****/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras A
starring Charlie Chaplin, Allan Garvia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker
written and directed by Charlie Chaplin
by Bryant Frazer It started with the tightrope. That was Charlie Chaplin's original idea as he developed his feature-length comedy The Circus--his iconic character, the Tramp, forced into a high-wire act, defying death and injury on a rope stretched taut far above the ground. It was later, shortly before production started, that the monkeys came into the picture. Those mischievous animals, those gremlins, would crawl over his arms and body, wrap themselves around his face, and pull down his pants as the Tramp struggled to maintain his balance on the wire. From what we know of his off-screen life at the time, it's easy to imagine why Chaplin felt bedevilled. His second marriage, to Lita Grey, still a teenager, was fundamentally unhappy. He spent his time away from home with divorce on his mind, and it was around this point he learned that Lita was pregnant with his second child. He also kept an eye out for the detectives he was sure had been hired to investigate his affair with Hearst's wife, Marion Davies.
Meanwhile, his partners at United Artists were exploring a joint distribution deal with MGM that Chaplin opposed, and the press had begun to question the surprisingly paltry federal tax responsibility shouldered by Chaplin's film company. The Circus itself attracted more monkeys--that is to say, gremlins. During pre-production in December, 1925, a storm ripped through the studio backlot, destroying the circus tent erected for the film. Some of the first footage shot in early 1926 got ruined during processing--Chaplin fired the entire staff of the film lab--and a later fire at the studio destroyed the set. Towards the end of production in December, 1926, Grey filed for a divorce, the salacious details of which threatened Chaplin's reputation and livelihood. Then the IRS filed liens against Chaplin's property, demanding eight years' worth of back taxes and padlocking the gates of the studio he opened in 1918. By January of 1927, Chaplin was on a train bound for New York City, the negative for his still-in-progress film in tow. When he finally arrived in his room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, said his assistant, Toraichi Kono, Chaplin tried to jump out the window.
If ever a project seemed bound for disaster, The Circus was it. But Chaplin persevered. He was no stranger to hardship, of course; as a child, he had spent much of his time living in workhouses and other unfriendly institutions before escaping to tour English music halls. Chaplin eventually made his way to America, where he became, in a few short years, one of the most famous men in the world, earning enviable piles of money. Those piles of money, he eventually realized, were key to solving his problems. In June, Chaplin reached into his pockets and came to an agreement with the IRS that allowed his return to Hollywood. In August, he paid out a substantial divorce settlement that, by avoiding protracted legal wrangling, effectively shushed the gossip columnists. And then, at last, he finished The Circus, which premiered at the Strand in New York City on January 6, 1928. Despite the miracle of its very existence, Chaplin himself never seemed too fond of the film. He mentions it in his autobiography, for instance, only in the context of his mother's death.
Despite all the distractions, he was operating at the height of his artistic powers. The Circus is front-loaded with some of the best, most inventive gags in his filmography, as Chaplin devises perfectly-timed routines involving the Tramp mixing with the masses on the Venice Boardwalk. It pushes at the boundaries of silent-era special-effects work to create illusory visuals like the aforementioned tightrope-walk, which appears to take place at vertiginous heights, or the scene Chaplin plays while locked in a cage with a ferocious lion. And it has Chaplin's trademark poignancy in spades, with an emotional denouement that sees the Tramp retreating from a community that has, finally, accepted him as one of their own, to continue his solitary ramble. If you know that the final scene, in which Chaplin waddles off away from the camera as the picture irises out, was shot a mere four days after the release of the first talking feature, The Jazz Singer, well, that gives Silent Charlie's pointed isolation in that shot a particularly on-the-nose quality. Still, Chaplin's capacity for invention and pathos at this point in his career was spectacular. Even the film's outtakes are magnificent.
