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Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, John Rand, Steve Murphy
Writing Credits:
Charles Chaplin

At the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony, Charles Chaplin was honored with a special statuette "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus." And, it went without saying, for again bringing laughter to packed movie palaces across America.

When we first meet Chaplin's Tramp in this comic gem, he's in typical straits: broke, hungry, destined to fall in love and lust just as sure to lose the girl. Mistaken for a pickpocket and pursued by a peace officer into a circus tent, the Tramp becomes a star when delighted patrons think his escape from John Law is an act. Classic highlights include a frenetic fun-house sequence, the Tramp turning a magic skit into mayhem and his teetering tightrope walk while monkeys cling to his head. This is comedy without a net!

Rated G

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural
French Monaural

Runtime: 69 min.
Price: $29.95
Release Date: 3/2/2004

• Introduction by Chaplin Biographer David Robinson
• “Chaplin Today” Documentary
• Deleted Sequence
• Outtakes
• Mountbatten Home Movies
• Hollywood Premiere
• “Camera A, Camera B” Footage
• 3-D Test Footage
• Excerpts from Circus Day with Jackie Coogan
• Photo Gallery
• Poster Gallery
• Theatrical Trailers
• Scenes from Films in the Chaplin Collection


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


The Circus: The Chaplin Collection (1928)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 19, 2004)

For 1928’s The Circus, Charlie Chaplin presents a mildly romantic farce that looks at life under the big top. We see a failing operation run by the Circus Proprietor and Ring Master (Allan Garcia). His step-daughter Merna (Merna Kennedy) works in the circus, and the stern Ring Master takes out his frustrations on her; he beats and abuses her for the smallest mistakes.

A Tramp (Chaplin) comes to see the sideshows. A pickpocket tries to hide his booty in the Tramp’s pants for later retrieval, but the cops stop him when he attempts to regain his prize. The Tramp finds the wallet and starts to use the money when its owner catches him.

From there the Tramp flees the police. They wind up in the big top, where their antics amuse the audience. The Ring Master offers the Tramp a job, and our hero meets and befriends Merna. The Tramp attempts to learn the ropes, but he fails, and the Ring Master fires him.

However, the Tramp’s natural dopiness soon benefits him once more. He stumbles into a job as a circus prop man, and his goof-ups delight the audience. The Ring Master plans to keep him on as a prop man superficially and exploit his silliness; the Tramp becomes a performer without his knowledge.

Eventually Merna reveals the truth, and the Tramp demands better treatment for both him and his unrequited love from the Ring Master. He gets this, but his life complicates when Rex, A Tight Rope Walker (Harry Crocker) joins the circus. Merna immediately falls for the handsome daredevil, and this knowledge causes the Tramp to lose his comedic spark. The rest of the movie examines the dynamics of the love triangle.

Actually, I can’t really make that claim. My synopsis makes it sound like Circus enjoys much more of a plot than it actually does. The story provides a basic framework but not much more than that, as it exists largely to showcase Chaplin’s sublime skills in the realm of physical comedy.

In that regard, the film fares well. Chaplin presents more than a few fine comedic bits that help bring life to The Circus. His tight rope act provides much cleverness, and the sequence in the “Mirror Maze” also seems lively and inventive. I also like the part in which the Tramp’s stupidity subverts the attempts to teach him the stale old circus routines.

Unfortunately, that’s about all The Circus has going for it. Chaplin’s best work showcases not just his physical prowess but also a nice humanity and heart. Those elements seem thinner and more superficial than usual here. The characters are flat and fail to engage us. The movie never achieves the warm charm of Chaplin’s better efforts.

Instead, the big top framework of The Circus feels like little more than an excuse to plop Chaplin in a variety of novel situations. We see him with clowns, exotic animals, and other unusual bits. These provide some good gags and The Circus remains generally enjoyable, but it never reaches the heights of Chaplin’s better flicks.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B

The Circus appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The film didn’t usually belie its age, as it mostly looked very good given its elderly status.

Some issues related to softness appeared at times. Wide shots occasionally came across as a little indistinct and mildly blurry, and even some close-ups demonstrated similar concerns. While the majority of the movie appeared accurate and reasonably concise, softness created a few distractions. I saw no issues due to jagged edges or moiré effects, but some mild edge enhancement showed up periodically throughout the movie.

Black levels looked nicely deep and dense for the most part. Periodically they were slightly grey, but they mostly seemed solid. Contrast levels were positive. Low-light situations were accurately displayed and seemed appropriately well defined.

Despite the very advanced age of Circus, the print came largely free from flaws. Some flickering appeared at times, as well as some white flashes. Otherwise, I saw periodic examples of specks, grit, and thin lines, but these remained pretty unobtrusive for such an old flick. Although the image still featured a few concerns, I thought it deserved an “B+“, as one normally wouldn’t find such an old movie in such great shape.

