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It may not be an unequivocal masterpiece, but Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928) is a beautifully executed comedy that ranks with the very best works of silent cinema. Chaplin toned down the pathos a bit this time, relying instead on a meticulous style of slapstick that's reminiscent of his earlier short films. Some people viewed The Circus as a directorial step backward, coming, as it did, three years after the much more ambitious The Gold Rush (1925.) But Chaplin the performer was beyond reproach. He's arguably the greatest comedian in motion picture history, and his work here is up to his usual, dazzling standards.
In The Circus, Charlie plays the Little Tramp, the character that made him the most famous man on the planet. As the story begins, the Tramp is mistakenly accused of stealing a wallet while watching a circus sideshow, which leads to a wild chase through a variety of attractions, including the house of mirrors. This ingenious sequence ends under the big top, where the crowd thinks the Tramp's escapades are all part of the act. When Charlie is cleared of the theft, the circus owner (Allan Garcia) offers him a job as a handyman.
The circus setting alone promises enough material for three Chaplin movies.But there also has to be a love interest. Enter the owner's physically abused daughter (Merna Kennedy), a bareback rider. Charlie attempts to become a professional clown and stay close to the girl, but he finds that people only laugh at him when he's not trying to be funny. The owner takes note of this and secretly includes him in the show, even though he's only being paid as a lowly prop man.
Eventually, Charlie will compete with a handsome tightrope walker (Harry Crocker) for the girl's affections. The movie's most astonishing sequence takes place on the rope, with Chaplin desperately negotiating the wire while three small monkeys crawl on him and yank at his pants. Chaplin, the Robert De Niro of his time, actually learned to walk the wire for this scene. No trick photography was used to create the illusion of height, and, luckily, he never fell.
That's about the only stroke of luck he experienced at the time. Chaplin's life was in such an unbelievable uproar while he filmed The Circus, it's a miracle the movie was even coherent.
First of all, he was being sued for divorce by his 17 year-old wife, Lita, who was pregnant at the time...and she wasn't shy about airing their dirty laundry in public. The world gasped in unison when it was revealed that Charlie, the beloved Little Tramp, had tried to force his uninterested wife to perform fellatio on him, resulting in charges describing his sexual preferences as "abnormal, unnatural, perverted, degenerate, and indecent."
Chaplin was always a private man, and this little tidbit, along with other details of his marriage to a "woman" who was actually a semi-educated teenage girl, caused him a great deal of embarrassment. As a special bonus, his holdings were frozen during the trial, so he didn't have access to hishome, studio, or bank account. This resulted in The Circus temporarily shutting down production about a month before it was complete.
Several women who Chaplin had been carousing with were mentioned in the divorce complaint, including Marion Davies, who also happened to be William Randolph Hearst's mistress. When Davies' name came up at the trial, Hearst, a violently jealous man, stalked onto the lot, ready to have it out with Charlie. Upon hearing of Hearst's arrival, Chaplin ran to another building and hid in the attic. He came out eventually, and the two had an intense discussion. Shortly thereafter, Chaplin paid Lita close to $1,000,000 to end the trial once and for all.
Chaplin truly seemed cursed while trying to finish The Circus. During shooting, the U.S. government sued him for over $1,000,000 in back taxes, and he was threatened with the possibility of jail time. Back at the studio, a month's worth of footage from the tightrope scene had to be scrapped when it was discovered that the negatives had been damaged, so he had to climb the ladder and do it all over again. Oh, yeah - then the movie's set burned to the ground. Hopefully, he was comforted by the fact that he was awarded a special Oscar for "versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus" in 1928.
Producer/Director/Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Film Editing: Charles Chaplin
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Al Ernest Garcia (the Ringmaster, as Allan Garcia), Merna Kennedy (a Circus rider), Harry Crocker (Rex the Tightrope Walker), George Davis (Magician), Henry Bergman (an old Clown), Tiny Sandford (the Property Man), Charles Chaplin (a Tramp).
by Paul Tatara