Charlie Chaplin was a perfectionist in his films and a calamity
in his private life. These two traits clashed as he was making "The
Circus," one of his funniest films and certainly the most troubled. When
he sat down to write his autobiography, he simply never mentioned it, perhaps
because he wanted to sidestep that entire period. Yet a delightful movie
emerged from the turmoil.
he released it in 1928, Charlie was long since established as the greatest star
in Hollywood. He must have feared the advent of the talkies, which by bringing
sound to the movies would rob him of his silence. But more than sound was on
his mind during the two years it took him to finally finish his production.
attracted to young girls, he married the 16-year-old Mildred Harris in 1918,
when he was 29. After affairs with Pola Negri and Marion Davies, in 1924 he
married Lita Grey, who said she was 16 but may have been 15. He learned she was
pregnant while preparing "The Circus," and after she sued for divorce
and threatened scandal, her family scented a big settlement. They agreed on
$600,000, while the IRS simultaneously determined he owed $1 million in back
Chaplin had hired Lita's friend Merna Kennedy as his lead in "The
Circus"; Lita charged that they had an affair, and he also had an affair
during the same period with the great silent star Louise Brooks. There were
also rumors of wild parties, apparently true; his genitals led an undisciplined
mention these matters to underline his accomplishment with "The
Circus." Calamities struck the production. The circus tent set burned
down. A reel of finished film was lost. His perfectionism demanded 200 takes
for a difficult scene on a tightrope. He was divorcing Grey, romancing at least
two other women, his funds were in disarray, the talkies were coming and yet
his Little Tramp carried on unperturbed.
interesting to ponder how smart the Tramp really is, and how much he
understands the situations he finds himself in. He's sort of a Holy Fool. In
"The Circus," he gets hired as a clown by accident after he proves so
incompetent as a property man that he steals the laughter from the real clowns.
He's the star of the circus, but has to have this explained to him by Merna,
who plays the ringmaster's mistreated stepdaughter. He has no idea what made
him funny, no clear idea of why he stops being funny, and usually seems the
unwitting pawn of events outside his comprehension.
makes him, for me, a little less inspired than Buster Keaton, whose characters
are smart and calculating, if also beset by life's disappointments. But both
get many of their laughs by their sheer physical grace and acrobatic skills.
The physical world conspires against them, and they prevail. They are often
yearning romantics, with this difference: Buster seems a plausible mate, and
the Tramp hardly seems to possess a libido, only idealized notions. If their
comedies had been made in a more liberated time, it is possible to imagine
Keaton in bed with a woman, but disquieting to think of the Tramp as a sexual
here he contrives a giant crush on Merna (the character takes the actress'
name). They are brought together in the first place by one of the constant
motifs in Chaplin, hunger. In "The Gold Rush," he had eaten a shoe,
and now his only piece of bread is stolen by the girl, who has been forbidden
to eat as the ringmaster's punishment for a bad performance. At one point, he
slyly filches a baby's bun. Later, in a lovely bit of pantomime, he rehearses
for a comic bit as William Tell's son, but grabs stolen bites of the apple.
Merna and the Tramp are brought together in the first place as comrades in
hunger and travail, and in the Tramp's mind, they're lovers.
film is rich in sight gags. It opens with a complex pickpocket scenario,
continues with a famous chase around the fairgrounds, includes a house of
mirrors scene in which multiple Tramps, cops and strangers chase one another's
reflections. One scene has him locked in a lion's cage; measures must have been
taken to assure his safety, but CGI was unknown and the lion seems real enough.
The editing here, coordinating the lion and the Tramp, must have been daunting.
There are also bits showing Chaplin's flawless timing, as when he wreaks havoc
with the magician's elaborate tricks.
piece de resistance is the extended tightrope scene. The Tramp watches morosely
as Rex, King of the Air (Harry Crocker), performs on the high wire, and Merna
sighs and bats her eyes. Later Rex misses a performance, and the Tramp seizes
the chance to go on the wire himself to win back her admiration. With the
device of a secret safety wire supposedly manned by a prop man, he performs
stunts that are extraordinary because of their difficulty; he uses the wire as
a means of making the performance much harder than ordinary tightrope walking
camera angles no doubt disguise his distance from the ground. Yes, there must
have been a net. Yes, the "wire" must have only been the half of it.
But still, what remarkable agility, a reminder of a time when Chaplin and other
great stars (Fairbanks, Keaton, Lloyd) did their own stunts and could be seen
doing them. And the addition of the pestering monkeys is a masterstroke.
ending is rather a letdown, involving the Tramp's oddly motivated reasons for
reuniting Merna and Rex. There is a comeuppance for the ringmaster, and then,
of course, the familiar closing iris shot of the Tramp, alone and forlorn but
with a defiant little hop, going back on the road.
was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing
him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are
admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous,
so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the
Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his
films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there's an air of back-patting
about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be
embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity.
Chaplin's untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted;
Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism,
but a decent enough sort with women.
is this merely arbitrary judgment on my part? No doubt. A lesser man can make a
better film, and a great man can make a bad one. I feel Keaton's work has aged
better than Chaplin's. His films are drier, less lachrymose, less in love with
their hero. Audiences still snuffle on cue at the end of "City
Lights," when the little blind flower girl discovers the identify of her
benefactor. I'm touched, too. But it's a set-up, isn't it? You write a movie in
which you are the benefactor of a blind flower girl, you're gonna come out
looking great. Buster is engaged in immediate practical problems.
realize these are cavils. The wonderment is that we still have the silent
clowns, many now available in restored versions. Almost all of Keaton, of
Lloyd, of Chaplin. They were artists who depended on silence, and sound was
powerless to add a thing. They live in their time, and we must be willing to
visit it. An inability to admire silent films, like a dislike of black and
white, is a sad inadequacy. Those who dismiss such pleasures must have
in the Great Movies Collection: "City Lights," "Modern
Times" and "The Great Dictator."