The (Almost) Final Act
THE CIRCUS (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1928, A)
The late 1920's found Charlie Chaplin, then the most famous man in the world, embroiled in an unprecedented level of public scandal as a result of his acrimonious divorce with Lita Grey. The marriage began inauspiciously--Chaplin knocked up Grey on the set of THE GOLD RUSH at the age of 16 (she had met Chaplin during THE KID, in which she held a small role, and before her pregnancy rendered her inoperable, she was slotted for the female lead in THE GOLD RUSH that ended up going to Georgia Hale). Grey would bear Chaplin two sons before their four-year marriage came to a spectacular end. The divorce trial was a national--indeed, an international--sensation. Gery's complaint was published and sold on street corners, revealing lurid details about Chaplin's private life and sexual tastes (while Grey can hardly be counted a disinterested witness on every detail of what happened between her and Chaplin, most Chaplin historians seem to agree that he was sexually voracious in the early stages of his career, with a particular fixation on younger women--his final marriage to Oona O'Neill happened when she was only eighteen years old, and he fifty-four. Curiously, his tastes aligned with those of another towering artistic figure of the twenties, Bertolt Brecht).*
While this was happening, another problem--less obvious, but perhaps fraught with even greater peril--was creeping up behind Chaplin. In 1927, the course of film history was irrevocably changed by the introduction of synchronized sound to the movies, beginning with THE JAZZ SINGER. As a young lad following the goings-on in the music halls of London, Chaplin had seen comics simply "lose" their gift to charm an audience, thrown out of work by the capricious whimsy of the public, and the fear of suddenly losing the ability to make that mystical connection between comedian and audience haunted Chaplin his entire life. Undoubtedly, it occurred to Chaplin that the tyranny of twenty-four frames per second might bring his worst fears to a head in short order; he certainly sensed the pressure his contemporaries were feeling as the studios pushed silent comics like Lloyd and Keaton to get with the times.
It was in this stew that Chaplin made THE CIRCUS, the most poignant comedy he had directed up to that point, and the darkest he would attempt to make for another twenty years or so. It has become something of a lost work, at least in part because of the negative connotations the film carried for Chaplin, which kept the film out of circulation for most of his life (he famously omitted mention of the film entirely, along with the divorce, in his autobiography). Certainly, Chaplin had no need to be ashamed about the final product--Chaplin plays on his insecurities with a bitter and, at times, sardonic glee, yet somehow, the comic action still carries the lithe, carefree grace that makes his work so timeless.
There are two central comic issues in THE CIRCUS, each of which prey on one of Chaplin's demons. The first is that the Little Tramp is funny, but not when he is consciously trying to be funny. Thanks to (wild guess time) the daughter of the circus' manager, played by Merna Kennedy, the Tramp is given an audition with the other clowns in the circus troupe. Predictably, he completely fails to understand the gist of their routines. The heartless circus manager gives the Tramp the boot, only to have him chased back into the ring during a show by a deranged mule. The audience, standing for the rest of us, cannot control their laughter as the Tramp brilliantly muddles the intended function of the various circus routines. Begrudgingly, the director hires the Tramp on as a workman, with strict instructions to the circus crew not to let him know that he's the star of the show.
In these scenes, we can see Chaplin reflecting on his particular place in the comic universe in a very open way. On the one hand, the film is a paean to the sort of clowning that doubtlessly inspired Chaplin. On the other, Chaplin is drawing a line of demarcation between his particular brand of comedy, and the vaudeville/music hall tradition he hailed from. Unlike the rest of the clowns, the Tramp does not seem to be playing for laughs--he isn't in on the joke with the audience and lacks the sort of immediate emotional connection a clown might have. This is what set the movie comics apart from their vaudeville counterparts.
Could this be the fear that was gnawing at Chaplin and his contemporaries, that we were moving away from the visual lyricism of silent comedy, and returning toward the wink-wink nod-nod relationship with the audience that characterized humor in the theater? Certainly, the most successful early sound-era comics, especially the Marx Brothers, thrived on a new style that was far more self-aware, that played to the audience in a more overtly comic way. Perhaps, looking forward to a largely uncertain future, Chaplin was writing the story of his own end as an artist. Chaplin would write another elegy for himself in LIMELIGHT, which deals with many of the same dilemmas, but does it in the name of drama, not comedy, replacing the lithe grace of Chaplin's balletic slapstick.
The second comic issue, Chaplin's status as an outsider who cannot succeed on the world's terms, is a constant across almost every film he made, but it reaches the sort of intensity in THE CIRCUS that it rarely achieved in Chaplin's feature films. THE KID and THE GOLD RUSH end on high notes; CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES achieve a magical ambiguity, managing to be satisfying and yet tantalizing incomplete all at once. THE CIRCUS gives us the Tramp as Pyhrric victor--a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. He fails at comedy when he makes a conscious effort to be funny, and we understand that, eventually, he will have to leave the circus. He is smitten by Kennedy's character, but she regards him as nothing more than a funny little man, and her heart lies with the circus' resident tightrope walker (Harry Crocker). We feel bad for Chaplin--the tightrope walker is tall, handsome, and a skilled entertainer, but we know somehow that he cannot love with the Tramp's passion. As in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, passion loses out to common sense and pragmatism.
In the film's most enduring scene, Chaplin tries to take the role of the tightrope walker, in a desperate attempt to win over the girl's heart. While planning the film, Chaplin wanted a sequence that would place the Tramp in a totally helpless situation, completely isolated from human sympathy, an object for their ridicule. He certainly had the immense public humiliation he was experiencing at the time on his mind as he planned this scene. The monkeys crawling on Chaplin as he hangs helplessly over the center ring are a bitterly sarcastic touch--the tabloid outcry over Chaplin's moral proclivity may have had some slight justification, but he left little doubt as to what he thought of their tactics.
Yet the film's most poignant image of isolation isn't the tightrope scene, but the final shots. The fate we fear for Chaplin has come to pass--he has given up the girl to the tightrope walker, and has chosen the road over the circus, realizing the futility of continuing on as an entertainer. The wagons circle around him, then trail off of the frame, leaving the tiny Tramp in a cloud of dust, crushed by the desolate horizon (Chaplin is often criticized for his lack of visual imagination, but when the circumstances called for a dramatic setting, he composed a frame as well as anybody). With an insouciant kick of an errant can, he simply walks away, back to the audience. It is a defiant gesture, one that must have resonated with a public that was fascinated with Chaplin's private failings. It has the feel of a requiem, a funeral happening for someone dead before his time had arrived, and perhaps that's how Chaplin, his public image crashing in on him and his profession in jeopardy, had planned it. Luckily, Chaplin saw through this rough period, long enough to direct two more cinematic good-byes, in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT, but none worked quite as well as this one.
*sources: The Independent, London; Johnson, Paul, Intellectuals, HarperPerennial, 1988.