Archive for the Circus Category
Why do I call it a vanity project? Well, it was produced by Lancaster’s production company H-H-L, and Lancaster got his start as a trapeze artist, and here’s a movie in which he plays a trapeze artist, providing him with a showcase for his skills as a…trapeze artist. (For more on Lancaster’s trapeze artist beginnings, go here). Burt actually does most of his stunts in the film. Hilariously (ironically) his character is supposed to be teaching Tony Curtis’s character how to fly on the trap, and Curtis’s work is all done by stunt men.
Like practically every circus movie ever made it’s a big whopping bore, despite having been directed by the great Carol Reed. It’s all about a love triangle with Lancaster and Curtis fighting over Gina Lollobrigida, like she were a piece of meat. Why do I recommend a movie that’s a big whopping bore? Because! Burt Lancaster! Trapeze!
Today is the anniversary of the American release date of Charlie Chaplin feature The Circus (1928).
Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”. The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna Kennedy –Lita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.
So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.
And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.
Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”
Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?
The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.
Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Sizewise, the stage original of Billy Rose’s Jumbo was the most colossal show in Broadway history. The title trumpets that intention: the biggest ever. It was the last show in Broadway’s largest venue the New York Hippodrome, and it combined all of the attractions of a real live circus with a book musical and featured the top talents from both art forms. Produced by impresario Billy Rose, it featured a book by Ben Hecht and James MacArthur, songs by Rodgers and Hart, direction by John Murray Anderson and George Abbott, and starred the great Jimmy Durante. Plus dozens and dozens of real circus acts whose names neither you nor I recognize, with the possible exception of the legendary clown and trick rider Poodles Hanneford. And of course an elephant named “Jumbo”, whom while not as large as Barnum’s elephant with the same name — was an elephant for God’s sake. A live elephant in a Broadway show. Jumbo was a huge gamble. It opened during the depths of the Great Depression, in late 1935 and ran about six months.
In 1962, the film version of Billy Rose’s Jumbo was a gamble for MGM. They were already past their golden period (generally said to have ended with 1959’s Gigi), although they were not yet nearly as moribund as they would be in a few short years thanks to several big-budget miscalculations. This movie probably seemed like a sure thing. The producers seem to have tweaked the original stage vehicle in the direction of some then relatively recent circus movie successes: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Irwin Allen’s The Big Circus (1959). (This name above the title, Billy Rose, by the way, was long since dead by the time this movie was made. But when he was alive he’d had it stipulated by contract that any subsequent movie version would bear his name). The movie was written by Sidney Sheldon (yes, that Sidney Sheldon), directed by Charles Walters (who had many similar musicals under his belt) and choreographed by none other than Busby Berkley (his last movie credit)
For some weird reason, almost all circus pictures are about business: debt, mergers, acquisitions, advertising, sales. We would scarcely be expected to tolerate this stuff in a movie about any other family business, but we’re always expected to lap it up it in circus movies, I suppose because circuses are fun. But circus BUSINESS WORRIES aren’t fun! In this one, Pop Wonder (Durante again) has a gambling problem, forever making it impossible to meet payroll and pay vendors and so forth. His daughter Kitty (Doris Day) is forever trying to bail them out. Then the soporific Stephen Boyd comes in as the hero and saves the day. His unlikeability is just one of the many marks against this movie.
Like the stage show, the film is full of actual circus performers, the top ones in their field, including Poodles Hanneford again. But, IMHO, as impressive as such performances can be live in the big top, they are intrinsically uncinematic. It’s boring as hell to stop the plot dead to watch their acts unfold for five and ten minute stretches. This is the movies! You can do anything in a movie! Superman can fly, for God’s sake — who cares about a trapeze act?
The film lost millions, contributing to MGM’s decline. But it has some nice songs, including “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (or as Durante winningly pronounces it, “Woild”). And it has its most famous gag, when Durante is trying to sneak past the sheriff with Jumbo and the sheriff asks, “Where do you think you’re going with that elephant?” and Durante answers, “What elephant?”
Don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
In The Strong Man, Langdon plays a returning World War I vet who is now touring with a medicine show as an assistant to the titular body builder (whose name Zandow, is an obvious play on Sandow). All the while, he is searching for the girl he had fallen in love with long distance via their wartime correspondence. The task is complicated by the fact that he has never met the girl in person. For awhile, he is led on by a vamp who pretends to be the girl; he eventually wises up. When he finally does meet the true object of his affections, she proves to be the blind daughter of the town minister. If that sounds Chaplinesque, remember that City Lights wasn’t until five years later.
At any rate, the mixture of touching elements with Langdon’s typical grab-bag of unusual gags prompted the critics of the time to laud the film as Chaplinesque as well. It was voted one of the ten best of the year in the annual Film Critics Poll, and the box office was even greater than that of the first film. I reiterate—this was Capra’s very first directorial effort.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.