The Sunday Intertitle: Going to The Circus

THE CIRCUS is the next Chaplin film for me to consider. As with many of the major ones, I’ve written about it before, and touched on it in a video essay for Criterion. But there’s always more to say, I suspect. I’ve even made the effort of BUYING the movie on DVD this time.

In Bengt Forslund’s respectable study Victor Sjostrom, we learn that Chaplin was a great admirer of this Swedish director in Hollywood: “There is a wide discrimination between Seastrom and the rest of us. He distinguishes himself with finer feeling and better taste. He is the greatest director in the world.”

So Chaplin would have seen HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, and could not have failed to be impressed by it. His own circus film would have followed it much sooner if not for the considerable delays and difficulties Chaplin was beset by in production. Forslund even suggests that a famous Chaplin routine, Hynkel playing with the globe in THE GREAT DICTATOR, may have been inspired by an image in Sjostrom/Seastrom’s movie. But THE CIRCUS is where we see that influence most strongly.

Sjostrom had been inspired to get into showbusiness by a childhood visit to the circus, so his own clown tragedy comes from quite a personal place. Chaplin had no real connection to the circus, but had trod the boards of the music hall from a tender age, and of course he WAS a clown, in a slightly different sense.

In adapting (and improving) Leonid Andreyev’s play, Sjostrom was himself influenced by another source, a well-known painting by Nils Forsberg. In fact, this image is somewhat reproduced in his film, but forms only a minor moment in the story. Chaplin’s film takes the idea of a cruel instructor and his acrobat victim and makes it a central plank of his story. So hats off to Nils Forsberg.

In seeing HE as an influence on Chaplin — both films feature scary situations with caged lions, and confusion between comedy and tragedy, slapstick and reality — I take nothing away from Chaplin. It’s a feature of his genius that whenever you find someplace he got an idea from, you find that what he did with the idea was so original or just plain effective, his brilliance loses nothing.

3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Going to The Circus”

  1. I love I Clowns.

  2. What I especially love is Fellini identifying Visconti as “The White Clown” of Italian cinema with himself as “Auguste”

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