The Circus is Leaving Town

So, Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS has been turned into an exciting serial, but last time I neglected to give you the cliffhanger: when Rex the high-wire guy unaccountably disappears (is there ever a reason given?), Charlie, who has been practising on a rope one foot above sawdust, is suddenly enlisted to hopefully break his neck. Hurriedly getting ready, he accidentally unleashes a platoon of capuchin monkeys belonging to Bosco the magician (no reason why either monkeys or a magician would be present in a circus, but I guess it’s possible, barely).

Not being a complete clown, except by profession, Charlie enlists a props man — the wonderful John Rand — to harness him up on a wire so he can perform feats of derring-do and derring-don’t in complete safety without the aid of a safety net. We anticipate disaster, and we are right to do so.

Rand has been one of the more delightful discoveries of my Chaplin deep dive — an incredibly effective clown, without a hugely strong individual personality but with a lot of style. He seems to specialise in frantic characters, often particularly dedicated kops in pursuit of Charlie, as in POLICE. Here, his perpetually flustered manner is usefully deployed as he’s entrusted with another man’s very life.

The monkey assault was, it seems, Charlie’s initial idea for the whole film — “I’m in a high place being attacked by monkeys or something,” Henry Bergman reports him saying. It sounds like someone reporting a dream, which seems appropriate. Of course Simon Louvish sees the sequence as a metaphor for Charlie’s divorce difficulties, which forces him to assume Bergman is lying. But one could still take a psychological approach to the scene (particularly appropriate the more like a dream the idea is — a fragmentary notion arising from the subconscious) and say it’s inspired by Chaplin’s exposed position as a celebrity who performs for a public, and is prey to attack by critics or personal enemies. It’s relevance to the divorce story becomes coincidental, or prophetic. The divorce and scandal merely fulfill the pre-existing anxiety, the nightmare comes true.

As well as John Rand, we have Josephine, Hollywood’s go-to monkey, who co-starred with Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and even Laurel and Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND (unrecognisably costumed as Mickey Mouse!) I’m unskilled at reading monkey markings so I don’t know which one she is, but as a skilled performer she could have been trusted with any of the more elaborate bits of business.

The different uses of Josephine by the three great silent clowns tells us a lot about them. For Lloyd, she’s originally a threat, part of the film’s array of bad guys, but with typical resourcefulness Harold turns her into a tool, a useful decoy, dressing her in his shoes to lure the villain away. Keaton focusses on her role as organ grinder’s assistant: an animal that has been trained to turn the crank on an organ may also usefully or hazardously operate a Gatlin gun in a Tong war, or a movie camera. Though Keaton’s universe is the most whimsically hostile, generally, it’s Chaplin who uses Josephine and her simian friends or relatives as an attack force. David Robinson continually describes the monkeys as awful or vicious, but I see them as awful only in effect. They’re not savagely attacking Charlie, they’re just, you know, monkeying around. Even the one biting his nose seems interested only in messing with him. The monkeys will, potentially, kill him, but it doesn’t seem to me that they WANT to. In fact, the comic irony of the scene is that small, basically harmless creatures become a menace to life and limb(s). It’s the same gag as the wee dog barking at Charlie in the lion cage.

The unusual situation allows Charlie to get a fresh laugh out of the tiredest old joke, the banana peel. It becomes a bigger hazard, and an unlikelier one (though the association with monkeys is strong and logical) and the anticipation caused by its being in his path is even stronger because his path is so damned narrow. Totally unnecessary to add any new wrinkles — just have him slip on it. Also, Charlie’s trousers falling down, an old gag that’s suddenly funny and terrifying, and also adds to the sense of public exposure and humiliation underlying all this.

Chaplin COULD have emphasised the association with his own life and career by having the audience laughing at his peril, assuming it to be part of his act, but instead they react in terror. This augments the tension — those cutaways of horrified faces are really powerful — but it seems less pertinent to the film’s plot and themes. Oh well, he made a sensible choice, one can’t deny it works.

Excellent use of the pole, too.

Oh, along with the nose-biting there’s another oral intrustion, the monkey sticking its tail in Charlie’s mouth. Maybe the detail that convulsed Fiona the most. I’ve written about Charlie’s oral fixation in terms of the choking gag, and related it to a childhood trauma in the best dollar book Freud tradition — Charlie choking on a coin he attempted to swallow as part of a magic act — money, performance, choking — three big themes. The number of times in his films Charlie ingests metal is astonishing. And of course food and its absence are absolutely defining concepts for Chaplin. And we could also note that sexually Charlie was extremely oral (I just typed oran by mistake, a Freudian ape-slip) — the salacious aspects of the divorce involved his enthusiasm for receiving fellatio. Let’s agree that sometimes a monkey tail is just a monkey tail. Ptui.

