Charlie Chaplin‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.
Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.
The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career record. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to Kenneth Anger‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.
Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.
The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.
To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only Harry Langdon emerged with a comparable persona.
Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything other than chaste.
That Keaton was the more original filmmaker cannot be denied. His sense of aesthetic exploration is a model for early cinema. However, Chaplin proved more cunning in his business dealings. He never lost control of his films the way Keaton naively did. (Before he fatally lost artistic control to MGM, Keaton etched a celluloid character who embodied an admirable sense of detachment without resorting to overt populism).
The Circus finds Chaplin closest to Keaton territory, both in its organic, innovative composition and its existential arc. The Circus emerges as a flawed, unique work of art, with the bleakest ending of all Chaplin’s features. Desperation, contrasting with carnivalesque tinsel, evolves from the world of music hall pantomime and Max Linder, echoes Picasso’s canvases of harlequins, and prefigures Fellini.
The Circus iris-ins on Merna (Merna Kennedy), riding bareback, bursting through a large star. Her ringmaster father (Al Garcia) becomes enraged when she misses the hoop on a second attempt. This misstep elicits a thrashing and period of starvation. Merna’s act is followed by an ensemble of flabby, geriatric clowns. Al desperately needs a saving act.
Enter the Tramp, in an elaborate, virtuoso introduction. Starving, the Tramp is not above stealing food from a baby before he becomes the unwitting victim and pawn of a pickpocket. Wrongly accused, the Tramp runs for his life. He surrealistically mimics an animatronic prop in an amusement ride. Once discovered, he evades capture within a hall of mirrors (this scene surely influenced Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai). This delightfully elongated vignette takes Charlie to the circus stage where he unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. The film’s one conceit, which Chaplin could not resist, is in the audience crowning him as “the Funny Guy.”
The Tramp is offered a job, as a prop man. The key to the Tramp’s comic success is that his act is unintentional. Al shrewdly keeps his new employee in the dark, which, for awhile, isn’t that hard to do. Charlie is the classic hobo, cooking his meager meal over an open fire, and sharing it with Merna, whom he is secretly in love with.
Naturally, several slapstick vignettes are in order. These involve the animal kingdom inhabitants of the circus. A jackass, a lion, a tiger, and monkeys on a high wire plague Charlie. While some of these bits are elaborately staged, none equal the freshness of the opening.
The Tramp discovers that he is the hit act, yet somehow this discovery does not dispel the performer’s magic. However, the object of his affection is in love with trapeze artist Rex (Harry Crocker). The film ends with the Tramp exactly where he started. He accepts his fate without self-pity. Like us, he can understand his rejection, and the iris closes him off to us. Chaplin apparently hoped that iris would forever swallow up what he considered to be a best-forgotten opus. However, Chaplin cannot be trusted here as an objective judge or interpreter of his own work, which stands as a formidable maiden.