Friday, October 10, 2008

The Circus (Charles Chaplin) ****

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker

Background: Charlie Chaplin was one of the biggest box office stars in the silent era and was coming off the huge success of The Gold Rush three years earlier. However, the making of The Circus came at a time of personal turmoil for Chaplin. He was dealing with numerous issues that delayed the making of the film, such as a bitter divorce, an IRS investigation, and a studio fire.

The Story: The Tramp wanders into a travelling carnival and immediately gets himself in trouble with police. During an extended chase, he finds himself in the middle of a circus show, where the audience thinks he's hilarious. The ringmaster immediately hires him, but finds he cannot be funny on purpose, so the Tramp is made a janitor and tricked to put himself in funny situations. The Tramp aslo falls in love with the Ringmaster's daughter, but must compete for her affections with a rival performer.

Thoughts: The Circus doesn't get as much attention a Chaplin's other work, but this is an absolutely beautiful piece of filmmaking. You couldn't tell that this was a troubled production, because Chaplin is in top form throughout. The opening chase sequence is among my favorite chase sequences that have ever been portrayed on film, particularly the dazzling sections with the mirror maze. Chaplin's Tramp is a very empathetic character, instantly likeable as the underdog just trying to get by and win the heart of a girl he loves. The romance is understated and sweet. One of the best moments is Chaplin playfully sliding down a tree to impress the girl. Still, the comedy is never sacrificed and this is among the funniest films I've seen. There are countless memorable set pieces, including a memorable scene where the Tramp is trapped in a cage with a lion, However, it's the ending of this film that sets it apart. The Tramp makes a remarkable moral decision at the end of the film and the final iconic moment contains a unforgettably brilliant final shot.

Postscript: The Circus ended up being one of the highest grossing silent films of all time. It doesn't get as much attention as Chaplin's other classics, but is still generally regarded by critics as a great film. Chaplin was still at his peak, and would make several more classics, including City Lights and Modern Times before eventually being threatened to stay out of the United States as part of the red scare.

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