The Circus Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Tramp Plays the Big Top

Made between his classic films The Gold Rush and City Lights, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus presents an entertaining outing for the Tramp who once again finds himself in funny predicaments while saving a young woman from her cruel stepfather. The story behind the scenes is more interesting than the one on screen and is illuminated in the extras Criterion has included.

While at a seaside pier, the Tramp finds a wallet and watch has been stashed in his pocket. The crook who placed it there is after him and the police after them both. This leads to not only a funny scene where they pose from the police as attraction automatons, but a visually dazzling one where they run around in a house of mirrors, 19 years before Welles’ oft-referenced climax from The Lady from Shanghai.

The chase ends with the Tramp disrupting clowns performing at a circus in a way that enlivens the bored audience. The Ringmaster takes note and hires him. However, the Tramp is a force of chaos not a skilled clown, so he can’t perform comedic routines. Instead, he elicits laughter unintentionally by ruining a magician’s tricks. Outside the big top, the Tramp falls for Merna, daughter of the Ringmaster, who is so cruel he beats and starves her. However, she falls for Rex, a tight-rope walker, but when the time comes to help her and the circus, what will the brokenhearted Tramp do?

As noted by an on-screen graphic, “The 4K restoration of The Circus (1928) used a second generation full-frame dupe negative, preserved by Roy Export S.A.S. and selected as the best source available, after comparing other elements, for its photographic richness. In order to reconstruct the film as reissued by Charlie Chaplin in 1968, the same element was used for the images in the opening titles, while another second generation dupe negative academy ratio struck in 1969, was chosen for the song.”

Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the video shows a good spectrum of grays with inky blacks at one end and bright whites on the other, contributing to a strong contrast. Fine texture detail is apparent. The image is stable, and it doesn’t give into aliasing like it could have in dealing with the patterns on the clowns’ costumes. Focus is usually sharp, but there are scenes where portions of the frame are soft. The picture is mostly clean, but black specks rise during the magic act debacle.

Also from the graphic, “The soundtrack was restored from the original sound negative which was digitized in 2k with a sound scanner, digitally cleaned and mastered.” The mono track is free of signs of age and wear. The opening song is clear and the score plays with strong fidelity.

Through the audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffery Vance and the special features listed below, viewers learn about the making of the film and its off-screen troubles, from business difficulties (a studio fire and the IRS citing him for back taxes) to family matters (the death of Chaplin’s mother and a divorce from second wife Lita Grey). The special features are in HD except where noted.

  • Eugene Chaplin (15 min) – Eugene Chaplin, fifth child of Charlie and Oona O’Neil Chaplin, is interviewed and shows how his former house is now a museum, Chaplin’s World in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. A great albeit brief collection of home movies and archival photos.
  • In the Service of the Story (21 min) – Film scholar Craig Barron takes viewers to Chaplin Studios, now the home of the Jim Henson Company, and breaks down some sequences.
  • Chaplin Today: The Circus (1080i, 27 min) – From 2003, Francois Ede directed this piece, which includes an interview with filmmaker Emir Kusturica, that looks at the history of Chaplin and the film. A lot of archival footage reveals from where some of the ideas in The Circus came.
  • Stepping Out – In the 1980s, film archivists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill created the British television series Unknown Chaplin from thousands of feet of outtakes from Chaplin’s silent movies. From The Circus is a deleted sequence (1080i, 10 min) is assembled as Chaplin might have edited it, with a score by Timothy Brock. There are amusing scenes, such as helping a woman pick up fish and dealing with a rowdy boxer and his twin brother, but nothing that moves the story forward. Also included is a selection of outtakes (30 min) from this sequence, with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamlin. The score and the narration were recorded for Criterion in 2019.
  • A Ring for Merna (8 min,) – Outtakes of the Tramp expressing his love for Merna and his feeling rejected after learning that Merna has fallen for the tightrope walker.
  • Eric James (Audio, 10 min) – Audio excerpts from an interview with Chaplin’s musical collaborator, recorded by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance in 1998. James speaks of how he started working with Chaplin and their process.
  • “Swing Little Girl” (Audio, 5 min) – In 1968, Chaplin composed a new score for the re-release of The Circus and wrote a song for the film’s opening credits, “Swing Little Girl”. Originally recorded by Ken Barrie, Chaplin can be heard in the film, and these audio excerpts are taken from his recording session.
  • Hollywood Premiere (7 min) – Archival footage from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on January 27, 1928 featuring circus performers and stars like W.C. Fields and Adolphe Menjou attending.
  • Charlie Chaplin in 1969 (5 min) – Chaplin is interviewed by several international journalists at his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey for Swiss television in conjunction with the re-release of The Circus. Great to hear Chaplin talking.
  • Re-release Trailers (5 min)

The Circus is a delightful romp that finds the Tramp behave in a more enlightened manner as he puts others ahead of himself. Not sure why it took 40-plus years for Chaplin to re-release it, but it’s a good thing he did. And from the high-definition presentation and the features presented, it’s a good thing it’s been added to the Criterion Collection.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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