[Fresh on Criterion] ‘THE CIRCUS’ – Charlie Chaplin’s last entry of the silent film era is worth the price of admission

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE CIRCUS (1928)

Rated G, 72 minutes.
Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia and Harry Crocker
Available for purchase through the Criterion Collection.

Each passing year it seems most movies are made by committee, are either big or small, and favor familiarity over originality. Thankfully, with more than a century’s worth of cinema, audiences can take a respite from what’s new in theaters and travel back to a time where practical effects were extraordinary, and it didn’t matter if the characters spoke — an era where silence indeed was golden.

THE CIRCUS was the last Charlie Chaplin film to be made during the silent film era, and it is one that he would rather forget. In fact, Chaplin didn’t even mention it in his 1964 memoir. The reason is mainly due to the circumstances surrounding its making. Much like Terry Gilliam’s plagued Don Quixote film (which is explored in the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA), Chaplin’s CIRCUS was beleaguered by production woes from the start.

Four weeks into production, he discovered that poorly developed film made the footage unusable. A nasty divorce from second wife Lita Grey and IRS claims of Chaplin owing $1 million in back taxes stalled production for months. During the ninth month of production, a studio fire destroyed multiple sets and props. As Chaplin biographer David Robinson said of THE CIRCUS, “The most surprising aspect of the film is not that it is as good as it is, but that it was ever completed at all.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Of Chaplin’s famed Tramp features, this one is not among those considerably mentioned. But it’s there, quietly nestled in between THE GOLD RUSH and CITY LIGHTS.

Arriving on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection, the film gets a major boost after its 1969 theatrical rerelease with plenty of bells and whistles and candy apple entertainment.

Sporting his traditional baggy pants, tight coat, small bowler hat, flexible cane, and a mustache (that a certain dictator would demonize), the Tramp finds himself falsely accused of being a pickpocket and runs from the police. Fleeing to a traveling circus, he outwits a persistent cop and enlivens an audience grown tired of the circus performers they paid to see. The ringmaster sees potential in the Tramp and offers him a tryout, which he fails miserably. But when the current property men of the struggling circus quit because of unpaid wages, the Tramp is hired on the spot. Inadvertent comic mayhem ensues.

The Tramp makes property man wages, yet the circus is a success because of his madcap buffoonery. So when the ringmaster’s mistreated stepdaughter, Merna (Kennedy), encourages the Tramp to demand his fair share of the profits, the Tramp misconstrues it for her requited love. Later on, he jumps to the conclusion they are meant to be together when he overhears a fortune teller telling Merry that she’s going to marry a tall, dark and handsome man.

Sadly, Merna falls for a tight-rope walker (Crocker) who’s new to joining the circus. Tall, dark and handsome, the two become inseparable. Up until then, the Tramp has maintained a hopeful outlook in spite of appearances. Now the ragamuffin is crumbled and is incapable of being funny.

Chaplin is rarefied in blending comedy with pathos and pulling it off so well. The Tramp’s relationship with the proprietor’s stepdaughter may play like an extended meet-cute that we’re accustomed to seeing, but the performance is in his eyes. Watch him when his heart flutters and then again when it breaks.

THE CIRCUS lacks the sophistication of what Chaplin would do a few years later with MODERN TIMES, though his improvisations here are some of his best. Wire-walking with monkeys crawling over him, and the chase into the circus that causes a stir is worthy of attention. The standout is his hall-of-mirrors sequence. My eyes widened to the size of Malcolm McDowell’s in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, minus the eye drops and clamps, of course.

According to the leaflet contained with the Blu-ray release, THE CIRCUS underwent a new 4K digital restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna with additional support provided by the Academy Film Archive and the Criterion Collection. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm duplicate negative made in 1967. Another duplicate negative struck in 1969 was used for the opening song. The soundtrack of the 1969 version of the film was digitally restored and mastered from the original soundtrack negative.

To help ensure THE CIRCUS gets significant attention 90 years after its original release, producer Abbey Lustgarten has assembled close to two hours’ worth of supplemental material. The biggest treasure is “Stepping Out,” originally assembled by film archivists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in the 1980s in what would become the British television series UNKNOWN CHAPLIN. Presented is a deleted 10-minute sequence, edited by Brownlow and Gill with an accompanying score composed by Timothy Brock. Also included is 30 minutes of outtakes from THE CIRCUS with narration by comedy choreography Dan Kamin.

Visual effects scholar Craig Barron illustrates how Chaplin used split-screen photography for some illusions, while we get to hear from Chaplin himself as part of a press conference held at his Switzerland home in 1969 upon the rerelease. Audio extracts from “Swing Little Girl,” which plays over the opening titles, can be played, and you can listen to Chaplin’s musical colleague Eric James from an interview conducted by Chaplin’s biographer Jeffrey Vance in 1998. Vance also supplies a brand new commentary for Criterion.

Rare footage from its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, rerelease trailers, a short documentary on Chaplin’s career and legacy, and a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson (found in the leaflet) about THE CIRCUS rounds out a very robust special features package.

Here’s a fun fact: The first year the Academy Awards were established, THE CIRCUS would see Charlie Chaplin win his first Oscar. Initially, he was nominated for four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing – Original Story). But in its infinite wisdom (rolls eyes), the Academy unanimously decided to remove Chaplin’s name from those competitive categories so that they could instead give him a special award citing his “collective accomplishments.” Considering there has never been another such honor bestowed at the Oscars, I guess Charlie Chaplin truly was a once-in-a-lifetime talent.

Movie Grade: B+

Extras Grade: A+

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