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Time Out New York Project: Issue #772, July 15–21, 2010
Dir. Charles Chaplin. 1928. N/R. 71mins. Chaplin, Allan Garcia, Mema Kennedy.
Often referred to as a minor work, The Circus has a reputation among Chaplinphiles suggesting it’s the neglected middle child between two canonized films (The Gold Rush and City Lights). Yet from the moment the Little Tramp (Chaplin) unashamedly scarfs down a hot dog held by a cute infant, it’s clear that we’re watching a performer at the peak of his powers. Everything is pared down to hilarious and pointed essentials: Charlie sees. Charlie takes. Charlie runs…right into a run-down big top operated by a cruel ringmaster (Garcia) with a gorgeous stepdaughter (Kennedy). The Tramp’s intrusion proves to be an unexpected boon, since the audience takes him for a funny-bone–tickling clown. But he can only make ’em laugh when he isn’t trying to do so.
It’s a beautiful summation of the comedian’s crisis — how hard does one push to get guffaws? Chaplin isn’t straining at all here, though this was a notoriously troubled production (scratched rushes, set-destroying fires, the star’s own divorce). The famous lion-cage scene, in which the Tramp moves from paralyzed fear to haughty courage, plays like an onscreen purge — as do the final images of Chaplin alone, shrugging and shuffling off as if nothing can touch him. There’s an edge to The Circus that suggests a man gazing deep into the void, laughing at the darkness and urging us to do the same.—Keith Uhlich