The Circus (1928) directed by Charlie Chaplin
I'll be honest. I was a little wary of watching silent films going into this project, but now I love them! I can't believe i hadn't watched a single Charlie Chaplin film until a couple months ago, but now I've watched three and can't wait to watch more!
Anyways, The Circus follows Chaplin's famed Tramp in yet another adventure. By now I've grown accustomed to his quirks and themes; he's a down on his luck vagrant who by chance always finds himself in these wacky situations. He has a heart of gold and will invariably connect with another down on her luck character often rescuing them from their hardships.
In this story, the Tramp finds himself on the run after a pickpocket gives him a wallet in order to avoid being caught. The Tramp can hardly believe his luck and parades around with his new wallet. Unfortunately the real owner of the wallet sees it and, uh oh, the Tramp is in trouble. The following sequence is one of the funnier action sequences I've seen Chaplin in, maybe on par with the boxing scene in City Lights. Here he gets chased around a funhouse and gets trapped in a maze of mirrors. The scene is extremely well choreographed or these mirror shots are a lot easier to film that I'd imagine. Either way, I was pretty impressed as he bumped and backed into his own reflection in multiple ways and angles. It gets even dicier when the cop gets in there with him for double the fun. I found myself laughing out loud several times during the chase scene. Eventually, he runs into a circus act where he unwittingly becomes a huge hit through his bumbling and stumbling.
The circus director, a rather menacing figure, sees the Tramp's star power and hires him as hired help without telling him that his comedy act will actually be the main attraction. The Tramp soon meets the director's daughter, who is often beaten or denied food for messing up performances. I was kind of taken aback by the back handed slap the father gives his daughter. I know it was standard practice for slapping women in films back in the day but it is always kind of shocking to see. Even in light hearted family friendly comedies like The Circus, no woman is safe.
Anyways, naturally the Tramp and the girl become buddies. The Tramp falls for her but soon a new guy, a tight-rope walker, enters the fray and catches her eye. The Tramp is jealous and disheartened and suddenly his act isn't so funny anymore. There is another impressive sequence where the Tramp must take the tight-rope walkers place in his act. He is assisted by a wire to prop him up and he is able to do impossibly impressive stunts on the rope until the wire comes loose and he's up there all by himself. Oh, there are also monkeys. The stunt work is enough to make Jackie Chan blush. Apparently this film required over 200 takes as Chaplin wanted it perfect.
I was pretty surprised by the ending when the Tramp does not get the girl. Maybe it was too perfect of an ending for the girl and the Tramp to run away together? Instead he enlists the tight-rope walker to marry her because he can provide more for her than he can. It seems like an awfully pessimistic and pragmatic solution for an otherwise perfect romantic set-up and the Tramp seems way too happy about it. I know he is happy to see her happy, but it would have been better to see him a little beaten down about his decision. In a way I suppose it is somewhat of a fitting ending given that the Tramp will always be an outcast in society. But if Chaplin really felt this way, why does he get the girl in City Lights? The ending is a little sad when he walks alone into the horizon but has nowhere near the impact of his two masterpieces I've seen, Modern Times and City Lights.
The Circus is a timeless comedy full of light hearted laughs. It is more of a standard comedy rather than a masterpiece though and I felt that the ending could have went a different route to give it a more complete feeling.
Note: I must have watched the 1967 re-release of the film where Chaplin sings the opening credits. If I remember correctly, Chaplin's voice isn't heard on film until the end of Modern Times. He has a magnificent booming voice and clearly could have transitioned into the talkies must quicker if he wanted to. In fact, The Circus was released around the same time as The Jazz Singer, the first full length talkie.