“Where’s the Funny Man?” by matthew c. hoffman

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Over thirty years after his death, information is still coming in on the life of Charlie Chaplin. At the end of February of this year, there was a two-part radio broadcast on the BBC called “The Chaplin Archive.” It included a tour of Chaplin’s home in Switzerland with journalist Matthew Sweet and Chaplin’s son, Michael. One of the revelations that emerged was a letter Chaplin had kept locked away in a chest in his bedroom. Years after his death, when the letter was discovered and read by his daughter, it seemed to suggest an alternate family history. (Keep in mind that a birth certificate had never been found, but biographers have always placed his birth in a poor section of London.) This letter, if true, would change what historians know of cinema’s first immortal. A new chapter begins in the afterlife of Charlie Chaplin…

It was written in the 1970s by a man named Jack Hill, who introduced himself as a cousin of Charlie’s and whose father, J.J. Hill, had worked in a circus. This was at a time when Charlie’s mother, Hannah (whose maiden name was Hill), had danced in the same traveling circus. In the letter, Hill told Charlie he was a “little liar” but did not fault him for the dishonesty of his autobiography; he could not have known his origin. Hill claimed that Charlie had been born in a tent with a roaming caravan of gypsies in a place called the “Black Patch” in Smethwick. Charlie was, in fact, the nephew of a Gypsy Queen. His own mother traveled much in these circles, and in later years, Charlie himself commented on having some gypsy blood in him.

We don’t know if this story is true—perhaps the Chaplin family has an agenda to promote their archives with “new” information for news agencies like the BBC– but there is that element of possibility. We may never know for sure where Chaplin was born, but it is significant that he did keep this particular letter locked away. Perhaps he believed in what Jack Hill had revealed.

If Chaplin had in fact been born in a traveling caravan—one that featured both a menagerie of animals and an early form of the cinema—it makes The Circus seem almost inevitable. Cinema’s greatest clown makes a comedy about life in a circus. There is an element of autobiography at work in the film—not so much about his origins, but rather a revelation of what Chaplin the man was going through inside at this time. His character walked the tightrope he himself was walking in real life.

The Circus, which is the main attraction at the Park Ridge Public Library on March 31st, was a project that was almost left unfinished. During the production, the great circus tent that had been erected was damaged by a raging wind. Difficult scenes of Charlie walking the tightrope had to be re-shot because of faulty laboratory work that scratched the film. A fire destroyed the set. The government and the IRS went after him for unpaid taxes. Chaplin went through a very public divorce with Lita Grey that became a sideshow. It was so bitter her lawyers tried to seize his assets at the studio. Anticipating this, Chaplin had taken his cans of uncut film to New York where he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. The final mishap came later when production resumed. The circus wagons that appear in the final scene were stolen by a freshman class to be used for a bonfire. The students were arrested and the wagons were retrieved, but Chaplin did not press charges.

There were many trials during this production, and one image poignantly summed up his anguish. Cameraman Rollie Totheroh was able to capture some haunting still shots of Chaplin sitting amidst the fire-ravaged set.

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Charlie Chaplin never mentioned this film in his autobiography because the memories of it were apparently too painful. Yet, in his later years he did return to it. In his old age, he recorded a theme song for its re-release in 1969. The song was called “Swing High Little Girl.”

On its surface, The Circus is the story of a little fellow who aids and then falls in love with a bareback rider. But it is also a movie about the consciousness of trying to be funny. Ironic that the man most associated with comedy in American should make a film about a character who fails to be funny when he is expected to be. The Circus is also built on themes from his earlier films like The Vagabond, which had Charlie as a musician saving a girl from gypsies—only to lose her to a young artist.

But the genesis behind The Circus came from a nightmare idea—the image of the Tramp walking a tightrope, being in a high place. Losing his pants while being overrun by monkeys added to what was essentially a comic thrill premise. (Not the last time the silent comics will use monkeys to get laughs in this series.) It’s this same nightmare quality that made Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! so memorable for audiences. Recall Lloyd being besieged by pigeons in the earlier film while he made his climb up the building. And like the Lloyd film, effective camera placement here created the illusion of height. Chaplin learned to walk a tightrope for the film and made 700 takes of the scene, which was the first sequence he shot in the production.

