The Circus Review

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After an encounter with a pickpocket and the police, the Tramp runs into a circus ring and disrupts the performance of an illusionist. The audience assume this is part of the act and the circus, in financial trouble, takes on the Tramp permanently. Soon after, he falls in love with a bareback rider (Merna Kennedy), daughter of the circus proprietor (Allan Garcia), but he has a rival for her affections in the shape of the handsome tightrope walker Rex (Harry Crocker).

Chaplin's last film of the silent era, though not his last silent film, The Circus won him his first Academy Award, a special award "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing". However, Chaplin clearly had little love for it, withdrawing it from circulation for some forty years after its release and not mentioning it at all in his 1964 book My Autobiography. He did finally reissue it in 1970, but it remains one of the most undersung of his feature films.

Chaplin's antipathy to The Circus was no doubt due to the particularly difficult circumstances of its making. The film began production in November 1925. However, while it was being made, Chaplin's marriage to Lita Grey, which had produced two sons (Charles Jr, or rather Charles Spencer Chaplin III, and Sydney, named after Chaplin's older half-brother and business manager), had broken down irrevocably, and Grey and her lawyers were intent on blackening his name by accusing him of infidelities (no doubt true) and perverted sexual activities (who can say). One result of this was the shutdown of production of The Circus between December 1926 and September 1927 as the lawyers attempted to seize Chaplin's studio's assets and he had to hide the footage that had already been shot. The divorce was finalised in August 1927, with Chaplin ordered to pay costs of $600,000 and also $100,000 to be held in trust for each son. If that wasn't enough, the production was plagued with disasters: the circus tent erected for the film blew away in a gale, and bad production work meant that the first four weeks' worth of footage had to be reshot. Eight months later, a studio fire destroyed some of the sets and props. Finally, after production recommenced, houses had been built around the studio so changing the view entirely. Chaplin's perfectionist nature meant that several sequences had takes numbering three figures. The film was finally completed in November 1927 and premiered the following January.

The Circus is an adroit mixture of physical gags and sentiment, the latter kept sufficiently in check to avoid mawkishness. One of the earliest sequences Chaplin worked out is the one near the end with his tightrope walk while his trousers fall down and he is attacked by monkeys. Chaplin and his costar Harry Crocker genuinely learned how to walk the tightrope. In another sequence, Chaplin is really inside a cage with a lion, so his looks of fear may well not be acting. There's an inventive use of double exposure where the Tramp fantasises his self leaving his body to do what he only wishes he could do in real life. There's another use of the technique in a sequence which was eventually deleted – but is available on this disc – where Doc Stone plays a pair of identical twin boxers harassing the Tramp in a restaurant. You also have to wonder if Orson Welles saw the early sequence in a hall of mirrors, given the similar one he shot in The Lady from Shanghai.

The female lead was Merna Kennedy, making her screen debut at age eighteen. Her previous career as a dancer helped her gain the role. She was born Maude Kahler in 1908 and this remains her best-known film in an acting career that lasted just six years. She retired to marry the first of her two husbands, Busby Berkeley, and died in 1944, aged just thirty-six. She's one of a long line of ingenues playing the female leads in Chaplin's films but she is appealing enough.

Three months before The Circus was released, The Jazz Singer had opened and Hollywood began its transition from silent to sound. The first all-talkie, Lights of New York, was released in July 1928 and in June two years later, the final Hollywood silent feature (that is, one without a soundtrack), The Poor Millionaire appeared. Talkies were here to stay and silents, such as the films Chaplin had made up to that point, were now anachronisms. Chaplin was unhappy about this, as he was aware his art relied on mime, and this was something he addressed with his next film, City Lights.

Fast forward to 1970, and The Circus was seen again for the first time in four decades. As with his other silent features, Chaplin added a music score composed by himself. (Like the later reissue of The Kid and unlike the 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush, he retained the intertitles.) He also added a song over the opening credits, "Swing, Little Girl", accompanying shots of Kennedy sitting on a trapeze. This was originally to be sung by someone else, but Chaplin, then eighty-one, was prevailed upon to sing it himself and by all accounts did it better, and that is what features in the film.

The Disc


The Circus is released by Artificial Eye in Blu-ray and DVD. A checkdisc of the former was provided for review, and comments and affiliate links below refer to that edition. (Affiliate links for the DVD can be found here.)

The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.33:1. The results are, as you probably should expect from a 35mm-shot feature of this vintage, a little on the soft sife, but as can been seen from the screengrabs below (2003 DVD first, Blu-ray second), it's a definite advance on the DVD, which is the least you should expect twelve years down the line. Greyscale is fine for this black and white film and the results are certainly satisfactory if not the best Blu-ray transfer of a Twenties silent feature out there.

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The soundtrack from the 1970 reissue is available in a choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 Mono. The former is mixed louder than the latter, though the DTS is still basically mono (as it would have been in 1970), with the music coming from all speakers though most prominently from the centre speaker, which is the only speaker used for the LPCM mix.

Chaplin's feature films were originally released in the UK by Warner Home Video in 2003, with transfers and extras licensed then as now from MK2. That DVD was a two-discer. Many of the extras have been carried forward to this new release, but not all of them. In this case the original extras don't include an additional feature (as with The Kid) or the original silent version of the film (as with The Gold Rush) but even so completists may still wish to hold on to their DVDs. Missing from this Blu-ray are home movies from the archive of Lord Louis Mountbatten, footage from the premiere of The Circus, simultaneously-shot footage from both of the two cameras used during shooting, 3D test footage shot by Chaplin's DP Rollie Totheroh, excerpts from the Jackie Coogan-starring Circus Day and a stills and posters gallery.

What has been carried forward begins with an introduction by David Robinson (5:09) and another featurette in the Chaplin Today series (26:31). These follow the format of their equivalents on other discs, with Robinson giving a brisk but informative runthrough of the film's production and Chaplin's personal circumstances at the time, finishing with details of the 1970 reissue. Chaplin Today covers the same ground and as before brings in a guest film director to talk about the film at hand and what it and Chaplin's work means to him. In this case, it's Emir Kusturica, who speaks to camera in English.

The next item is a pair of trailers (5:21), both from the 1970 reissue. The first is American, the second French. The latter begins with "C comme Cinéma, C comme Charlot" (C as in cinema, C as in Charlie), leading up to C for Le cirque.

There next appear rushes from the film's principal photography (27:45), with date captions appearing on screen, presented mute. This shows Chaplin shooting many takes in an effort to get right the scene with Doc Stone as the twin boxers, which as mentioned above, never made the final cut. Hence the next item, called "outtakes" but really deleted scenes (9:49). As well as the scene with Stone, there's another sequence with Chaplin, Kennedy and Crocker, captured in an impressive tracking shot down a main street, with the camera presumably on a dolly.

Finally there are the same set of extracts from all of Artificial Eye's Chaplin releases that appear on all the discs, running 10:44.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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