These notes accompany screenings of Charles Chaplin’s The Circus, June 9, 10, and 11 in Theater 3.
With the possible exception of his own 1952 film Limelight, Charles Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) is the most personal and self-revelatory film ever made by a major director. Chaplin (1889–1977) made more than seventy shorts between 1914 and 1923, passing through several studios before the establishment of his own. His A Woman of Paris (1923) won him great admiration from critics, even though his role in its production did not include an on-screen appearance. The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925) won him worldwide adulation and lots of money. By 1925 he had become the most recognizable and beloved living person in the history of the world. The cult of celebrity that has so dominated most of the past century, as my friend Jonathan Goldman argues in a forthcoming book, largely started with the Tramp. Chaplin, through a combination of courage and solipsism, used his celebrity to explore in his work his innermost feelings and used his genius to compel his audience to share in them.
Since Chaplin was in total control of his films, and since he was the most gifted of actors, he came the closest of anyone with a camera to the solitary act of scratching with a pen on a blank page. What he was doing, in essence, was using the whole mechanical apparatus of his own movie studio to say, in the manner of a diarist, “This is my life; these are my feelings; this is me.” He was offering up that most intimate of gifts: himself.
Lest this all sound a bit too serious, it should be pointed out that The Circus is one of the funniest comedies every made. The tightrope-walking sequence is perhaps the most riotous in any movie. Several primal fears are confronted simultaneously, as Charlie struggles to maintain his balance at a great height while his pants are falling down and furry beasts are biting his nose and sticking their tails in his mouth. Chaplin makes us laugh hysterically at the extremes of human desperation and fear, and, by extension, at our own endless scramble for survival.
As he would do again in Limelight, Chaplin here explicitly explores the nature of comedy itself. The Tramp as a clown in The Circus is unable to be anything but inadvertently funny, unlike Chaplin, who achieved his unparalleled results only through the most conscious and painstaking efforts. The circus, the music hall, the world of conventional clowns was the world of Chaplin’s roots, but the naturalistic possibilities of the movies provided him with the means to develop the comedy of character which was based on the audience’s familiarity with and love for, as René Clair called him, “our friend.” Ultimately, this led to an enduring legacy of “reality”-based movie comedies and (mostly debased) television sitcoms. Chaplin explicitly rejects being compartmentalized as a clown in favor of being considered a fully rounded person who happens to be funny. He was also acknowledging his awareness that, through the cinema, he had almost single-handedly wrought a great change in probably the oldest and most valued means of human communication: the capacity to make one’s fellows laugh.
Spoiler Alert! The sad fact about The Circus is that Chaplin’s failed romantic life had made him sad. Robert Florey, a director and later assistant to Chaplin, wrote about a chance encounter at the time: “I cannot express what melancholy overwhelmed me in recognizing the total solitude of the most popular man in the world.” Chaplin’s artful declaration of this solitude in The Circus was to become an existential landmark in the history of the movies. When Merna Kennedy, with whom the Tramp is in love, runs away from her evil circus-owner father, the Tramp makes the supreme Romantic gesture of engineering her hasty marriage to the tightrope-walker, personally providing a ring and showering them with rice at the wedding. Two years later, in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, (which we will be showing next month), Adolphe Menjou would similarly sacrifice himself to facilitate the reunion of Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, explaining to embarrassed friends, “You see, I love her. I’d do anything to make her happy.” Chaplin is publicly recognizing the failure of his private attempts at union and conceding his apparent inability to provide anyone with what will “make her happy.”
The devastating ending of The Circus finds the Tramp sitting on a box in the center of what had been the ring. The wagons carrying Merna and her new husband have pulled out, leaving him entirely alone. Charlie picks up the tattered paper star through which bareback-rider Merna had ridden, crumbles this symbolic remnant of his hopes and fame, and kicks it backward. Then the solitary figure, the movies’ most famous silhouette, inimitably walks away from the camera into a dawn-lit, desolate landscape. It is the most forlornly hopeless image in all Chaplin’s work—and, indeed, in all of cinema.
The print of The Circus being screened is the 1968 rerelease version, with Chaplin’s own music and the endearing opening song sung by the man himself. Between July 16 and August 3, Manhattan’s Film Forum will be showing virtually all of Chaplin’s features in 35mm prints. I urge you to cancel your vacation plans and see them all.