I was pleasantly surprised by the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus. I did not know what to expect as I walked down to the Cornell Cinema, as I obviously knew the name Charlie Chaplin and could recognize his distinct look, but had never actually seen any of his movies. I assumed that the movie would not translate over the gap of time between when it was made and today. When the movie started up and I realized that it was a silent film, my expectations of enjoying the film decreased even more.
The films of today and the silent movies of the early 1900s can barely be categorized as both being movies for how different they are. Silent movie actors had to portray most of what they were saying with their bodies, so they ended up overacting and making hand gestures unnecessary for ordinary conversation. Many of them could not find jobs once the film industry completely went over to sound (or “talkies” as they were known back in the day), as they had little experience with using their voices.
“Talkies” were introduced in 1927, but Chaplin (arguably the king of silent film) continued to make his films the old-fashioned way until 1940. He felt that the physical actions in film were the most important.
“Action is more generally understood than words,” said Chaplin. “Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object — an African warthog, for example; then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.”
Reading this quote after the film, I understood what he meant. While watching The Circus, I felt like I could not look away for more that a second without missing some sort of laugh. All of Chaplin’s actions (such as his duck-footed walk) and his silent mannerisms were hilarious and the jokes just kept on coming. It truly was a movie for the whole family; the father behind me was laughing just as much as his children at the mime-like, situation based-humor.
The film opened up with the requisite credits, which were impressively dominated by Chaplin. The words “Directed by Charlie Chaplin,” “Produced by Charlie Chaplin,” “Written by Charlie Chaplin,” and “Starring Charlie Chaplin” had their time on the screen as a song written and performed by Chaplin played in the background.
The first character introduced was Merna (played by Merna Kennedy), a trapeze artist who is the daughter of the ringmaster of a circus. The ringmaster hits her for messing up her act and prohibits her from eating dinner.
The action then shifts to The Tramp (Chaplin) and a fellow tramp in the action of stealing the wallet of a man watching one of the circus side shows. The other tramp is caught in the act by the man, so he passes it into Chaplin’s pocket and denies the robbery. A police officer then grabs the tramp, but he escapes. Later, he tries to take the wallet back from Chaplin (who had just persuaded an unwatched baby to feed him his hotdog), but is caught in the act by another officer and forced to give it back to him. However, after a while Chaplin is seen by the wallet’s owner, and there follows a hilarious series of scenes in which Chaplin is being pursued by the police. He is chased through a fun house and eventually into the circus ring.
All the clowns had just been booed off stage when Chaplin and the pursuing officer ran in. He generally made a fool of himself, which the audience found hilarious. Later he is offered the job of property man by a circus hand, and humiliates himself further by boneheadedly delivering things into the ring. The Ringmaster keeps him on as a secret act, telling the stagehand to “keep him busy and don’t let him know he’s the star of the show.”
Meanwhile, Chaplin struck up a friendship with Merna after he secretly got her food. However, her attractions instead fall on Rex, the new tightrope walker, with the rest of the movie focused on Chaplin dealing with that issue. My favorite scene from the film is when Chaplin takes Rex’s place for his act in order to impress Merna.
“You can’t do that!” she ‘says,’ “You’ll kill yourself!”
“No, I have a charmed life,” he replies, before dropping a sand bag on his head. He uses the sand bag wire as a harness, allowing him to perform impossible tightrope stunts. The harness eventually falls off, and the scene escalates into Chaplin balancing on the wire for dear life, while escaped monkeys crawl all over him.
I really enjoyed this film, and was pleasantly surprised by the constant slapstick humor. Chaplin was definitely a multitalented genius and a visionary, establishing many now-cliched tenets into the comedic vocabulary of film. His films did a significant amount towards getting America and the United Kingdom through WWI and WWII, a feat unappreciated by American government officials who forced him out of the country during the peak of the McCarthy Era. I guess I could say that they really don’t make movies like they used to, as this film maintained a wholesomeness without falling into oversentimentality. While the silence of the film differs so much from the soundbite-driven laughs of modern comedy, it succeeds because of it, since the hilarity is focused in the imagery. Could a silent film succeed today? I doubt it, but Chaplin’s classic argues otherwise.