The Circus sees the perpetually down-and-out Tramp stumbling into a job when a travelling circus comes to town. While performing there, he falls in love with the beautiful circus rider (Merna Kennedy), whose abusive stepfather runs the show, punishing her missteps and berating his clowns for their supposed shortcomings. When a suave tightrope-walker (Harry Crocker) joins the troupe with a dazzling act, Charlie decides he must impress the rider with a similar stunt. But once the Tramp joins the circus proper, he is a flop in skits or sketches. When he's being chased by the police or pressed into service as a fumble-fingered prop man, he kills, yet he's incapable of delivering a performance on demand. Chaplin had for years considered making a movie about a clown, but The Circus isn't really that movie because Chaplin's character is sort of an anti-clown. He never finds his way into the circus community, and he's largely oblivious to the mirthful uproar his presence evokes in the stands. It's as if that moment of self-consciousness would ruin him.
Thanks to the tension and irony generated by Chaplin's script, The Circus is more than just a vehicle for top-drawer silent comedy. It feels personal. Indeed, the scene where the circus clowns gamely but unsuccessfully try to incorporate him in various hokey routines feels fondly derived from Chaplin's own experiences on the vaudeville stage. And though Chaplin's shot compositions often presented the action as if it were framed by a theatrical proscenium, Chaplin was actively exploring the unique possibilities of cinema. The Circus has a number of scenes that demand exacting in-camera double exposures, including one where the Tramp imagines himself clocking his romantic revival. Another, where Chaplin ends up in fisticuffs with identical twin prizefighters, ended up on the cutting-room floor. The riotous tightrope act is a showcase for early FX, with camera tricks and editing meticulously calibrated to convince an audience that the Tramp is on an actual high wire without breaking the spell. The scene looks just dangerous enough, though not too dangerous to be believed. Even in the heady context of Chaplin's other pictures, it's a triumph.
Madcap though the tightrope gag may be, it's the scene where Chaplin displays the Tramp at his most beleaguered and focuses the film's text and subtext: performance anxiety, sexual frustration, and those pesky monkeys as a metaphor for whatever roiled Chaplin's troubled mind. It deserves its place at the film's climax because it gains so much through thematic resonance, but it's not the most impressive or resonant scene in the movie. At the beginning of the film, after devoting a mere couple of minutes to introducing the circus itself, Chaplin immediately shifts his attention to the Tramp, who is accidentally embarking on a comic misadventure. Described in an intertitle as "hungry and broke," he is first seen among the crowds thronging the circus sideshows, where Chaplin stages a series of gags involving a professional pickpocket, a funhouse, and a police squad falling all over itself in frustrated pursuit of our hero. The jokes here are golden, starting with the one where the famished Chaplin steals bites of a toddler's hot dog when his father isn't looking and culminating in another where the Tramp imitates an automaton to throw the cops off his trail. He wears a robotic grimace that splits the difference between fear and anger. At the heart of all this action is a kaleidoscopic hall-of-mirrors sequence, dizzyingly choreographed by Chaplin and his genius cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh. It's all the more hilarious for being kind of terrifying--the Tramp's harrowing encounter with a multiplicity of Chaplins is a prime example of comedy born from anxiety. (Two decades later, it inspired a similar scene at the end of Orson Welles's film noir The Lady from Shanghai.)
The action culminates in a delirious set-piece where the Tramp scampers under the Big Top itself and the police try to apprehend him amidst a live circus with all the usual trappings--a spinning platform that keeps the cops running in place, an illusionist whose magic act Chaplin spoils, and a cadre of rambunctious clowns. Although his mad scramble is greeted with roaring approval, the Tramp is just looking for an escape. "Where's the funny man? Bring on the funny man!" the crowd roars in his absence, braying en masse for the return of their new favourite entertainer. It's not much of a triumph for the Tramp, who is stressed by success, terrified of failure, and only able to be funny by mistake. He doesn't get the girl, he's upstaged by his rival, and his future seems lonely and uncertain. Why does the Tramp come across as not simply saddened but somehow spooked by his experiences here? Why would the famously arrogant Chaplin identify so strongly with such a frightened man? I think it's because he grew up in abject poverty, the kind that puts a monkey on your back. After all, Chaplin was deep into this troubled production when PHOTOPLAY quoted Douglas Fairbanks as saying, "A man's only as good as his last picture." Fame is a great confidence booster, and anyone who says money can't buy happiness is just trying to sell you something else. But the spectre of being poor and alone? That's a terror you never really shake.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's new Blu-ray release of The Circus is quite handsome, although the film itself is scanned from a full-frame dupe negative rather than the original camera negative (which is said to have been destroyed when new picture elements were made in 1968). According to a title card that appears at the top of the program, Cineteca di Bologna had the scan and digital restoration done at 4K resolution through L'Immagine Ritrovata, in association with Roy Export SAS. (AMPAS and the Criterion Collection are credited with "additional support.") The picture is framed at 1.33:1, the typical ratio for silent cinema, and is a bit flat, reflecting the second-generation source. It's more contrasty and less silvery than it could be, with some muddy textures and probably lost detail, especially in the blacks. Grain is present, albeit somewhat indistinct and unobtrusive, and the image is mostly free of dirt, scratches, or other blemishes. The digital clean-up is reasonably comprehensive, though minor imperfections remain visible, especially in the margins of the frame.
