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Charlie's Tramp character finds himself at a circus where he is promptly gets chased around by the police who think he is a pickpocket. Running into the bigtop, he is an accidental sensation with his hilarious efforts to elude the police. The ringmaster/owner immediately hires him, but discovers the Tramp cannot be funny on purpose, so he takes advantage of the situation by making the Tramp a janitor who just happens to always be in the Bigtop at showtime. Unaware of this exploitation, the Tramp falls for the owner's lovely acrobatic daughter, who is abused by her father. His chances seem good, until a dashing rival comes in and Charlies feels he has to compete with him. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <email@example.com>
THE CIRCUS (United Artists, 1928) written, produced, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin, is a well-documented gem about circus life, mixing comedy and sentiment in the best Chaplin tradition, ranking this one of his finer yet neglected achievements of the 1920s.
In it, Chaplin plays a tramp who drifts at the midway of the circus after being wrongly accused of a theft and chased by a policeman. His escapades are mistaken as part of the act, which stirs roars of laughter from its audience. Because his circus has not been earning any profits, the ringmaster/owner (Allan Garcia) decides in hiring Charlie as his top attraction. However it is learned that Charlie is only funny whenever he blunders to his viewing public. Charlie soon learns from the abused Merna (Merna Kennedy), how valuable he really is, thus, making demands of quitting to his employer unless he ceases mistreating his stepdaughter, and offers him a higher salary, which he does. All goes well until Rex (Henry Crocker), "King of the High Wire," joins the circus and becomes attracted to Merna, causing Charlie to vie for her affections any which way he can.
With the circus being one of the more famous backdrops of many movie comedians and/or comedy teams ranging from W.C. Fields to Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers to Martin and Lewis, THE CIRCUS stands out more for its ingenious use of difficult gags, comic timing and the effort that went into it to make every gag funny as well as realistically done. Rarely seen since its original theatrical release, THE CIRCUS came into full view again shortly after Chaplin's death in 1977. Newly scored and restored by Chaplin himself in 1968 (as mentioned in the new opening titles), with his singing of "Swing Little Girl" recorded on the soundtrack during the opening credits, my first experience with THE CIRCUS was in 1980 at New York City's Regency Theater, 68th Street and Broadway, where the revival theater (which no longer exists, having been demolished in 1998) paid a tribute to Chaplin with a series of shorts and features, including THE KID (1921), MODERN TIMES (1936) and THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940). Being surrounded by an appreciative audience laughing at a silent film made long ago indicated d THE CIRCUS has stood the test of time and what a comic genius Chaplin was, especially when demonstrating how difficult performing comedy can be as his character finds he has to be funny and isn't, and at the same time showing how poor he is as a comic to the circus staff and how funny he is as a bad comedian to the movie audience. While sitting in the dark movie theater of all ages at the Regency, the biggest laughs occurred during the opening as Chaplin hides from the law inside a fun house surrounded by mirrors and later making a fool out of the rival pickpocket (Steve Murphy) as they each attempt to fool the policeman by pretending to be movable statues; Charlie's encounter with a lion while locked inside the cage; and the biggest topper of all being Charlie doing a tight rope wire act and trying to balance himself while loose monkeys crawl all over him, thus disrupting his act. These same gags obviously brought forth many laughs in 1980 as it did in 1928, and continue to do so today. In between these gags comes pathos, which Chaplin also succeeds without hurting the continuity.
Chaplin staff players regulars such as Harry Bergman as the Clown, and Stanley Sanford as the Head Property lead fine support. Others in the cast include Betty Morrissey as The Vanishing Lady; George Davis as The Magician; John Rand, Albert Austin and Heinie Conklin in smaller roles.
In spite of its true greatness, it's hard to believe how underrated THE CIRCUS has become, not having the appreciation as Chaplin's own masterpieces, THE GOLD RUSH (1925) and CITY LIGHTS (1931), even by Chaplin himself. It's been said that during the making of THE CIRCUS, Chaplin was going through personal problems of his own, including divorce and the passing of his mother. It's even more ironic the elimination of THE CIRCUS from Chaplin's own autobiography published in 1964 while his other works were profiled to great extent, regardless of his nomination as Best Actor and Best Comedy Director by the Academy for 1927-28 awards. At least this has been amended through its reissue throughout the years to a new generation of movie lovers.
Distributed onto video cassette as part of the Chaplin centennial collection in 1989, THE CIRCUS, currently on DVD, made its presence known on television in the height of cable television, notably on the weekly series, "Dead Comics Society" on the Comedy Channel hosted by Kevin Kline around 1989-90, followed by American Movie Classics (1997-2000) and Turner Classic Movies where it made its debut in 2003.
THE CIRCUS, a 70 minute comedy, is a fine study to film students and anyone appreciating and supporting the art of silent comedy. (****)
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