For this new release, The Circus got a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. It seemed unclear when the film’s music was recorded. The movie came with a copyright date of 1968, but the recording sounded like it came from an earlier period. Music presented the track’s only elements. The 5.1 version spread out the score to the side speakers, though stereo delineation seemed muddled. Never did I discern good definition of the various instruments, as the presentation felt like broad mono for the most part. The surrounds may have kicked in light reinforcement of the front speakers, but I noticed nothing in particular from them.

The quality of the 5.1 track seemed decent but not great. The score came across as somewhat shrill and trebly. Dynamic range was decent but the high-end dominated and seemed a bit rough. A little hum, hiss and background noise also popped up at times. Overall, the audio seemed acceptable for an older movie, but it never stood out as very positive.

As a two-DVD package, The Circus packs some good supplements on its second platter. We open with an Introduction from Chaplin biographer David Robinson. In this five-minute piece, he gives us some general notes about the film and its production. We learn of Chaplin’s ugly divorce with Lita Grey and how it affected the flick as well as other problems with the production. Most of what Robinson says appears elsewhere, but it’s a quick and moderately engaging program.

Entitled Chaplin Today: The Circus, the next piece runs 26 minutes and 29 seconds. It shows bits from the movie, some archival and historical materials, and remarks from filmmaker Emir Kusturica. We get a general feeling for the roots of the film, Chaplin’s background and methods, problems, deleted material, and its production. Kusturica occasionally pops up to offer his thoughts on Chaplin and cinema, but unlike many prior “Chaplin Today” episodes, those moments don’t dominate the proceedings. They don’t offer much either, but the focus remains mainly on Chaplin’s work and The Circus. That emphasis makes this a fairly interesting piece, though it does kind of skirt over the divorce issues and some other controversies.

Deleted Sequence lasts nine minutes, 40 seconds and presents a “date” between the Tramp and Merna that Rex spoils. We see parts of this in the documentary, but this segment shows the whole thing. It’s entertaining and fun to see.

In October 7-13, 1926, we get a week’s worth of outtakes from the film. This fills 26 minutes, 25 seconds and gives us multiple iterations from the restaurant scene found in the prior “deleted sequence”. It’s quite cool to watch the minor variations on this bit, as Chaplin the perfectionist worked it out to his satisfaction.

Next we get Mountbatten Home Movies. From the archives of Lord Mountbatten, we find three pieces: “At Charlie Chaplin’s Studio” (80 seconds), “Douglas Fairbanks” (103 seconds), and “The Sacrifice” (three minutes, 21 seconds). The first two show folks as they clown for the cameras, on and off the set. “Sacrifice” is a home-made short comedy that features Chaplin. None of these seem great, but they’re interesting historical snippets.

The “Documents” domain includes a mix of archival materials somehow related to The Circus. The Hollywood Premiere provides a six-minute and 23-second glance at the flick’s elaborate opening, and we also see luminaries as they arrive.

Camera A, Camera B fills 76 seconds of footage from the deleted restaurant scene. Both cameras were side-by-side and shot almost identical material; the DVD doesn’t explain why Chaplin used this method, so the footage doesn’t seem terribly useful in this setting. Next we find two minutes, 23 seconds of 3D Test Footage. Again, we get no explanation of this stuff, so its utility becomes limited.

“Documents” ends with 12 minutes and 28 seconds of a Jackie Coogan film called Circus Days. We find excerpts but not the whole thing. “Days” connects to Circus solely due to the subject matter and Chaplin’s relationship to child actor Coogan; I see no evidence of involvement from Chaplin in “Days” itself. It’s not very good, but it’s another nice historical remnant nonetheless.

In the trailers area, we get reissue ads. These come in English and French. Inside the Photo Gallery, we get eight subsections of material. It splits into “The Circus” (83 stills), “The Rope” (30 shots), “Deleted Sequence” (nine), “Sketches” (eight), “Sets” (20), “After the Fire” (five), “Merna Kennedy” (16), and “Miscellaneous” (13). These pictures help embellish our understanding of the production. Film Posters provides more stills, as we see 12 ads from different eras and nations.

Lastly, DVD Two provides a package called The Chaplin Collection. This features short clips from the following flicks: The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York, and The Chaplin Revue.

One nice – and surprising – touch: most of the DVD’s supplements include subtitles in English and a mix of other languages. Other than on DVDs from Paramount and DreamWorks, text accompaniment for extras occurs exceedingly infrequently, so the additional subtitles are much welcomed here.

At times The Circus feels like a series of gags in search of a story it never quite finds. Nonetheless, Charlie Chaplin makes those comedic bits work well enough to offer a reasonable amount of entertainment. The DVD presents the usual strong picture quality with fairly average audio and a broad and useful set of supplements. The Circus lacks the general appeal of Chaplin’s better films, but fans will be pleased with this release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3 Stars Number of Votes: 10
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