As far as audio goes, this version of The Circus is actually a sound film, featuring the soundtrack prepared by Chaplin for its 1969 reissue. That means a second dupe negative was employed as a source for the opening titles, which now include "Swing Little Girl," a song written and performed by Chaplin. The audio was recovered from the sound negative created for the reissue, scanned and digitized at 2K and presented here as a monaural PCM track. It sounds fine for its vintage, delivering the film's musical accompaniment in reasonably high fidelity with good dynamic range, low distortion, and impressive noise reduction. What would be really nice to have is a second transfer of The Circus, boasting something closer to the music that would have accompanied its 1928 release and mastered at a frame rate that more closely matches the speed in which the film was shot. For example, I'd love to see an approximation of the version that was first screened in 1993 under the supervision of conductor Gillian Anderson (not that Gillian Anderson), who reconstructed the original accompaniments selected by Chaplin (from existing musical sources) and determined that 20fps was the optimal speed for projection. (You can read more about that here.) There is a clear precedent for this, as Criterion included a 20fps version of The Passion of Joan of Arc on its most recent release of that film, but for whatever reason(s), it doesn't seem like an equivalent treatment of The Circus is in the cards.
The audio commentary by Criterion/Chaplin regular Jeffrey Vance, a historian specializing in the silent and early sound eras, is exemplary in its Chaplin scholarship, placing The Circus in its correct context within both film history and Chaplin's body of work. The track is packed with information, and Vance moves so quickly between screen-specific commentary and more general details of the production and its troubles that I kept having to back up the disc as Vance jumped forward to make his next point before I was done processing what he had just said. Somehow, he finds time to analyze Chaplin's aesthetics, too, including his well-known fondness for long takes and medium-long shots, plus a circular motif that he identifies in The Circus specifically, starting with the irises in and out that open and close the film, respectively. Best line: "Ingmar Bergman watched The Circus every birthday for his entire adult life. That was his gift to himself."
Aside from Vance's tour de force, the beefiest and most welcome supplement here is the Criterion-produced "Stepping Out: A Selection of Outtakes from The Circus" (29:42), featuring commentary by Dan Kamin, a comedian whose work includes choreographing physical performances for films such as Chaplin, Benny & Joon, Creepshow 2, and Mars Attacks!. While sets for The Circus were being rebuilt, Chaplin tried to stay busy by creating a new sequence where the Tramp and the circus rider go out on the town and encounter the Tramp's romantic rival, Rex, who joins them for a lunch that turns into a brawl between the Tramp and a professional boxer seeking to humiliate him. There's also a wildly funny bit of business involving a grocery bag full of fish. The complete scene, running just under 10 minutes, was assembled for Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's 1983 Unknown Chaplin television project and appears in its entirety (in 1080i) elsewhere on Criterion's disc. But these scenes notably include raw footage of Chaplin's work refining shots in multiple iterations, with Kamin interpreting the results every step of the way, from elements of the various performances to the camerawork. (He even reads lips!) As Kamin notes, Chaplin tended to shoot scenes consecutively, in continuity, so there are no scene or take numbers on his slates. "He didn't care how many takes it took to achieve what he wanted, and he didn't want to know," he explains. The footage featured here is part of a stash of 23 cans of unedited footage--six hours of film--apparently discovered and preserved by Rachel Ford, Chaplin's business manager, when the director moved to Switzerland. As presented by Kamin and Criterion, it opens an unprecedented window on Chaplin's working process. It's enthralling.
