Circus, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/28/11 12:23:28

"One of film's all-time best clowns."
5 stars (Awesome)

"The Circus" is potentially a tricky movie, because it's built on the idea of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character being funny. This seems like a safe assumption, but it's not just about him being funny to us, but within the movie (in most cases, a joke that doesn't work is just a joke that doesn't work, but one that doesn't work when the story needs it to be funny is a problem). Fortunately, Chaplin has no troubles on that front, and manages to make one of his more purely entertaining features.

The circus is in town, and a certain Tramp (Chaplin) is wandering the grounds, hoping to find a snack. An encounter with a pickpocket (Steve Murphy) has him stumble into the big top, which gets a bigger laugh from the audience than anything the clowns are doing on purpose. The circus's proprieter and ringmaster (Allan Garcia) sees opportunity and hires him on, only to discover that the Tramp isn't that funny when he's trying. Meanwhile, the Tramp is falling for the ringmaster's stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy), although her eye is caught by Rex (Harry Crocker), the handsome tightrope walker who has just joined the show.

Made between two movies often considered masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus is perhaps one of Chaplin's slighter films. It doesn't much go for the pathos that sets Chaplin apart from the other great silent comedians until the end, and even then it's perhaps misplaced, a mirror image of other movies' forced cheer. Chaplin executes those moments of seriousness well, of course, especially the scenes of Merna and the Tramp bonding over how the world is mistreating them (her stepfather is rather cruel toward her).

This just leaves more room for funny bits, though, and Chaplin loads the movie up with them. The opening chase goes through a funhouse and hall of mirrors and is filled with great, classic slapstick and silliness; the tightrope scene toward the end is a classic, transforming itself from goofy physical comedy to a wry high-wire act. In between, there's plenty of laughs to be had from the various scrapes the Tramp finds himself in, from the various disasters engineeered to make his stumbling in front of the audience genuine to a funny encounter with the show's lion. Some of the physical comedy may seem quaint to a modern audience - and maybe wouldn't work in a color talkie - but the execution is close to flawless.

Which is to be expected; Chaplin was pretty good at this sort of thing. He actually turns the broad clowning down a bit in this movie where he's frequently surrounded by actual clowns, playing the Tramp here as a plucky underdog and a bit of a romantic. Merna Kennedy makes a nice pairing for him, playing her namesake as worn-down but still hopeful - she's capable of breaking someone's heart but still being worth loving afterward. Harry Crocker is blandly handsome and charming as Rex - maybe the movie's weak link, considering how we're naturally going to love the Tramp. Allan Garcia is a perfect antagonist as the ringmaster, though, able to dance the line between hissable monster and humorously amoral.

The print screened is relatively new (2010-ish), and includes the soundtrack Chaplin wrote for the film, which is fine (it's decent circus-style music). Also included in this version (and also fine) is the opening song that Chaplin added in 1969.

"The Circus" is, perhaps, not one of the great silent comedies - Chaplin directed other movies with more heft, while others would create set pieces that were as astonishing as they were funny. Even lesser Chaplin gets the job done, however, providing a constant stream of chuckles and pulling on the heartstrings more successfully than it has any right to.

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