Incidental research: since this sequence converted Fiona from a non-fan to a full-on supporter, I decided to try it on my parents, who both declared that they didn’t like his stuff (and probably had to suffer through a fair bit when I was growing up) and they’re not silent film enthusiasts. My Mum was particularly strong in her statement that she didn’t like him. My Dad does have a fondness for both Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. Anyway, they both laughed hysterically. But didn’t act like I’d changed their minds. Which must prove something: some distinction between laughing at and appreciating.

Miraculously surviving his aerial ordeal, Charlie interrupts the ringmaster beating Merna, delivering not only a kick up the arse to the villain, but a sock in the eye. This gets him fired, and he’s discovered by Merna camped outside the grounds the following night. I’ve seen a beautiful illustration of this by production designer Charles D. Hall. It’s a rare exterior set, because Chaplin clearly wanted to see the moon in the sky.

Incidentally, Hall also illustrated the monkey rampage, indicating it was indeed part of the original plan for the film (this was concept art, not set designs) rather than a direct artistic response to the divorce scandal. Charlie now behaves like he did in THE TRAMP, making way for the better man. By getting Rex married to Merna he assumes the role, in modern parlance, of cuck — but here the role is portrayed as noble and selfless, as indeed it is in the circumstances. The ringmaster can no longer push Merna around as she has a protector with rights, a respected star of the show.

(Ringmasters are usually baddies — they’re bosses, of course, making them natural Chaplin enemies, and they seem to have twirly moustaches as part of the job description. Al Ernest Garcia even does a “Curses!” gesture, a little midriff-level air-punch.)

This stuff is played skillfully played: Charlie maintains the guise of being happy for his friends, no horse in this race, until the circus leaves town and he doesn’t join it.

This is one of his great endings — it hadn’t occurred to me before but the sort of crop circle he’s left in is only an abstract suggestion of the patch of pale grass that’s left when a tent is removed. This is more like someone has scuffed up the dirt in a ring. A big top crop circle. (UFOs and circuses are much alike — they visit and depart, people go in and see inexplicable things and lose track of time.)

Chaplin uses a surprising number of shots, for him. The extreme wide is tragedy, as Welles observed. Then a medium of the pensive ex-clown. His eyes meet ours, a return to the camera intimacy that defined early Charlie, but with the intent melancholy rather than humorous.

Closeup of the tattered star on the ground, also. What’s significantly absent is the standard Chaplin head-to-toe framing. Even when he gets up and leave, we’re much wider than that.

Incidentally, I’d like a restoration of the film’s original cut — this star is supposed to be the film’s opening image, but Chaplin altered that when he added the damn song at the start. Opening on the star and then leaving it in the dust at the end would be so neat. And makes the film more explicitly a film about stardom, something which at this time in his life Chaplin was apparently wishing he could leave behind. But he still had quite a few years left to go…

Charlie walks off, back-kicking the crumpled star, and forcing himself into a jaunty walk. Off to the city lights…

6 Responses to “The Circus is Leaving Town”

  1. Just finished watching “Limelight” this morning for the skeenteenth time. While set in the world of the music hall it evokes the circus,particularly in Chaplin’s great climactic scene with Buster keaton. Even more impressive is the way Chaplin stages his own death as a rand Finale.

  2. I’m VERY excited about Limelight as I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it all the way through. Disgraceful I know, but kind of a good thing for the Chaplin Deep Dive, that and King of New York will be substantially new to me.

  3. That’s “A King IN New Yok” — “OF New York” is Abel Ferrara

  4. Oh, same difference. :)

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Once Keaton finds himself in possession of a monkey — a momentarily cringey scene of thinking he has a corpse to dispose of — he treats her more as a character than a prop. At least once he’s trying to explain she shouldn’t mess with the equipment, fully expecting her to grasp it.

  6. People and animals can become props in Keaton, because the physical properties of anything can sometimes take over, but Chaplin really does treat his enemies as objects.

    The monkeys in The Circus are playfully malign like the possessed Murphy bed in One a.m.

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