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Friday, 6 February 2015

The Circus (1928)

If you asked me a few days ago what I would be writing about this week, I probably would have confidently replied "Daisies", the 1966 Czech New Wave film from Vera Chytilova, a movie which has been on my 'must see' list for ages. Now that I have finally seen it, my initial reaction was one of extreme disappointment. Despite the occasionally flashy psychedelic visuals, I kept thinking that the director was just trying too hard to be 'kooky, and I was more annoyed than charmed. The non-story, such as it is, concerns two feckless teenaged girls living for the moment by exploiting older men. The final scene, after wantonly destroying an official banquet feast, shows the pair trying and failing to repair the massive damage they have wreaked, repeating to each other "If we work hard we'll be happy and good" a suitable mantra as the Russian tanks rolled in.

There's something to be said for being in the right mood for watching certain films. I suppose it is feasible that I would react differently to another viewing, seeing the movie for the imaginative mess and message intended by the director --  but I'm in no hurry to test that theory.

So today, much to my amazement, I find myself writing about Charlie Chaplin. As I've said previously you can divide film buffs between those who think that Chaplin was the greatest silent comedian and the larger proportion who are convinced that the title belongs to Buster Keaton (and I count myself amongst the latter).  Despite the universal popularity of Chaplin's 'little tramp', the more reflective viewer tends to be put off by his often mawkish sentimentality, leaving Keaton as the 'thinking man's' hero. However my recent view of the above title has to some extent softened my anti-Chaplinism.

This film is far less known than his other late and revered silents like "Modern Times" and "City Lights", probably because it was withdrawn by the man himself after its successful debut, and not re-released until 1969. However it was well enough thought of in its day to receive a special honorary Oscar for its virtuoso variety. Indeed Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film and even wrote its score, adding a song sung by him over the front credits on its re-release. On many levels I would judge it his masterpiece and one of my heroes, Federico Fellini, counts it among his favourite films and an inspiration.

In his little tramp persona, Chaplin becomes involved with a circus when he is chased into the big top by the police. He becomes an accidental sensation drawing more roars of laughter from the crowd than the regular clowns with their jaded routines and is soon taken on to continue to inadvertently please the punters. He is only unfunny when trying too hard (much like the auteur himself in my book). However the film contains some inspired slapstick, especially a bit of business in the funhouse mirror maze, and a staggering performance on the high wire. Thinking he is protected by a safety harness, he makes some unbelievable moves, not aware that the harness has become detached; he manages to keep his perilous balance while being attacked by a pack of affectionate monkeys. Cue genuine laughs and amazement.

Of course there's a love story as well as he befriends the owner's badly-treated daughter, the bareback rider played by Merna Kennedy. 20 years old when she made this film, she retired in 1934 to marry Busby Berkeley. (Not that the marriage lasted but a fascinating bit of movie history gossip). He is convinced that she loves him as much as he worships her when he overhears a fortune-teller predicting her falling for a dark and handsome fellow who is 'nearby'. However it turns out that it's Rex, the new flamboyant tightrope walker who has caught her eye. Sitting next to her as she idolises her new hero up above, Chaplin's face tells the whole tale of how he wishes his rival would fall to his doom.

Chaplin's performance here is the equal of Keaton's in every way, although being Chaplin, the film's ending is a little marred by undue sentiment and a sense of melancholy. We seldom feel that way with the 'great stone face', and thanks for that, Buster.
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