I firmly believe that if you don’t like Charlie Chaplin you have no soul. How anyone can sit through City Lights or Modern Times and not fall in love with the Little Tramp is beyond me. Even if you don’t particularly like silent films, Chaplin must be able to melt your cold, cold heart.
The Circus is one of the lesser known of Chaplin’s feature-length films. Made in 1928, at the height of his popularity, it’s a short, sweet film about the Tramp joining up with a circus. It does not have the pathos of City Lights and The Kid or the social commentary of Modern Times. What it does have, and this in abundance, is comedy.
The plot is simple enough. Down at the heels as always, the Tramp (Chaplin) blunders into a job with a traveling circus when he accidentally gets more laughs than the clowns. There’s a girl (Merna Kennedy) being bullied by her ringmaster father (Allan Garcia), which naturally raises the Tramp’s hackles. Then there’s the competitor for her affections in a tall, dark and handsome tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker). But the plot is really incidental and largely exists to move the Tramp from one comic situation to another.
Which is largely the point. More so than any other Chaplin film, The Circus is an expression of pure comedy. Its very subject matter is comedy. The Tramp gets his job with the circus when he’s chased by a police officer into the big top. He’s running for his life and his freedom, but the circus audience laughs harder at the improvised comedy than at the professional clowns. His next big hit comes when he’s employed as a prop man, chased by an angry donkey and pitches into a barrel. Then, without intending to, he ruins a magician’s performance by revealing every trick. As the Tramp dashes around trying to capture the wayward animals that spring the magician’s hats, the audience behind him howls with laughter. He’s a hit, but he’s oblivious. When the Tramp attempts to be funny, he fails. But when he’s actually in danger, or in pain, the audience goes into hysterics. His real life is a comedy.
For some reason, I’ve never thought of Chaplin as an acrobat. Most of his films don’t place as much emphasis on high-flying tricks. In The Circus, his acrobatics give Buster Keaton a run for his money. One of the most spectacular, hilarious set-pieces takes place on the high-wire, when the Tramp takes over for the missing tight-rope walker. As the routine falls spectacularly to pieces, the Tramp loses his belay and is chased across the wire by monkeys. He’s in great physical danger and it’s funnier than hell.
He was also quite a spectacular filmmaker. He’s the definition of an auteur — wrote, directed, starred in and sometimes even scored his own films. And his use of the cinematic medium is flawless. When the Tramp runs into a funhouse hall of mirrors to escape the police, the spectacle of cinema comes into play. The Tramp begins to lose himself in the myriad reflections, chasing after his hat in the mirrors. He comes to understand the mirrors, though, and when he’s caught, it is the Tramp that has to show the police officer the way out. He becomes the manipulator of the image; the filmmaker.
Chaplin often had a tinge of melancholy in his work, and The Circus brings it into very sharp relief. While we laugh at his antics — and they are very, very funny — there is always a sense of sadness in the Tramp. He’s poor, he’s destitute, he’s basically a decent man who cannot catch a break. His comedy comes from poverty and danger. Even when he becomes a star, the villainous ringmaster keeps him in the dark about his popularity. He’s treated as a prop man, not a performer, and bullied by everyone. Even his relationship with the girl is doomed. He protects her from her father, feeds her when she’s hungry, and treats her decently as no one does. But she’s not in love with him; she’s in love with the tight-rope walker and looks on the poor Tramp as just a friend.
That does nothing to diminish the comedy in The Circus; it rather enhances it. Chaplin’s great talent was taking serious subjects — poverty, unemployment, starvation, abuse — and making them funny. He turns obtaining food into a juggling act, running from the police into a comic chase. He steals a hot dog from a child, is chased by a donkey and bit by monkeys. It’s all a funhouse game, an elaborate magic trick. It’s turning tragedy into comedy.
The Circus is entertaining because it’s funny, but it is a great film because it is melancholy. Chaplin takes comedy very seriously, and it shows. He’s more than willing to put himself in danger for laugh — at one point, he climbs into a sleeping lion’s cage and the terror on his face is quite real. And the subject of The Circus is exactly how far a performer will go for the pleasure of the audience. The Tramp is not a naif; by the end of the film, he’s aware that he’s been exploited, mistreated and manipulated. But that’s all right, because he did it all to make the girl (and us) smile.
Chaplin’s films often end with an uncertain future. In Modern Times, the Tramp and the girl are still destitute, still jobless and still running from the authorities. The war and the Holocaust have not ended in The Great Dictator. Even The Gold Rush draws the future happiness of its protagonist into question. Yet no one would call Chaplin’s work pessimistic. His great sensibility is that, no matter what, the little Tramp will still carry on. Strange, quiet, gentle and gentlemanly, he might be poor, he might be starving, but he will still pick himself up and walk onwards, into the sunset. At the end of The Circus, alone in the circle of the big top, he collects himself and wanders off. Where he goes is anyone’s guess, but you still have the sense that he’s out there, always ready to help the innocent child, the frightened young woman. Always ready to make us laugh, even if he feels a bit like crying.