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Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.

There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:

The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)

During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.

Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.

One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.

His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.

One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.

In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed. 

The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.

A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.

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Christian Hayes
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