The Circus (1928)9/10
Charlie Chaplin is a film-maker who isn't given enough credit, in my opinion: sure, people think he's funny, but few seem to recognize the underlying melancholy of his work. In The Circus, our favorite little tramp is running from the law and stumbles upon a carnival, unwittingly becoming the center act and falling in love with a beautiful trapeze artist (Merna Kennedy). Even though this seems like the recipe for a feel-good romantic comedy, in Chaplin's vision, the guy doesn't get the girl. We essentially find ourselves laughing at an unemployed homeless man who needs to make an ass out of himself in order to escape the police -- which is nothing worth laughing at, when you really think about it. Nevertheless, Chaplin created some of the most uproarious scenes in movie history, combining his ingenious slapstick with a genuine humanity that made his character feel like more than just an object of humiliation. The Circus is certainly one of his most under-rated features, showing a darker sense of love and longing than any of his other work: the film opens with a repeated shot of his object of desire swinging on the rings with a forlorn gaze drifting into space. The final shot has the little tramp walking away from the woman he loves, alone: never before (or since) have we so sensed Chaplin's true gloominess. But if I'm making The Circus sound like a serious film, then I've been deceiving you, for it is a very funny movie indeed: Chaplin's gags are innovative and perfectly timed, and he always managed to keep his running time perfectly suited to the audience's interest. Yet in spite of how funny this movie truly is, the parts I remember most are still those that reached a deeper level of human emotion: the scenes between Chaplin and his lover are meant to be comical, but I couldn't help but notice the honesty and poignancy he injected into each vignette. This is as much a romance as it is a comedy -- and a drama, for that matter. It has been said that, two thirds during the shoot of the film, Chaplin had a nervous breakdown; considering the mostly morose tone of the film, that doesn't surprise me. But when film-makers have personal struggles, it typically only increases the authenticity and greatness of their work (just look at Woody Allen's career). Quite simply, The Circus is an American classic: Chaplin not only directed and starred in, but he produced, edited, and even composed original music for his films. His direction is superb -- not only from a comical standpoint, but from a cinematic one as well; one particular scene comes to mind that takes place in a house of mirrors, in which Chaplin uses a repeated set-up to convey a feeling of simultaneous order and confusion. His acting is plain brilliant -- if you can call it acting: he's one of those performers that you watch and smack your head in awe of how extraordinary he is. In a way, The Circus isn't a masterpiece, nor a perfect film, nor even a particularly great one -- but in another way, it is all those things and more. It is a splendid example of just how much can be done within a simple genre movie, and modern film-makers would do themselves a favor by learning from it.