Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"You're supposed to be funny!"

I've often wondered why do Charlie Chaplin's films get ranked so high in all-time-best comedy lists, when they are such inherently sad movies.

The Circus is of course no exception. Even if it features some of the little Tramp's most iconic comedic sequences, at its center it's nothing but a melancholy look at the passing of time and the death of illusion.

After having seen Water for Elephants, which inarguably borrows some of its central topics from the Chaplin classic, it's clear that the circus lends itself for some harrowing drama. But none of it makes any sense if you ignore the Felliniesque (or did he borrow from Chaplin?) idea that this is a land of as much joy as sorrow.

In Chaplin's film, beyond the central doomed love story, we see the relentless way with which time detaches itself from the things it no longer needs. When Chaplin made this movie, sound was being implemented in commercial cinema for the first time.
While Chaplin refused to use for years, the film is filled with nods to how he felt this would kill cinema stars.

One of the first ways in which this is represented is when the vicious circus owner/film producer (Al Ernest Garcia) pushes his leading lady/stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy).
She lands on a prop and destroys it. The prop in question is a huge paper star (read, death of the silent movie star) which then reveals a large ring reminiscent of the irises Chaplin was so fond of.
With the advent of sound films, these irises became less common given that elements could be highlighted through dialog and sound effects.

When the Tramp meets the girl, he falls for her (of course) and throughout the movie he tries hard to help her keep her job.
However notices of doom surround him everywhere. See how, to the right there is an ominous picture of a girl swallowing a sword. To the left we have her as she is and in the center the Tramp wonders where does he stand in this world.
Will he become a victim or will he evolve and adjust to this universe that demands things he can't provide them, will he too become a sword swallower?

The death of stars becomes more obvious as the various shows in the circus begin to fail. This leads us to my favorite shot in the movie:

In it, we see the Tramp leaving the circus behind (after a noble, tearful finale). In this shot, the iris returns once more to represent the antithesis of the first shot with the shattered star.
We see how Chaplin gives his back to the world and goes on his own, keeping his pride and affirming that he would continue to do as he wished in cinema.
Seen in retrospect, this moment would count as one of the most iconic in silent cinema but it also contains something more personal and visceral.
The Tramp has just had his heart broken by the industry, Chaplin was feeling the same and pride or no pride, he still had a lonesome road ahead.

This post is part of Nat's "Hit Me With your Best Shot" series.

1 comment:

Pedro said...

Interesting reading of the movie, putting it in context with the times it was made. I would have never thought of that, although it seems pretty obvious with the star.