screen and what we see the characters saying, or even mumbling. This is prevalent here as any other film. The true genius for Chaplin, and fellow silent film star Harold Lloyd, is their ability to incorporate fantastic sequences of absurd physical comedy.

This time, the story is nicely interwoven within the physical set pieces. The greatness of the film is that, good as Chaplin is, the film isn’t entirely reliant on his physical prowess. His storytelling is significantly more interesting than many films of the silent era. It really works for any era.

For the time, it’s interesting the take Chaplin has on the idea of a homeless wanderer. This was prevalent for his time as it is for ours today, though the absence of any drugs or alcohol paints a rosier picture that makes this more fantasy than reality. Either way, his cadence as he jaunts happily from place to place is an indelible part of our history, burned into our minds.

The biggest thing I take from Chaplin’s The Circus is an amazing degree of choreography. Whether working with many different people (i.e. the clowns), animals or on his own, this has to have been hard to get right even part of the time. I still don’t know how he survived putting his head right next to a roaring tiger. Even more amazing is seeing him on a wire with all of those monkeys moving around and all over him. One even playfully biting his nose.

Chaplin is definitely going to be on my list for future watches. I had avoided him to now because through local television, I grew up on Harold Lloyd. I figured if you’ve seen one, you’d seen them all. I really do need to see them all.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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