Those who think that Charlie Chaplin’s use of simple, mostly passive camerawork and compositions stemmed from poor craftsmanship ought to think a bit more about the hall of mirrors scene in the filmmaker’s The Circus (1928). Chaplin’s technique was meant to find precisely the right angle to communicate the pictorial, intellectual, and emotional values of the shot, foregrounding character, acting, theme, and story over cinematic elements. His chaste, even static camera was confined largely to patient waiting while he reached through it to make contact with us, but if Chaplin wanted to be flashy, Chaplin could be flashy. Almost a full two decades before the similar celebrated sequence of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Chaplin had mastered the cinematic technique necessary to shoot an infinite series of reflections at once.
In The Circus scene, the Tramp finds himself dodging both a policeman and a pickpocket when he runs into the hall of mirrors. Chaplin choreographs the cross-eyed images in the hall so precisely that the two men, running away from each other, bump headlong. The main character’s own figure is multiplied a hundred times so that it is impossible to distinguish the reflection from the man. The sequence serves, however, a thematic purpose much more important than the visual magic it creates. Chaplin, through the numerous reflections and repetitions of his own character, communicates a fractured sense of self, an incomplete identity. Caught between legitimate society (represented by the cop) and a wayward life of crime (represented by the pickpocket), Charlie must choose his own persona; he must discover, as he will throughout the movie, who and what he is and how that relates to all the other facets of himself (the reflections): who and what he appears to be to others, who he wants to be, and who he will never be.
One thing that the Tramp will never be is a machine. The hall of mirrors sequence is immediately followed by a scene of mechanization. Discovering there is nowhere to run from the cop, Charlie instantly becomes part of a mechanized house in the amusement park. Playing a mechanical object, however brilliantly and humorously, is not what the character was ever about. The depth of feeling and individualism that differentiated Chaplin from comedians of the kops and kustard variety as early as his year at Keystone are at odds with the little routine he performs in front of the house for the benefit of the cops, spinning, laughing, and whacking with metronomic precision and predictability.
As talented as he was at turning objects into living beings, Chaplin could not do the reverse. The routine can only last so long, and finally the Tramp must kick up his heels and take to the road again—as he does at the end of the film—this time at full speed ahead of his pursuers. He even takes the time to tip his hat to the pickpocket as they’re both running away from the cops, an observance of social niceties at a time that least calls for such amenities, reminiscent of an earlier comic bit in which Charlie, hungry and broke, steals a baby’s hotdog bite by bite, all the while giving it sweet handshakes and then considerately wiping its mouth. These incongruous displays of politeness remind us that all situations, no matter how extraordinary, are ordinary for the Tramp.
Another thing that Charlie is not is a conventional circus clown. Chased by the cop into a tent where viewers are slowly being lulled to sleep by a stale turntable routine, the main character proves an immediate and resonating audience success when he and the cop take their turn at the spinning wheel. This comic routine is followed by unintended appearances and disappearances in the magic act as Charlie repeatedly pops up where the magician’s assistant should be. The domineering—and utterly humorless—circus owner and ring leader doesn’t seem to grasp Charlie’s natural gifts for comedy, instead getting mad at the little man ruining his show and throwing him out.
The Tramp walks out, forlornly, and sits on a wheelbarrow outside the tent. When it breaks, the character literally hits rock bottom. Completely oblivious of his accomplishment, the clown downgrades himself. Chaplin is perhaps hinting that fame and success are both elusive and unrecognizable, and the man on whom they unpredictably descend is not likely going to find himself immediately on a bed of roses.
The circus owner eventually comes around, sees reason, and offers Charlie a job. At the tryout, he tells the Tramp to, “Go ahead and be funny!” He expects the character to act like a machine, and Charlie, the natural man, is the opposite of a machine. He does a little dance to try to impress his new boss, but it is patently unfunny and unimpressive. The circus clowns demonstrate proper form: they do a William Tell routine in which the arrow is never let fly because the target clown keeps removing the apple from his head to take bites out of it. This is followed by a barbershop routine in which buckets of lather are sloshed every which way. Now it is Charlie’s turn to perform—badly. He is not the kind of being who can follow commands; his Tramp is incapable of preforming regimented, ordered, standard routines. He fails terribly at the circus clown acts but is brilliant at his own improvisations, adept only at accomplishing a task in his own personal, unexpected—and unintended—way. The only funny bits of this scene are the disruptions to the routine: turned into the target for the arrow number, Charlie decides he doesn’t much like apples and instead put a banana on his head for the other clown to take aim at; in the barbershop act, he keeps dodging the blows of the other performers—he can give but not receive—and finally ends by inadvertently covering the circus owner in shaving cream.
Kicked out again by a ring leader blind to his talents, the Tramp carefully dusts his hat off and places it on his lather-filled head. A moment later, he is peeking through a hole in the tent at the show. The unpaid behind-the-scene staff goes on strike, and a prop man is knocked out right next to Charlie for quitting. Utterly undisturbed and without a second thought, the Tramp promptly uses his cane to pull the unconscious man closer to the rip in the tent and uses him as a step stool to see better.
As a result of the workers’ strike, Charlie is hired as the new property man. Of course he will be driven into the arena once again, this time by a hostile mule, his arms piled high with a rippling tower of dishes meant for another performer. In no time, the Tramp sends spirals of dishware into the air about him, and the audience cheers wildly. For his next “performance,” the character once again disrupts a magic act, and ducks, doves, rabbits, and piglets swamp him. Unsure of how to proceed, he repeatedly stuffs each animal in turn into one hat and pulls it out another, forming a continuous loop. One of the funniest bits in the film, the routine evolves as though a wild bouquet of living things popped open without warning, filling earth and air with flying wings and snouts and ears, an image come whole and unbidden into the world, as if prompted by poetry.
In a way, the theme of spontaneous as opposed to planned humor runs through the entirety of The Circus. After the thundering success of The Gold Rush, Chaplin self-consciously made a movie about being funny, the comedic counterpart to Fellini’s 8½. The filmmaker creates laughter and dramatizes the process of creating laughter at the same time, a near impossibility. He displays the failure of being funny as well as the success. In the end, the movie seems to say that comedy is created by accident, not intention. The audience’s question—“Where is the funny man?”—reverberates through the entire film, a self-reflexive query that Chaplin perhaps poses to himself. The result implies that humor, like all else, must spring naturally from character and story. The theme runs parallel to that of a search for truth and the formation of a complete identity for the Tramp, each idea investing the other with importance and meaning. Not incidentally, the movie starts at the close of the circus show, when all performance ends; Chaplin is searching for the truth behind the artifice in the performance as well as in his construction of character.
The Tramp is not a conventional clown because he is simply not conventional. He cannot fit into the strict categories imposed by society on its inhabitants, a society that both surrounds and excludes him endlessly. He is also not a brave lion tamer, although he tries to pose as one as fervently as he does a clown. Locked in a sleeping lion’s cage, Charlie does his best not to wake the beast until he can find a way out. He discovers a door—salvation—only to find himself in a wide awake tiger’s enclosure. He returns to the lesser of two evils, the sleeping animal. A dog starts barking outside, and Charlie humorously pleads with it to stop. When his leading lady finds him, she proceeds to faint, and the Tramp, ever the gentleman, throws some water on her to revive her even as his life is in danger. The lion wakes up. Seeing that the beast is not the least interested in him, Charlie decides to show off for the girl, but when the lion roars, he flees the cage and keeps going until he’s halfway up a telephone pole a few hundred feet away, the brave posing dashed by comedy. Neither is Charlie a good property man. Cleaning up around the circus, he mops the dirt floor and wipes a pair of live fish dry.
Most importantly, the Tramp is not a heroic, romantic leading man, although he can learn to walk a tight rope when Merna falls in love with Rex, a sexy, suave, and poised tight rope walker. Charlie has already bought her an engagement ring, but seeing the tall, dark, and handsome performer she has chosen, his only, heartrending response is to give Rex the ring and ensure her happiness, even if it is with another man. The climax of the film finds Charlie having to sub for Rex in the show. Decked out in tuxedo, top hat, cape, and cane, he is no more like Rex than he will be like the rich man in City Lights, although, then, too, he will have the appropriate possessions (Rolls Royce and tails) to pretend. The Tramp looks out of place and out of character; we expect him to forget who he’s supposed to play, as he will when he picks up that cigar butt of the street in his next film. “You’ll get killed,” the girl warns him, but he insists, “Oh, no, I have a charmed life,” only to get knocked in the head and fall flat on his face as soon as he’s done uttering those words.
For the act, he devises an ingenious plan to save the show as well as his own skin: he has another man hold him up by a rope attached to his back, out of view of the audience. So equipped, he climbs to the tight rope up a pole by basically floating upwards, perfectly parallel to the ground. He walks on his hands, jumps, and dances high above the crowd. Personalizing a Sennettesque gag, Chaplin loses his pants, has monkeys (!) climb all over him, sticking their tails in his mouth and biting his nose, and, finally, depositing a banana peel in his way.
As adept as Charlie is at mimicking the actions of the tight rope walker, he will never be like him. At the end of The Circus, Merna marries Rex, but, having grown fond of Charlie as well, asks him to join them on the road. But the road is, and always has been, something that the Tramp must walk alone—the perfect closing image of Modern Times (and of the silent era) notwithstanding. As the circus prepares to leave town, Charlie is relegated to the end wagon, but he doesn’t get on as the tumble of carts, horses, cars, coaches, and gaudy, curlicued wagons move on. In an extended long shot, Charlie holds the center of the frame; the world roars away in the dust, and he stands still, apart from it, looking on.
The movie evolves in a circle: from road to road, circus wagon to circus wagon, with the same circular tracks the wheels leave in the dust and the circus paper with a star on it. The ending of The Circus is a magnification of the ending of The Tramp, made at Essanay years earlier. The character has been replaced in the girl’s affections by a much handsomer, more romantic partner, and he returns to the road. Except this time, the pain is more real and immediate. I don’t think he ever expected to win the girl of The Tramp, a rich farmer’s daughter. But the circus, a society of the road, is a world in which Charlie might belong. The tragedy of The Circus is that the Tramp is an outsider even among his own kind. As he picks up his heels and resumes his lonely journey, the camera lingers, watching him go. In a few moments he regains the bounce in his step; he is bowed but unbroken. Humor and sentiment intertwine; the shot, like the film and most of Chaplin’s work, is literally achingly funny.