The Circus

Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin (A Tramp), Allan Garcia (The Circus Proprietor and Ring Master), Merna Kennedy (His Step-Daughter, A Circus Rider), Harry Crocker (Rex, A Tight Rope Walker), George Davis (A Magician), Henry Bergman (An Old Clown), Tiny Sandford (The Head Property Man), John Rand (An Assistant Property Man), Steve Murphy (A Pickpocket)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1928
Country: U.S.
The Circus Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Circus

The Circus, Charles Chaplin’s fifth feature film, was released between two of his most memorable masterpieces, The Gold Rush (1925), which Chaplin long professed was his personal favorite, and City Lights (1931). So, to say that it feels a bit slight by comparison is perhaps unfair—what film, after all, could stand out when put in that position? And, while it is hardly his best film, The Circus is packed with enough memorable moments, a few of which rank among Chaplin’s greatest comic achievements, to stand firmly on its own.

But, then there’s the backstory. The Circus was a deeply troubled production; Chaplin biographer David Robinson describes it as being “dogged by persistent misfortune,” which included weeks of shooting the film’s complicated tightrope scene having to be thrown out due to scratches on the film during processing, a storm that damaged the big-top tent before production even started, and later a fire that destroyed an entire set and a great deal of the props, as well as Chaplin’s bouts of indigestion. The worst thing to happen during the production, though, was the end of Chaplin troubled marriage to Lita Grey, which initiated a bitter and widely publicized legal battle in which Chaplin’s immense popularity was threatened by revelations of infidelity and deviant sexual practices and that ended with Chaplin paying the then largest settlement in American legal history. Just as Chaplin’s initial affair with Grey when she was still a teenager during the production of The Gold Rush threatened to bury that film, so did his divorce threaten to bury The Circus. Chaplin prevailed, however, emerging shockingly unscathed by the accusations lodged in Grey’s divorce complaint, and was able to complete the film, which was released to widespread critical acclaim (he was even given an honorary Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus”).

The circus, of course, was central to Chaplin’s life as a young entertainer touring music halls, and you can sense his love and affection for both the diversity of entertainment the circus provides and the oddballs, outcasts, and dreamers it attracts. It is almost inevitable that Chaplin’s Tramp, the persistent outsider who is always looking for a place to settle, would wind up under the big top, although part of the film’s humor revolves around the fact that his clumsy antics make him the star of the show and he doesn’t even know it. Before the Tramp ends up as part of the titular circus, he goes through a humorous case of mistaken identity when the police assume he is a pickpocket and chase him around a boardwalk and through a funhouse of mirrors. The actual pickpocket (Steve Murphy) is involved, as well, and the best moment finds the Tramp and the pickpocket pretending to be automatons outside the funhouse, with the Trump repeatedly hitting the pickpocket on the head, an abuse that he has to endure lest he give up their charade. There is also a classic bit in which the Tramp happily takes bites from a toddler’s hotdog, unbeknownst to the boy’s father who is holding him over his shoulder.

Most of the film takes place within the circus, as the Tramp is hired by the circus proprietor and ring master (Allan Garcia). He is the abusive stepfather of the pretty circus rider (Merna Kennedy), who naturally catches the Tramp’s eye and steals his heart. Romance is always just beyond the Tramp’s reach, as the girl quickly falls in love with Rex (Harry Crocker), the strapping new tightrope walker. The film’s genuinely hilarious climax finds the Tramp, who has been trying to teach himself tightrope walking to impress the circus rider, taking Rex’s place on the highwire. His act is stymied—or, should I say, enhanced—by a gaggle of mischievous monkeys who end up climbing all over him and pulling down his pants. And this is after the Tramp has discovered that the safety wire attached to his waist has come undone, leaving him with no safeguards against falling (when told that he will kill himself doing the act, the ring master brushes it off because he is insured).