"Chaplin Today: The Circus" (27 mins., 1080i upscaled) is an episode of the 2003 French TV documentary series highlighting Chaplin movies that has previously made an appearance on other Criterion Chaplin discs. A considerable portion of this instalment is dedicated to Chaplin's 1915 short A Night in the Show, which is available on Criterion's release of Limelight. It's useful for pointing out Chaplin's performance roots in mime and his indebtedness to the character of Pierrot from the Commedia dell'arte. We see some of art director C. Danny Hall's early sketches for the sets and another reconstitution of the deleted café scene. (In fact, the real attraction here are the clips from The Circus itself--which, if you own this disc, you've probably just seen.) Watching the climactic monkeys-on-a-tightrope calamity, interviewee and Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica declares, "This is what makes cinema great." Co-sign.
More on point is Criterion's "In the Service of the Story" (21 mins.), wherein film scholar Craig Barron focuses on the visual elements of Chaplin's narrative. Notably, he displays and explains the Bell & Howell camera that Totheroh used for double-exposure and split-screen work, including its two-pin registration system and specialized aperture mattes. Though this may be too technical for some film buffs, it testifies to the ingenuity and determination of silent-era technicians and maybe offers a reminder that films like The Circus were the major VFX tentpoles of their time. "A Visit with Eugene Chaplin" (15 mins.), produced by Criterion in 2019, features Chaplin's now-66-year-old son, who remembers going to the circus, where the clowns would step up their performances in honour of his father's presence there. He says that Charlie didn't care much for The Circus, implying he just wanted to forget about that part of his life entirely. "Clowning at first was very slapstick, and what my father brought to it was more humanity and more emotion," he says. In addition to glimpses of the house Chaplin purchased in 1952--now a museum--this segment offers a bit of home-movie footage taken on its grounds.
The music from the 1969 release gets a little extra consideration here, thanks to the inclusion of a 1998 audio-only interview with Chaplin's "musical associate" Eric James (10 mins.), who worked on A King in New York and was surprised to be called back to assist Chaplin on re-releases of his older features. As James tells it, he had to trick Chaplin into recording the vocals for "Swing Little Girl" himself, suggesting that he record a take for "personal use." He knew that when Chaplin heard the results, sung in the authentic style of an old music-hall performer, he would realize the track was head-and-shoulders above the attempts by other vocalists. "He said later, 'You conned me into that, didn't you?'" James recalls. "I had to," he told Chaplin, "because I knew on principle you would have said no right away." Also tacked on are unused audio excerpts (totalling 5 mins.) from the original recordings with Chaplin.
Straggler features include another set of outtakes (7 mins.) that are unexceptional in and of themselves. Yet, because they again feature precious glimpses of Chaplin at work, trying minute variations over the course of multiple takes, they are valuable in their own right. Additionally offered is historical footage from the film's circus-themed Los Angeles premiere at the Chinese Theater (7 mins.), complete with live circus acts and red-carpet arrivals by the likes of Dolores Costello, John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Adolphe Menjou, and Billie Dove. Some of the footage is heavily damaged but digitally stabilized, making it more than watchable for fans of Old Hollywood. Two trailers from the 1969 reissue (5 mins.), one in English and the other in French, are on board as well. The collection of supplements is fairly exhaustive and exhausting, and Chaplin himself gets the last word, thanks to a brief collection of interview segments from 1969 (5 mins.). "Nothing comes easy," he says. "People say, 'You're a funny man.' I'm not a bit funny. I'm a very serious man. Many a time I'm lost, and I'm not very good on my feet, usually, expressing myself. I would go away and work on something and sweat it out. That's why [the films] took so long. The great thing is to strive for ease and simplicity."
The final element of the package is Pamela Hutchinson's booklet essay "The Tramp in the Mirror," a loving look at the film that convincingly outlines the ways its themes and motifs intersect with Chaplin's celebrity. Touching on the picture's many self-reflexive notes, it's equally deft as summary and celebration--a welcome addition to an apparent groundswell of renewed critical support for The Circus itself.
72 minutes; Not Rated; 1.33:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English LPCM 1.0; BD-50; Region A; Criterion