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 Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)