The Circus helped to further solidify Chaplin’s standing as the world’s most famous cinematic icon of the 1920s. It turned out to be his last film of the silent era, even though his two next projects, City Lights and Modern Times (1936), were produced as silent films despite the industry’s having shifted to synchronized sound. Chaplin was a consummate perfectionist who had a hard time letting go of his art, which was so perfectly suited to the silent screen. In The Circus, whether he is cowering in a lion’s cage (with a real lion) or practicing a slapstick routine involving massive amounts of shaving cream with a pair of clowns, we sense both his deep affection for the entertainments of his past and his desire to hold onto the art he had so uniquely forged on the silver screen.

The Circus Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesNone
  • Audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • Interview with Chaplin from 1969
  • Video interview with Chaplin’s son, Eugene Chaplin
  • In the Service of the Story, a new program on the film’s visual effects and production design by film scholar Craig Barron
  • Chaplin Today: “The Circus,” 2003 documentary
  • Excerpted audio interview from 1998 with Chaplin musical associate Eric James
  • Unused café sequence with new score by composer Timothy Brock, and related outtakes with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin
  • Newly discovered outtakes featuring the Tramp and the circus rider
  • Excerpts from the original recording session for the film’s opening song, “Swing Little Girl”
  • Footage of the film’s 1928 Hollywood premiere
  • Rerelease trailers
  • Essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 24, 2019

    First, it should be noted that the version of The Circus on Criterion’s new Blu-ray is not the original 1928 theatrical version, but rather the 1969 re-release version prepared by Chaplin. Like a number of his silent films (most notably The Gold Rush), Chaplin created a synchronized sound version of The Circus for re-release. The changes to the film are limited to a new opening sequence featuring the circus rider swinging on a trapeze while Chaplin sings “Swing Little Girl” and a new score composed by Chaplin. Otherwise, it is the same as the original theatrical version, complete with intertitles. The image on Criterion’s disc was transferred from a 35mm duplicate negative made in 1967, with another duplicate negative from 1969 being used for the opening song. The transfer is fantastic throughout, with plenty of evidence of the hard work that went into the restoration process (a joint effort from the Cineteca di Bologna in association with Roy Export as part of the Chaplin Project, the Academy Film Archive, and the Criterion Collection). The image is smooth and clean throughout, with very few signs of age and wear. The contrast and detail are generally impressive. The monaural soundtrack was digitally restored and mastered from the 35mm original soundtrack negative made in 1969, and it sounds fine.

    In terms of supplements, there is an excellent new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance (Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema) that is quite valuable in providing context and insight into the film, its production, and what was happening in Chaplin’s life during that time. We also get a highly enjoyable 14-minute interview with Eugene Chaplin, the director’s fifth son, which was recorded at the Chaplin family home-turned-museum in Corsier-sur-Vevy, Switzerland. The interview is punctuated with beautifully preserved color 16mm home movies of Chaplin in his later years. “In the Service of Story” is a 20-minute featurette in which film scholar Craig Barron discusses the film’s gags and use of visual effects, particularly the split screen, which he demonstrates at one point by showing us the technical properties of an old 35mm camera. “Chaplin Today: The Circus” is a 26-minute overview of the film’s production made in 2003 that includes information about Chaplin’s production processes, extensive footage from a restaurant sequence that was cut from the final version, and an interview with Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica. That deleted sequence is included on the disc in full, running nearly 10 minutes in length as edited by film archivists and historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (who discovered it in the 1980s while screening thousands of feet of outtakes from Chaplin’s films) and with a score by Timothy Brock. Also included here is an additional selection of outtakes from this sequence with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin. More outtakes are included in the section “A Ring for Merna,” which presents both a scene in which the Tramp is overwhelmed with nervousness while trying to give Merna a ring and additional outtakes of the Tramp’s rejection when she falls for Rex. More good stuff from the archives includes 10 minutes of excerpts from an audio interview with Chaplin’s musical collaborator Eric James recorded by Vance in 1998, audio excerpts of the 1968 recording session of “Swing Little Girl,” silent footage of the film’s lavish Los Angeles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, five minutes of footage of Chaplin being interviewed at his home in 1969 for Swiss television, and the film’s re-release trailer.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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