Chaplin Diary, 13: The Circus

People often overlook Charlie Chaplin’s fourth feature, The Circus. Sandwiched between his two long-form masterpieces, The Gold Rush and City Lights, it feels unimportant.

But you shouldn’t overlook it. While The Circus is no masterpiece, it’s a very funny comedy with a considerable amount of heart, even if it veers very close at times to the worst kind of melodrama. And it also tells you something about Charlie Chaplin, even if it’s something he may not have realized, himself.

As I go through Chaplin’s directorial work chronologically, it’s time to consider The Circus. I watched the movie on FilmStruck.

Charlie – unquestionably a homeless tramp this time – falls in with a circus run by a ring master played by Al Ernest Garcia as an over-the-top villain. The circus isn’t doing well, apparently because none of the clowns are funny. Running from the police, Charlie accidentally crashes the show and brings the audience to roars of laughter. The ring master soon figures out that Charlie is only funny by accident. He hires The Tramp as a menial worker, knowing that his ineptitude will bring in the audience.

The Tramp makes one good friend at the circus – the ring master’s abused daughter (or stepdaughter; the opening credits and the intertitles don’t agree). Merna Kennedy plays the part. When she casts her eye on a handsome tight rope walker (Harry Crocker), Charlie becomes very jealous.

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, Kennedy was Mrs. Chaplin’s close friend until Chaplin took her as a lover. Chaplin shot The Circus during an angry and very public divorce.

The Circus contains several brilliant comedy scenes. Charlie attempting to walk a tight rope while monkeys crawl over him. Charlie trapped in a cage with a sleeping lion. Charlie ruining a magician’s act to the delight of paying customers. Even the scene when Charlie badly tries his hand at comedy is funny.

But the best scene comes early. Charlie is chased, first by a pickpocket, and then by a cop, into a hall of mirrors. If you’re familiar with the hall of mirrors scene in Welles’s Lady from Shanghai, this one is better, and infinitely funnier.

When the world’s most beloved comedian plays a clown in a movie he wrote, produced, and directed, you can’t help assuming there’s something autobiographical going on. And yes, there are echoes of Chaplin’s career here. Several intertitles refer to Charlie as “The funny man.” When Charlie learns about his popularity, he bids up his pay considerably, much as Chaplin did in the mid-1910s.

But more so, I suspect that Chaplin made the movie while wishing he was more like Charlie. The real Chaplin knew very well the hard work that goes into generating laughter. After all, he took 2 ½ years to make The Circus. He probably wished that, like Charlie, he could be very funny without trying.

There’s another side to this wishing. The scandalous divorce put Chaplin’s self-centered womanizing front and center. Perhaps he wished he was like Charlie, who protects the girl from her abusive father, then gallantly gives her up to another man who could give her true happiness. Or perhaps he wanted his audience to see him as that sort of person who would do these things.

The Circus opened three months after The Jazz Singer launched the talkie revolution. Two years later, the Hollywood silent film was dead. Considering Chaplin’s slow working methods, The Circus was fated to be his last film released without a soundtrack (his first true talky was still twelve years away).

In 1967, Chaplin composed and recorded a new score for The Circus. It’s not a particularly good score, with several extremely clumsy transitions. Worst of all, Chaplin wrote and recorded a horribly mawkish song for the opening credits. Chaplin sang the song himself…if you can call it singing.

The movie industry changed dramatically while The Circus played to packed houses. Only Chaplin had the power to ignore the change.

Next up, City Lights.