This article originally appeared on the Big Screen Hooligans website and is reposted here with permission.
Over two issues in 1963 and 1964, the French film monthly Cahiers du cinéma printed a dictionary of American filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard, one of its contributors and now one of the legendary directors of the French New Wave, submitted the entry on Charlie Chaplin, writing,
He is beyond praise because he is the greatest of all. What else can one say? … Charles Spencer Chaplin, while remaining marginal to the rest of cinema, ended up by filling this margin with more things (what other word can one use: ideas, gags, intelligence, honour, beauty, movement?) than all the other directors together have put into the whole book.
Over a career spanning more than 75 years, Chaplin directed at least 82 films, starring in nearly all of them, including eleven feature-length films which stand among the greatest in the art form. It’s out of nothing other than deep affection and warm admiration that we note today is the 90th anniversary of the release of one of those features, The Circus, which premiered on 6 January, 1928, at the Strand Theatre in Times Square, New York City. It’s famous as a particularly difficult production to complete in early Hollywood history, and one of the most fraught times in Chaplin’s career. Film equipment troubles, personal legal troubles, personal financial troubles, and family grief ended up stalling production for ten months.
Yet, when it was finally released, it was a great commercial success and popular favourite, and Chaplin was nominated for four Academy Awards at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929, for producing, directing, acting, and writing. But the Academy removed Chaplin from each of the categories in competition before the ceremony, and gave him an honorary award instead, “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing The Circus”.
The Circus has much in common with the familiar core of Chaplin’s output: It regards the downtrodden and unfortunate people of the world with tender sympathy and kindness, it kicks out at tyranising authority and oppressive strictures with gleeful rebellion, its heavily sweetened sentimentality is balanced with its elegant grace and defiant comedy, it features music written by Chaplin and added in later years when synchronised film scores had become the norm, it satirises and criticises the harsh Hollywood industry and society in which Chaplin worked, the central character is Chaplin’s famous alter ego the Little Tramp, and the personal elements and insights are built right into the story.
It’s set in a travelling circus, in which the performers are brutally criticised and punished by the ringmaster, and so their performances become increasingly strained and unpopular with audiences. The allegory with domineering studios is obvious from the very beginning, and so is Chaplin’s personal view and solution. The Tramp stumbles into a circus performance without knowing it while running from the police, and his inadvertent antics in the ring bring the audience to sudden hilarity. But when the ringmaster hires him to amuse the crowd in every performance, the Tramp finds that he can’t carry out routine gags and tricks, and fails dismally at trying to recreate the other clowns’ acts. And so he is hired for what he thinks is a mere backstage job of moving props and animals, while in fact the ringmaster is tricking him into repeated blunders in the ring, which consistently succeed to delight crowds and allow the ringmaster to cheat him of his star’s salary.
Chaplin would always make films according to the insight he provides with this plot: A performer can only ever give a true and successful performance when it comes from within himself; trying to do as others do, or working by someone else’s rules and devices, as the Tramp tries to do with the other clowns, will result in some shortcoming or another.
From the very beginnings of Chaplin’s filmmaking career, he was a political artist. And, though The Circus doesn’t set out an explicitly political story, the obvious political stance is the one Chaplin had always and would always continue to take: a stand with the oppressed against oppressors.
The Great Dictator and A King in New York are the more overt political features in Chaplin’s oeuvre, and perhaps readers should see them to better understand that, even in earlier works like The Circus, Chaplin’s freewheeling comedy is not in contrast with but, in fact, directly related to and inseparable from his furious political philosophy. The irony arising from this fusion is what makes his comedy so anarchic, is what makes his comedic art a political artefact in itself. The Little Tramp is his icon of an inherent nobility, a sort of naturalised aristocracy of the spirit which disregards social rank, economic privilege, and degrees of power.
Chaplin’s inordinate achievement was to convey this philosophy through the camera, without much reliance on text or dry visual signifiers. His films are rich fodder for contemplation, but they’re meant to be watched more than written about. He filmed more than just his ideas and his emotions, but his very figure, his physical presence, him himself. The icon of the Little Tramp seen on the screen is more than a costume and makeup, a comedic routine and behavioural manner, but a declaration of the spirit, and a seeking out as well.
Consequently, the vast pleasures and inimitable surprises of Chaplin’s art are better felt by the viewer within than they could be expressed without. Chaplin didn’t only develop the cinema and open up new dimensions of it, but his work came to define its terms — feeling through images, searching by looking, finding by capturing. It is not frivolous to note, as François Truffaut once did, that, by the time he made The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin and Hitler had become the two most famous people in the world.