Inexplicably, Chaplin's The Circus (1928) rarely is listed among them, almost never considered in the same league as those classics. But I'm also not alone in feeling that it's more uniformly better. That famous quartet of Chaplin comedies each has its standout moments, justifiably iconic set pieces of great film comedy (or drama, or sentiment, as the case may be). The Circus, by contrast, is less self-conscious and more concise, with a simple story that's nonetheless marvelously effective and funny.
All this is reflected in the title song Chaplin composed and, ultimately, performed himself for the picture's 1969 reissue. Less sentimental than his signature tune, "Smile," "Swing Little Girl" has all of 60 words yet eloquently expresses the movie's themes.
At an amusement park midway, the Little Tramp (Chaplin) is mistaken for a pickpocket, the real thief unknowingly stashing a stolen wallet into the Tramp's pocket by mistake. Pursued by both the police and the crook, the Tramp dashes into the ring of a downtrodden circus in the middle of the clown act. The audience, unamused by the clowns, finds the Tramp's unintended antics hilarious.
The proprietor-ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia), a sour character who physically abuses his circus rider daughter, Merna (Merna Kennedy), considers hiring the Tramp to spice up the act, but at an audition he proves a hopeless performer. But after unwittingly repeating his comic mayhem before another wildly appreciative audience, the ringmaster hires him as a poorly-paid prop man, never telling the Tramp that he's become the star attraction.
The Circus was released exactly three months after the premiere of The Jazz Singer (1927), the film that lead the nearly overnight transition to talking pictures. Chaplin's film, however, was in development in 1925, and filmed through much of the following year, the filming beset by tragedies and setbacks big and small. Its release held up by legal snarls relating to his bitter divorce from actress Lita Grey. That partly explains why The Circus resembles older Chaplin pictures much more than the one that eventually followed it, City Lights, nearly three years after that.
Chaplin's unhappiness during the making of The Circus was such that, years later, when he wrote his autobiography, he never even mentioned it. And, yet, the picture itself marvels with its simple charms. The comedy highlights are set pieces that could easily fit the two-reel comedies he made before embarking on longer feature films: stealing bites of a hotdog from a toddler; the Tramp locked in a cage with a circus lion; his disastrous attempt to imitate a handsome tightrope-walker's act.
In some respects, the picture's best and most fascinating sequence is the Little Tramp's audition, he failing to grasp the staging of comedy staples like a William Tell pantomime. The premise of an unfunny man who's hilarious only when he's not trying to be funny, and who's unable to perform comedy (though still funny because of his ineptitude at it) had been done before and many times since, and it almost never works. (Jerry Lewis did something similar in 1964's The Patsy, for instance.) Chaplin, however, makes it work beautifully, delighting in the clowns' performances while mucking everything up when he's up at bat.
Of the three geniuses of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd's were handsomely produced popular successes, built, no doubt, on Lloyd's everyman, go-getter character, one whom audiences could identify with, for his was by far the most human. Buster Keaton never in his long, erratic career, thought of himself as a great artist. Rather, in his eyes, he was a talented, hard-working comic who knew more than a little about gag construction, of finding laughs in a given situation. Chaplin's movies after The Circus, all of them, are no less then very good (yes, even his last, A Countess in Hong Kong, is much better than its reputation), but he was also so revered he seemed unable to make pictures anymore that were less than Great Art, or at least aspired to be. The Circus, in a sense, marks the end of an era, when big laughs and honest sentiment were enough.
Video & Audio
? Criterion's Blu-ray of The Circus boasts a new 4K restoration primarily culled from two duplicate negatives. The 1.33:1 image is strong throughout. As with other Chaplin films, this is not the original release version, but Chaplin's preferred 1969 reissue, with new opening and closing titles, the aforementioned title song, and music by the director-star recorded around 1967, and presented here in 1.0 LPCM format. Region "A" encoded.
Criterion's disc is chockful of supplements. They include a new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; a new interview with Charlie's son Eugene, recalling his famous father; film scholar Craig Barron's new overview of the film's comic highlights, and which includes a brief look at the former Chaplin Studios in Hollywood; a 2003 documentary on the film, featuring Emir Kusturica; 40 minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill, originally for their series Unknown Chaplin; more outtakes, this footage featuring Merna Kennedy, prepared by Criterion; a 1998 interview with musical collaborator Eric James; background on "Swing Little Girl," including excerpts from the recording session, including singer Ken Barrie's unused rendition; footage of the 1928 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater; a 1969 interview with Chaplin; and an essay by Pamela Hutchinson.
Less famous but no less great than his great masterpieces, The Circus is a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.