There’s real terror in our eyes as Charlie Chaplin dances atop a tight rope in the closing set piece of “The Circus,” and yet the Tramp turns it into a larf. He makes this goofy looking stunt where he’s pulled skyward by a wire look effortlessly graceful, and he’s such a showman as he awkwardly gags as a monkey puts its tail in his mouth as he’s trying to stay balanced. Watch carefully in a cutaway shot of the audience, and you’ll see a guy watching intently and eating his popcorn waiting for the Tramp to fall as everyone else screams in terror. It’s this little gag that makes the scene all the more delightful.
And the added surprise? He’s really up there on that rope.
“The Circus” is the first of Chaplin’s silent stragglers, a gigantic mess of a production in between “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and the rise of the talkie that still managed to be an uproarious comedy gem. If it doesn’t innovate in the way that “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “Modern Times” do, it’s just as good and funny, if not better, and with just as much pathos.
But not to leave our hero hanging on that rope. Chaplin performed endless takes from up there, and it reflects a time when performers did their own stunts and faced real life threatening danger if something went wrong. That same immediacy is in a scene where the Tramp shares a cage with a sleeping lion. Chaplin was a perfectionist director, and he makes sure to show absolute skill and comedic chemistry with those animals.
In this film, we find the Tramp being accused of pickpocketing, and in his attempt to elude the cops, he crashes a circus performance with hilarious aplomb. The ruthless perfectionist of a ringmaster (maybe Chaplin put a little of himself into this part) hires him but realizes he’s only funny when he’s embarrassing himself on accident, never on purpose.
This then is an almost self-deprecating role for the Tramp. Chaplin’s subtle innovation here is in being ironically funny, making the Tramp stomp around like an idiot so we can laugh at how horrible he’s failing. There’s a terrific moment when the clowns demonstrate their acts so he can learn the part for later. The big gag is when the Tramp replaces an apple in a William Tell sketch with a banana as though it will be the same thing. But as the clowns perform these hokey routines, what’s key is that the Tramp finds them hilarious.
Here is a character that is so oblivious, and yet such a good-hearted putz around all the token pretty girls, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him.
“The Circus” also made me think about Chaplin’s depiction of men and women in his movies. For the most part in a Chaplin comedy, we get one radiant woman who feels pity and affection for the Tramp’s charms and infatuation, and then we get a whole mess of male jerks. They all roughhouse women, make snap judgements about the Tramp and create problems for our hero. “The Circus” breaks that mold slightly, introducing a handsome tight rope walker for the Tramp’s crush, Merna, to fall in love with. His presence sets up a wonderfully bittersweet ending that sends the Tramp along on his lonely status quo along the road.
There’s another moment in “The Circus” that sums up how I feel about it. Merna says to the Tramp that if he goes up on the tight rope he’ll be killed. “Oh, no, I have a charmed life,” he says, just before a sandbag drops on his head. Chaplin sets up the scene so smoothly, and then it just smacks you with a big gag. I watched just about all of “The Circus” with a simple, beautiful grin before bursting out laughing. It’s a beautiful film.