Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Target #183: The Circus (1928, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #455
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The Circus (1928) was one of the few Charles Chaplin features that I was yet to see, but that wasn't from lack of trying. I first attempted to watch the film mid-way through last year, but, being terribly ill at the time, and having to wake up relatively early the following morning, I barely got half-way through the Tramp's antics before I had to turn off the DVD and go to sleep. For some reason that I can't quite explain, it took until yesterday for me to finally commit to another try, and it was a pleasant and entertaining experience. Though certainly one of Chaplin's lesser efforts, The Circus is an enjoyable and imaginative thread of slapstick gags, with the occasional hint of pathos, though not to the extent of many of the Tramp's other feature-length outings. The circus setting provides an ideal collection of props and scenarios for Chaplin to explore, and many of the film's laughs are derived from his character's hopeless attempts at being a clown, performing magic and tight-rope walking. We first find the Tramp {whom Chaplin liked to call the "little fellow"} at a carnival, completely devoid of money, where a devious pickpocket (Steve Murphy) has stashed his winnings into the Tramp's trouser pocket. As he tries to pickpocket his money back, a policeman catches him, and, completely befuddled, the Tramp finds himself graciously thanking the officer for returning the money that he never knew he had. Needless to say, it doesn't take long before both the Tramp and the pickpocket find themselves frantically fleeing the authorities, and Chaplin takes refuge in a maze of mirrors, where the policemen can certainly see their quarry, but can't decide which of the dozen reflections is real. Following a hot pursuit, the Tramp finds himself scuttling through a circus tent in the middle of a performance, and the audience is left in hysterics by his inadvertently hilarious antics. The The Circus Proprietor (Al Ernest Garcia), desperate for anyone who might save his floundering show, hires the Tramp immediately, but deliberately neglects to inform him that he is the star attraction.
As was typical in most of Chaplin's pictures, there is also a love interest that forms the story's emotional heart. Merna Kennedy plays one of the circus performers, the ill-treated step-daughter of the show's proprietor. When they first meet, the Tramp scolds the hungered girl for stealing his meagre breakfast, but quickly takes pity on her, and eventually falls in love. Realising that he lacks the means to provide any respectable life for the women he loves, the Tramp graciously surrenders any notions of marrying her, instead convincing Rex (Harry Crocker), a handsome and upright tight-rope walker, to take her hand in marriage. The film's final image, of Chaplin sitting alone in the newly-deserted field where the circus once resided, is almost achingly poignant, a perfect illustration of the lonely lifestyle that he must lead each day. It was Charles Chaplin, in even his early films, who discovered that tragedy and comedy were never too far apart: though The Circus doesn't quite balance the two as evenly as his various masterpieces, such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), it remains a joyous slapstick romp, with more than enough heart to go around.

Currently my #2 film of 1928:
1) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton)
2) The Circus (Charles Chaplin)
3) Easy Virtue (Alfred Hitchcock)

Currently my #10 film from director Charles Chaplin:
1) Modern Times (1936)
2) The Great Dictator (1940)
3) City Lights (1931)
4) Limelight (1952)
5) The Gold Rush (1925)
6) Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
7) A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (1923)
8) Shoulder Arms (1918)
9) A King in New York (1957)
10) The Circus (1928)

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