The Circus

Merna Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Bergman in The Circus.

Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street on New York’s Lower East Side offers the rare opportunity to see Charlie Chaplin‘s 1928 The Circus on November 11 and 12 at 11.00am as part of its “Playtime” series. It’s a difficult film to find these days, but it holds an important place in the Chaplin canon, between the two masterpieces The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). I saw it for the first and only time about 35 years ago so my memories of The Circus are a little rusty; “The Little Tramp at the circus,” though, tells you just about all you need to know.

Chaplin biographer David Robinson writes that the film “contains some of [Chaplin’s] best comic inventions, subtly balanced with sentiment that is kept tightly in control,” though Chaplin disdained to write about it in his autobiography, the difficulties surrounding its production in mind, perhaps — not least his concurrent divorce from Lita Grey and a fire that nearly destroyed the Chaplin studio midway in its production. It was his final film of the silent era, though not his final silent film (that would be City Lights three years later), and some of its melancholy lay in its explicit farewell to the silent years of the art form in which Chaplin came to his maturity.

Robinson’s essay about the production of The Circus can be found here, and you can purchase tickets for the Metrograph showings of The Circus here. Also tentatively on the Metrograph schedule is the fine Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary The Unknown Chaplin, dates and times to be announced; more on that when it gets here.

Below a few notes I wrote on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Chaplin’s Tramp character, originally published here in 2014.

If he were alive today, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp would just have turned 100. He made his first public appearance in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice, a year before the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; Chaplin directed his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, 53 years later, a year before the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was, though, mere coincidence that I took a short break from heavier reading to enjoy Chaplin’s My Autobiography recently,  originally published in 1964 and republished a few years ago in an elegant new edition by Melville House’s Neversink Library. For a comedian, Chaplin enjoyed a stunning measure of fame in his time, and after an affecting evocation of a childhood experienced in poverty, much of the memoir consists of namedropping — stories of when he met Winston Churchill, Kruschchev, and Gandhi; his talks about music with Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler; about philosophy with Sartre and H.G. Wells; about evenings spent with the likes of Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Picasso. But through all this Chaplin maintains in the book a balance between pride and humility, and his tone — born, like the world of his films, in late Victorian and early Edwardian London — while somewhat archaic remains charming for all that. (There’s not much about the films, surprisingly enough, but for that there’s David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin: His Life and Art, highly recommended.)

The audience for entertainment is far too fragmented any more for the likes of a Little Tramp to attract the kind of popularity and fame that he did — Chaplin’s mime-plays appealed to a universal audience, regardless of the language; he had a gift for marrying crude physical humor to a just-short-of-lugubrious sentimentality; and movie houses have shrunk and become far less common than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. What may be most remarkable, though, is that the films still hold up — nearly all of them, really, from the Keystone comedies up through A King in New York.

A Blackhawk Films catalog from 1973 (I ordered “The Adventurer,” featured at center; click to enlarge.)

I was first exposed to Chaplin as a teenager. As a kid I enjoyed collecting and screening old silent movies for myself thanks to the likes of companies like Blackhawk Films, and in my collection were Super 8mm reduction prints of Easy Street and The Adventurer; Chaplin re-released some of his United Artists films like Modern Times in the mid-1970s, when I saw them in the theatre; and at college I was lucky enough to take a class in Chaplin’s work, in which we saw almost everything from The Kid through Limelight in pristine 16mm reduction prints. Though this class also screened a lot of Buster Keaton’s films, on the Chaplin/Keaton divide (as fraught with peril as arguing the Rolling Stones/Beatles divide) I fell on the side of the Tramp. The monumental realism of Keaton’s The General was a little too monumental for me to appreciate Keaton’s humor, and the Tramp character (as well as Chaplin’s performances in The Great Dictator, the remarkable and controversial Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight) was far more complex than Keaton’s stone face, however Keaton might appeal to a more rarefied audience than myself.

The Criterion Collection is in the midst of restoring and releasing Chaplin’s work from 1916 on [NB: Since this was written, Flicker Alley has released Chaplin’s work from the pre-1916 Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual years], so I treated myself a few weeks ago to watching The Gold Rush again — the first time, I think, in 30 years, and I was rather astonished to find just how much the film, among Chaplin’s best silents and maybe my own sentimental favorite, held up. Set during the Klondike gold rush and based in part on the tragedy of the Donner Party, The Gold Rush takes place within a harsh, bitterly cold landscape in which elemental food, warmth, and shelter become matters of life and death for the prospecting Little Tramp. There’s an onscreen murder or two; one character falls to his death in an avalanche; the Tramp finds himself a toy in the hands of a sexy dance hall girl; and disaster is always around the corner. But what is delightful, what is buoyant, in the film is the sense of melancholy hope and grace that the Tramp carries around with him. It emerges in unexpected ways: in the famous Dance of the Rolls, a long take shot in closeup which is a wonder of pantomime comedy; in the Tramp’s delicacy in eating his own shoe, and his proper etiquette in the midst of suffering in offering the same to a friend of his; in the delight he takes in setting up a New Year’s Eve party for a few of his friends (who don’t, in the end, show up). There emerges from all this a sense of wonder; only those with a heart of ice wouldn’t be affected by it.

Now that I have two daughters of my own, five and four years old, I wonder if such a film — black-and-white, silent, more subtle than the Spongebob Squarepants and Lego Ninjago cartoons they’re enjoying now — would offer anything to them. But recently I had the occasion to get my hopes up. Last month in The Huffington Post, Guillermo Rodríguez offered “The Day Charlie Chaplin Won Over Disney Channel,” in which he describes his own young children’s reaction to their first exposure to Chaplin’s films:

I turned off the show they were watching and put on Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. As I recall, that evening I had been listening to a radio show celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Chaplin, without any doubt one of film history’s great geniuses.

I must admit that when the movie started, I was convinced that my experiment was going to end up shipwrecked in a sea of mistakes. The movie was in black and white, silent, starring a mustachioed man in a bowling [sic — obviously, a bowler] hat. It did not exactly feature the stuff that based on what I’ve seen, seem to interest kids these days.

Despite that, I triumphed. Few times have I seen my kids laugh so hard as that night. They asked me to replay the scene in which the kid flees from the police running as fast as he can at least five times.

And, with tears in their eyes, they turned away when the same kid was separated forcefully from his vagabond father. During the 52 minutes that the movie lasts, I explained everything that they didn’t understand, jumped ahead a few scenes to pique their interest (“Just wait and see what happens next!”), and overacted, laughing in big guffaws at scenes that I already knew by heart.

Five days later, they’d seen The Kid many more times.

This gives me hope — perhaps a Chaplinesque hope, doomed to disappointment, but hope nonetheless. My daughters are still a bit young, but I think before a few more years go by, I’ll watch The Gold Rush once more, with Goldie and Billie by my side.

So Happy 100th Birthday, Little Tramp, and many more.

NOTE: More about Chaplin in Simon Callow’s May 8, 2014, Guardian review of Peter Ayckroyd’s new biography of the comedian.