The Mubi Cinematheque: The Circus (1928)
Okay, so The Circus isn’t actually playing on Mubi. It was, and I watched it, and it’s now been replaced with a different Chaplin film, The Idle Class. This may be a result of the musical accompaniment being nonexistent (I found an alternate stream online with a soundtrack) because watching it in complete silence is kind of disconcerting.
The Circus is one of the funniest of Chaplin’s films top to bottom. The gags come quickly and often throughout, which is not really surprising if you’re familiar with his work. There is something more predicated on the building of chaos, like something out of a Marx brothers movie, at work here that isn’t as pronounced in his later films.
Or it isn’t so much the focal point. In Chaplin’s most well regarded films, the Tramp brings a trademark dissarray to other people’s lives but they’re also centred with a huge emotional core. The Circus is far more about its jokes.
That’s not to say it’s heartless. There is great conflict between the circus ringleader and his daughter, who is kind of the object of the little tramp’s affections. Their friendship, and some miscommunication therein, creates a nice romantic wavelength to hang its hat on. It just doesn’t pack the same kind of punch as the relationship between the tramp and the blind florist in City Lights, but that’s just not what Chaplin seems interested in pursuing here.
Wow, do the jokes ever work. Every time he locks eyes with an angry mule, and every time he unknowingly ruins a performance — to the circus crowd’s delight — it’s slapstick genius. Even bits like when he’s stuck in the cage with a sleeping lion, which go a little long, are funny enough it doesn’t really allow the audience to breathe.
And it opens a door for satire on the whole movie industry. The tramp stumbles into a stale clown performance — even in the 20s, people had their fill — after he’s mistaken for a pickpocket. His chase with the cop turns into what the audience believes is part of the bit. People who paid to be at the circus had checked out, some even taking out their newspapers. This is a funny visual gag that makes the audience seem ridiculous being willing to throw money away so they can read the news while clowns carry on. The tramp’s chaotic entrance wakes them up and a star is born.
The exchange when the master of ceremonies, smelling money, asks the tramp if he wants a job is one of the most memorable. Chaplin immediately agrees in a manner suggesting no surprise at the offer, like it makes perfect sense that some stranger would offer him a lucrative opportunity out of the blue. It’s a quick moment, but one that is perfectly timed and delivered. Like most of the jokes, it lands. More subtle is the criticism of executives. The MC clearly knows he’s got a goldmine in front of him, but he has no idea how to access it. He has the tramp rehearse the same scenes the clowns have been performing for what looks like a long time. They look tired and checked out, disenfranchised with the business, as they walk him through the motions. It seems to suggest a notion that executives exert their control in questionable ways — to which Orson Welles likely agrees — failing to recognize what makes something popular to begin with. Kind of like how when one movie sparks renewed interest in a genre — zombies or super heroes, for instance — there is a sudden influx in those types of movies to the point that the genre gets diluted. Maybe it’s seeing The Circus through today’s lens that adds that meaning after the fact, but a pointed jab at the men pulling the strings isn’t out of the question.
If the comedy isn’t as strong, the weakly drawn secondary characters would probably detract from the impact of the story a bit more. Merna, for all her unfortunate treatment at the hands of her father, is not a very gripping character. This is the tramp’s show through and through. Chaplin’s movies grew and had greater depth when he was more able to share the spotlight, even if he remained the primary centre of attention. The Circus is, thankfully, a crisp laugh factory for most of its runtime.
It’s not playing on Mubi…now…but it was up as a celebration of what would have been his 125th birthday.