Thursday, March 29, 2012

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's The Circus

The Circus is probably Charlie Chaplin’s best pure comedy feature. It doesn’t have the same dramatic level as his earlier The Kid or his follow-up City Lights. It’s no wonder this is the only Chaplin film that won any significant Academy Award (notwithstanding the fact that 1928 was the first year the Oscars were bestowed). The Academy removed his film from consideration as a nominee in four major categories and decided instead to award him an Honorary Oscar for producing, directing, writing and acting The Circus. It’s a film that perfectly sums up the Tramp as a character.

The titular show is run by a domineering ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia) who denies dinner to his own daughter, an acrobat, when she misses a ring during a performance. Meanwhile the Tramp scrounges around the sideshow looking for scraps and is mistaken for a pickpocket. After a brilliantly funny sequence involving a chase into a hall of mirrors and ending with the police and the Tramp creating hysterics during the clown act in the show, the ringmaster decides to audition him for a role.

True to his nature, the Tramp is unable to produce comedy on demand. He is funny because he’s so often clueless. The moment his attention is drawn to the fact that he’s silly, the illusion is broken and his performance is terrible, dim-witted, and forced. The ringmaster gives him a job as a property man and once again, he unwittingly causes hilarity during the show. The ringmaster realizes what he has and decides to arrange for the Tramp to wander into the act during every performance. So we have here a Tramp character who is calling attention to the very quality that has made him so universally funny. It’s a great little wink at the history of Chaplin’s classic character.

Where the Tramp goes, there’s always a girl. The acrobat (Merna Kennedy) catches his attention, but as always she has eyes for someone else – the tightrope walker. Normally the Tramp commits a few acts of chivalry, wins the respect and admiration of the girl and comes away the winner. This is true in The Kid, The Gold Rush and City Lights. But here something different happens. She winds up with the other guy, who turns out not to be a clod. It’s like a little touch of reality amidst a series of films that are based on pure fantasy storytelling conventions in which the goofy hero gets the girl.

Not only are the set pieces and stunts top notch with some wonderful and spontaneous moments of big laughter, but The Circus is the quintessential Little Tramp movie. The closing shot is one of the most poignant moments in all his work as, after the circus leaves him behind, the girl of his admiration married to someone else, our Tramp does his trademark shuffle away from camera toward the horizon, giddily looking for his next adventure. I wouldn’t ask anything more of him.

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