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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Family Movies Part 6 - The Circus

Charles Chaplin (1889-1977) is the greatest movie-maker of all time, and the man who really proved that cinema can be art. I’ve been his fan ever since as a child I saw on TV his short comedy film One A.M. (1916), which is still one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen.

Chaplin started his movie career in the 1910s, and started making feature films in the 1920s, continuing all the way until the 1960s. The Circus was released in January 1928, and features Chaplin’s signature character “The Little Tramp.” In many Chaplin films the viewer can really identify with the Tramp character, because his life is always a struggle to achieve something permanent, and the funniness comes in his failure to achieve this. Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, wrote a biography of Chaplin in 1916 titled Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story, based on Chaplin’s interviews, where Chaplin is quoted saying:

Life itself is a comedy – a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected. You reach to get the thing you want – slap! bang! It’s gone! You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently, and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair’s breadth between them.

The Circus is a silent movie, i.e. a movie with no dialogue, where the event descriptions and the character lines are expressed with intertitles. The movie’s main villain is the ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia), who is also the owner of a struggling circus. His daughter, the circus bareback rider girl (Merna Kennedy) has failed to become the attraction he had hoped for, and therefore he punishes her cruelly, even keeping her in hunger. The act of the group of clowns, headed by the old clown (Henry Bergman), also fail to draw a single laugh from the ever-diminishing audience. One day the Tramp (Chaplin), who is escaping police for having been falsely mixed up with a pickpocket (Steve Murphy), ends up wreaking a havoc during a show. But the audience is rolling with laughter when they see his antics. The ringmaster realizes that he has a goldmine in the Tramp, and tells his property man (Tiny Sandford) to hire him as a circus helper. But to avoid making him the star of the show with a big salary, he tells the property man to keep it secret that it’s really the Tramp whom the audience loves. The Tramp shows charity and kindness to the rider girl and falls in love with her, but has to compete for her affection when a handsome tightrope walker (Harry Crocker) joins the circus.

Chaplin returned to his old slapstick roots with The Circus, and to anyone unacquainted with his work, the movie is a good introduction to his comedic art and the mastery of his storytelling. The ending scene is one of his most famous ones, and truly shows his skill in touching hearts. Chaplin was so loved by the cinema audience of his time because of his ability to make people laugh, and then cry out of sympathy for the Little Tramp. During the worst depression years of the 1930s people could forget the troubles of the world and laugh and cry with the Little Tramp, often more at the end of his rope than they were. And Chaplin’s movies were enjoyed by both adults and children alike.

Chaplin always produced, directed, and wrote his movies himself. The Circus won him his first Academy Award – it was not yet called “Oscar” – which was awarded to it at the first presentations ceremony in 1929. The special Academy Award was for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing,” a great summary of his movie career. In this movie, Chaplin was also his own stuntman. He and Crocker spent weeks mastering the skills of rope-walking. For the scenes with the lions Chaplin was actually inside the lion’s cage, and his looks of fear were not all merely acting. For his leading lady, Chaplin hired an 18-year-old red head, Merna Kennedy. She was an athletic dancer, ideal for the role of a bareback rider, although at the time she had no acting experience beyond some limited stage vaudeville.

At the introduction of sound films, Chaplin also started to compose music to his movies. In the late 1960s he returned to The Circus to re-release it with a new musical score. He even was, at the age of 79, persuaded to sing the theme song Swing Little Girl himself.

The Circus is available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

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