Harry Crocker, who plays Rex the tightrope walker, remembered, “It was characteristic of Chaplin that he determined to shoot the tightrope scenes on an actual tightrope stretched thirty-seven feet above the sawdust between two giant tent poles. This necessitated the building of a series of platforms beneath the rope in case of a spill. Giant parallels were constructed for the cameras.”

Chaplin also learned to work with a couple lions—one more docile than the other. Two hundred takes were made with them. The panic that on Chaplin’s face was more than just acting.

The film also stars the 18 year old Merna Kennedy—a native of Kankakee, Illinois, and a dancer he had been introduced to through his wife, Lita. Merna plays the circus rider who is victimized by her abusive stepfather, the ringmaster of the circus. This would be her most famous film. She would retire from the screen in 1934 after marrying dance choreographer Busby Berkeley. She died from a heart attack in 1944 at the age of 36.

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The final master shot, one of almost mythic beauty, can be read as a metaphor for the melancholy in his own life. The shooting of this scene was recorded by an unidentified reporter. The moment reveals something of Chaplin’s process as a filmmaker:

“Daylight breaks,” the reporter writes. “The morning is cold. Cracklings echo from a dozen fires. It is an unusual Californian crispness. Cars begin to arrive. The roar of exhausts signals their coming. There is an extra-loud rumbling. The big blue limousine comes to a stop. The Circus must be finished. Everyone is on time. Cameras are set up. Now the sun is holding things up. Why doesn’t it hurry and come up over the mountains? It is long shadows the Tramp wants.

“Six o’clock and half the morning wasted. The edge of the circus ring is too dark. It doesn’t look natural. The Tramp refuses to work artificially. Men start to perspire again. Thirty minutes later the soft voice speaks, ‘Fine! That’s fine. Let’s shoot!’

“Cameras grind. Circus wagons move across the vast stretch of open space. There is a beautiful haze in the background. The horses and the wagon wheels cause clouds of dust. The picture is gorgeous. No artist would be believed should he paint it. Twenty times the scene is taken.

“The cameras move in close to the ring. Carefully the operators measure the distance. From the lens to the Tramp. He is alone in the center of the ring.

“He rehearses. Then action for camera. Eighty feet. The business is done again. And again! And again! Fifty persons are looking on. All members of the company. There are few eyes that are not moist. Most of them know the story. They knew the meaning of this final ‘shot.’

“‘How was that?’ came inquiring from the Tramp. Fifty heads nodded in affirmation. ‘Then we’ll take it again; just once more,’ spoke the man in the baggy pants and derby hat and misfit coat and dreadnought shoes. The sun was getting high. The long shadows became shorter and shorter. ‘Call it a day,’ said the Tramp, ‘we’ll be here again tomorrow at four.’”

The image that resulted is a rare instance where Chaplin, a man of the theatre, embraced the cinematic possibilities of the medium.

Silent film author Jeffrey Vance summed it up when he wrote that “the finale of The Circus, like the ending of City Lights, transcends the mere implication of heart to the sublime suggestion of soul.”     

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The film would win Chaplin a Special Academy Award in 1928 for acting, writing, producing and directing.     
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Though I am playing only four of Chaplin’s features in this series, audiences will be seeing them in sequential order. They can chart the progression of this architect of cinema. The Circus is an underrated film in that it gets lost in the shuffle between The Gold Rush and City Lights. It is filled with wonderful routines of physical comedy– the aforemetioned high-wire act–and brilliant set pieces that remain timeless with a theatre audience. One of my favorite moments is the hall of mirrors sequence that leads to Charlie impersonating a clock figurine. For the silent film enthusiast, there’s even a wonderful scene that takes place in a café which Chaplin cut out. Viewers can find this deleted scene in the 1983 documentary Unknown Chaplin.

The release of The Jazz Singer in the fall of 1927 had revolutionized motion pictures by the time The Circus was released in January 1928. The question then was could Chaplin’s Little Tramp, a character who had always conveyed emotion through the universal language of pantomime, survive beyond the silent era? How would Chaplin respond to this filmmaking challenge? Could he break the sound barrier with his next film—or would he defiantly remain silent?

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