The Beauty of Clowning: On Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus

Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1928 film, THE CIRCUS, directed by Charlie Chaplin.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” This quote, attributed to Charlie Chaplin, is the perfect summary of the production and result of THE CIRCUS. A mediation on the very nature of performing and the product of incredible professional and personal strife for Chaplin, THE CIRCUS is often described as lucky to have been made at all, let alone to have turned out as good as it did. But then, that’s what clowns do: take the sadness inside and make everyone laugh with it. And Chaplin was perhaps the greatest clown of all.

I unironically love clowns. I bought the object in the above picture at Goodwill the other day, and I’m not creeped out by it. There’s something so magical about the art form and the clown’s place in the variety show that is a circus; next to the animal cruelty and the great displays of human athleticism, the clown dares to stride out into the ring with a painted face and make a fool of itself for the enjoyment of others. But of course, in THE CIRCUS, the Tramp doesn’t dare to do anything. He exists, in his own haphazard yet sensitive way, and subjects himself to ridicule and heartbreak in the process.

THE CIRCUS feels like a tight movie; there isn’t a large number of sets and those that do exist feel closed in. It’s yet another connection to Chaplin’s music hall days, a feeling that we are encircled around a relatively intimate performance, and not removed by time and space by the screen. Rollie Totheroh’s cinematography, and Chaplin’s direction by extension, has sometimes been described as overly simplistic, but in fact, it’s almost perfectly simplistic. Chaplin lets his clowning play out for the full benefit of an audience. Viewing his films are not a first-person experience.

It’s incredible, then, that we feel so close to Chaplin’s Little Fellow, as he called him. When he sacrifices his love for Merna Kennedy’s circus rider, stepping out of the way for Harry Crocker’s tight rope walker to be left literally in the dust by the disappearing circus caravan; when the Tramp does this, and shrugs and waddles into the sunset, it’s a touching and painful moment. But it is also at the heart of clowning, the connection to human sadness that allows great comedy to flourish.

Some time ago, I was watching a Bob Hope appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (this is what I do with my free time, among other things). Although he was promoting a dramatic picture in which his performance didn’t shine out through the ages, Hope left me with a pretty remarkable perspective I still turn to. Many find themselves surprised to see dramatic offshoots of once comedic actors, such as a Bryan Cranston or a Steve Carell or even a Melissa McCarthy. But it’s much easier for comedians or comedic actors to turn dramatic than it is the other way around; funny is actually more difficult, and to be funny, you have to know the humanly dramatic elements that comedy acknowledges, exaggerates, and skewers. Chaplin was the ultimate pioneer in this respect. He was the crying clown on screen.

You can talk about the production difficulties or the great gags or thrill sequences a la Keaton or Lloyd when it comes to THE CIRCUS. But all I can find myself thinking while watching THE CIRCUS is that it may just be Chaplin’s most personal film, at least up until LIMELIGHT (1952). THE CIRCUS is the dawning of the idea for Chaplin that not all that is good can last, given extra significance by the advent of the sound era that Chaplin so fiercely opposed. By ridiculing rote clown convention and presenting himself as a clown within a clown, a fool who got lucky and was celebrated for his talent in spite of himself, Chaplin acknowledged that the very face of comedy was changing. He might not have even thought it was changing for the better, if the ending of THE CIRCUS is to be read as the death of a sort of naivete.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.