Blog Directory CineVerse: High wire comedy

High wire comedy

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Charles Chaplin certainly made more popular pictures (The Great Dictator) and more critically acclaimed films (City Lights) than his 1928 feature The Circus. But arguably he never made a funnier one, as the latter is practically bursting with side-splitting gags, hilarious set pieces, and unforgettable comedic stunts. Our CineVerse homework last week was to head to the big top and revisit this 94-year-old laugher and assess what makes it timeless (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What is it about the Little Tramp character that we identify with and enjoy? What’s the secret behind this character’s appeal?

  • The Little Tramp is kind of an everyman—a surrogate for the audience on a journey, quest, adventure, or experience.
  • He’s a likable underdog because he is diminutive, often surrounded by bigger and stronger but not always smarter men.
  • Because the humor is often self-deprecating, making the Tramp the butt of jokes and a subject of humiliation, he makes us feel sympathy and empathy amidst the comedy. Indeed, he evokes a range of emotions from the viewer, which makes Chaplin a powerful and effective filmmaker and his Little Tramp so memorable. Some argue that Chaplin’s sensibilities are overly sentimentalized, that there’s too much pathos and maudlin mushiness in his movies—especially compared to his contemporary filmmaker/performer Buster Keaton. Others feel Chaplin hits the perfect emotional chords to leave us feeling satisfied by the end of the picture.
  • The key to appreciating the Little Tramp, however, is to realize that the inherent charm and humor come from presenting a cartoonish character who always tries to maintain dignity, pride, normalcy, and virtue despite repeatedly being embarrassed, belittled, overlooked, mistreated, and not taken seriously and despite his impoverished look and condition.
  • He also expresses a gallantry, civility, sincerity, and romantic sensibility that make you root for him.

What is memorable, distinctive, or significant about The Circus and Chaplin at this time (1928)?

  • It’s somewhat of a miracle that the film got made at all, considering that his 17-year-old wife was suing him for divorce; sordid details of his sex life were being leaked to the press, including tidbits about his affairs with other actresses, and that his wife claims he tried to pressure her into performing oral sex on him; his finances and properties were frozen during the court case; he was sued for over $1 million by the government for back taxes; the circus tent set burned to the ground; and he had to reshoot the entire tightrope scene after a month’s worth of takes of this sequence were damaged.
  • Comedically, the picture is almost too good to fail, loaded with riotously funny bits and escapades, including the pickpocket chase, house of mirrors scene, encounter in the lion’s cage, being chased by the angry donkey, auditioning for the Ringmaster, the ruining of the magician’s table, and the tightrope walking ending with the monkeys. Arguably the funniest sequence is when the Tramp turns into an automaton and robotically konks the pickpocket on the head while rhythmically emitting wide-mouthed laughs.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Pamela Hutchinson wrote: “What elevates the gag on the level of humor is not just the fact that he draws his victim into the same stunt, and duly bashes him on the head, but that the Chaplin-puppet roars with silent laughter as he does so. The put-upon Tramp reveals his cruel streak, knowing he has already captured our sympathy. As Tom Gunning puts it, Chaplin’s art resides in his ability to “metamorphose from one physical identity into another”: here, the Tramp transforms from victim to villain, from human to machine and back again.”
  • The scenes with the animals, including the shots inside the lion’s cage and the images of the monkeys biting his nose and climbing all over him are truly incredible, as are the shots of him walking the tightrope while suspended via wire and harness; it might have actually been easier to walk the rope without being suspended than to pull off the acrobatic, physics-defying feats Chaplin attempted.
  • A significant motif in the film is a circle, as evidenced by iris openings and closings, trapeze rings, the paper hoop Merna emerges from, the spinning treadmill platform, and even the circle he sits within at the conclusion.

Major themes

  • Ironic fate. The Tramp is funny only when he isn’t trying to be and has lost his dignity; but when he attempts to be comical, such as when auditioning for the Ringmaster, he isn’t funny. Because of his poor timing and clumsiness, he seems destined to be a circus star.
  • Pluck and perseverance aid the underdog. The Tramp is an overlooked, overmatched afterthought of a character to those around him, but he survives and thrives despite challenges from the law, bullies, and the animal kingdom because he’s resourceful, quick-witted, and downright lucky.
  • Spontenaiety, improvisational skills, and thinking on your feet are crowd-pleasing traits. The circus attendees are bored with the usual routines, but as soon as the Tramp appears in an unplanned and unrehearsed manner, they reward him and the Ringmaster with applause.
  • Sacrificing for the greater good. The Tramp realizes that he’s no match for the tightrope walker, who has captured Merna’s heart; he abandons his attempts at wooing her and plays matchmaker to the couple instead, ultimately choosing not to join the circus troupe on their tour.
  • Fear of falling, failing, and obsolescence.
    • Film historian Jeffrey Vance said in an interview: (Chaplin) “joins the circus and revolutionizes the cheap little knockabout comedy among the circus clowns, and becomes an enormous star. But by the end of the movie, the circus is packing up and moving on without him. Chaplin's left alone in the empty circus ring…It reminds me of Chaplin and his place in the world of the cinema. The show is moving on without him. He filmed that sequence four days after the release of `The Jazz Singer' (the first successful talkie) in New York.”
    • Hutchinson wrote: “The Circus is not just a film with a grand finale set on a high place, it’s a film about the pressure to be funny, about a man who can make people laugh only when he isn’t trying, and in which the identity of the Tramp himself begins to fracture… It’s not hard to read The Circus as Chaplin’s identity-crisis film, in which the idea of the great star playing ‘some little extra without a job or a place to live’ suddenly becomes too painful to bear.”

Similar works 

  • Safety Last
  • At the Circus (Marx Brothers)
  • The Artist
  • The Greatest Show on Earth
  • The Greatest Showman

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP