Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Review: The Circus

"The Circus" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Starting today, for the next two weeks, the Music Box theatre in Chicago will be having a Charlie Chaplin retrospective. The event begins with the showing of "The Circus" (1928).

I would imagine there are those who would wonder why "The Circus" would be the first film shown. It is not one of Chaplin's best remembered films. This might have something to do with the fact in Chaplin's autobiography he never mentions the film. It also lacks the social message of "Modern Times" (1936) or "The Great Dictator" (1940) and the level of pathos found in "City Lights" (1931) or "The Kid" (1921).

Still "The Circus" is a film which I consider an unsung comic gem. It is really a "gag picture". A feature film which is built around comedic set-pieces thinly strung together by a simple plot. It makes subtle hints at large themes; the mistreatment of the worker for example. Something which would be further examined in "Modern Times". But generally, the main goal of the film is to entertain not preach.

"The Circus" also has the distinction of being the film made in between the movie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for, "The Gold Rush" (1925) and perhaps his most popular film, "City Lights". That may also be another reason several in the public overlook this film. It gets lost in the shuffle, caught between two Chaplin masterpieces.

I was sadly unable to attend the screening tonight at the Music Box, so instead I watched my own copy of the film. I hope many in the audience, especially the younger viewers, find the film as funny as I do. Earlier this year, also at the Music Box, I saw the newly restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) where several of the younger audience members could be heard snickering. They weren't able to appreciate that film. However, I do have some hope that Chaplin's film will be greeted with the respect it should be met with. Back in college, students were shown some of Chaplin's two reelers and students did find them funny.

As the title should suggest "The Circus" mainly takes place at a circus. We have the Ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who also owns the traveling show. His step-daughter, Merna (Merna Kennedy) is a horseback rider, who suffers at the cruel hands of her step-father. After a performance he does not approve of, he tells the young woman she must go without dinner, establishing one of Chaplin's biggest themes; hunger. He is also seen beating the young girl. She soon becomes the object of the Tramp's (Chaplin) affection.

When we first meet the Tramp he is hungry looking for food. We see him standing behind a father holding his son, who is eating a hot dog. At first the Tramp entertains the boy, but, when the father is not looking, he takes a bite of the hot dog. Meanwhile, unknown to the Tramp, a pickpocket has placed a stolen watch and wallet in the Tramp's pocket, attempting to take the police off his scent. Now both the Tramp and the pickpocket are on the run from the police.

The sequence takes them into a house of fun and builds up to a brilliant piece of pantomime on Chaplin's part as he pretends to be a moving mannequin. Pay close attention to Chaplin's body. How perfectly stiff he makes his body giving it a mechanical appearance.

While running away from the police, the Tramp disturbs a circus performance, but, an unknowing audience thinks it is all part of the act. The Ringmaster, realizing the Tramp isn't aware of his success, hires him as a property hand, who always finds his way into the act.

As I mentioned before, it is at the circus the Tramp meets Merna. For him it is love at first sight. She may need to take a second look. However, they become best friends as the Tramp routinely sticks up for the her against her father. The Tramp soon starts to sense his love may be returned but a rival takes the scene. A new attraction, a tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker).

I've often felt the Tramp character has been misunderstood by critics and the public who proclaim Chaplin's character was a loner. He may have been alone and nothing more than a Tramp, but, he didn't carry himself as one. You'll notice this in several of his films including "The Circus". From Chaplin's first scene he walks around with a dignified air. He wants respect. The Tramp wants attention, seeks love and does want to be a part of society. But it is society which has shunned him based upon his looks. That is what makes "City Lights" so poignant, it takes a blind girl to show kindness to the Tramp.

We see this theme play out again in "The Circus". Merna looks at the Tramp merely as a friend. He shows her great kindness and in her way she returns it. But while he is thinking of marriage her heart is elsewhere. How could she ever marry a tramp?

In order to prove himself and gain acceptance the film builds up to its last sight gag (and its most memorable) a tight rope act done by the Tramp himself. Since Merna is so fascinated by the tight-rope walker, the Tramp becomes jealous. When the opportunity presents itself the Tramp does the act. Naturally things don't quite go as planned. The sequence, in my opinion is hilarious, as the situation just gets worst and worst. One complication after another arises. Up to the point where monkeys (yes monkeys) start to attack the Tramp.

But for all his heroics the Tramp's fate is the same as always. The film ends on a very touching note, giving us a certain amount of pathos we have come to expect from the master. Some may be puzzled by his motives but if you think about it long enough, it all makes perfect sense.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert recently reviewed this film and he spends a good amount of time talking about Buster Keaton (!) apparently forgetting he was actually writing about Chaplin and a Charlie Chaplin movie. Ebert, you see, is a Keaton man, whereas I am a Chaplin man. For me Chaplin is the greatest comedy filmmaker of all time. Chaplin is the foundation which American comedy has been built upon. Don't get me wrong. I admire many of the silent clowns; Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase among others. And while each man is important to film comedy and has his place in film history, without Chaplin however, the history of movies changes dramatically so.

Some feel, Ebert included, that Keaton's film have aged better. Others feel that Chaplin's sentiment and overt messages often get in the way of his comedy. Strangely enough, it is for all the reasons people don't like Chaplin that I love him. Yes, we care about the Tramp. Chaplin makes us love him. But that is why I'm more involved in his movies compared to others. Chaplin's films go beyond comedy.

While I'll admit "The Circus" doesn't fully display Chaplin's genius, it does show us glimpses of his brilliance. Several of the ingredients are here but Chaplin wasn't as ambitious here as he was with other films. Still, one cannot deny how truly funny this film is.

At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1928 Chaplin received an honorary Oscar for "The Circus" which read; "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". Well deserved indeed.