The Circus at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

The filming of The Circus was plagued with problems—Chaplin’s messy divorce from second wife Lita Grey, the death of his mother Hannah, the scratching of the film negative, a studio fire, a windstorm, real estate development drastically changing the scenery, the theft of the circus train, and the IRS going after Chaplin for alleged unpaid back taxes.

Filming started 11 January 1926, and had largely wrapped by November. This included the restoration of the abovementioned film negative, which was discovered to be scratched one month in. Then in September, the fire broke out, and delayed production for a month.

Lita Grey filed for divorce in December, which pushed release back for over a year. They’d been mismatched from the jump, and barely spent any time together. It’s no secret theirs was a shotgun marriage to avoid scandal and trouble with the law (as she was a minor).

Chaplin had to smuggle the film to safety when Lita’s lawyers tried to seize his studio assets.

The divorce was finalized 22 August 1927, and in the largest divorce settlement of the time, Chaplin was ordered to pay over $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each of their sons ($8,452,874 and $1,408,812 today).

The Circus was the seventh-highest-grossing film to date, earning over $3.8 million in 1928 ($54,444,774.57 today). The film largely received positive reviews, though a few reviewers pointed out spots where they felt the funny business stretched on too long, or felt it wasn’t as poetic and emotional as previous Chaplin films.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards—Outstanding Picture; Best Writing (Original Story); Best Director, Comedy Picture; and Best Actor. However, the newly-founded Academy removed Chaplin from the running by giving him a Special Award “for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus” and “Versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing.” It was meant to honor his overall contributions to film.

Officially, the Academy no longer lists Chaplin’s nominations in their list of nominees through the decades.

Chaplin had plans for a circus film as early as 1920, and began developing his ideas in late 1925. He started with a comedically thrilling scene of himself taking the place of the tightrope-walker and being attacked by monkeys, who tear off his pants. He then wrote a story about everything leading up to it, and the resulting finale.

Aspects of The Circus were drawn from his earlier two-reeler The Vagabond (1916), which featured a mistreated “Gypsy Drudge” (his longtime leading lady Edna Purviance). Another influence was The King of the Circus (1925), the last completed film of comedy legend Max Linder.

The scene where the Tramp is locked into a lion’s cage also parallels a scene from Linder’s feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). Chaplin often borrowed plot points and gags from Linder.

The scene with the lion took 200 takes, many of which truly did take place in the cage. Chaplin’s fearful expressions and body language weren’t all acting! He and co-star Harry Crocker (Rex) also spent weeks learning tightrope-walking.

Crocker also plays a clown and disgruntled property man.

A scene of the Tramp’s confusion with identical twin prize-fighters, using double-exposure to depict the twins (played by Doc Stone), was deleted out of concern for the film having too much comedy.

In 1947, prominent Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (who went into exile after the Nazis came to power) created a soundtrack for flute, piccolo, bassoon, string quarter, and clarinet in B flat.

In 1967, Chaplin created his own new musical score, and a theme song, “Swing Little Girl,” to be sung over the opening titles. He was 79 years old when he recorded it. This updated version premièred in NYC on 15 December 1969, and in London in December 1970.


The Circus at 90, Part I (General overview)

Charlie Chaplin’s last fully silent film had its grand première 6 January 1928, by NYC’s Strand Theatre, and opened 27 January by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. While it’s quieter and less sweeping in scope than a masterpiece like City Lights or Limelight, it’s a very solid, enjoyable film nonetheless.

A struggling circus has come to town, headed by a cruel ringmaster who mistreats all his performers, including his stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy). Into this scene steps the dear Little Tramp, who’s so hungry he has to take bites from a baby’s doughnut.

His situation worsens when he’s framed him for pickpocketing a wallet. At first he’s assumed to be the victim, but then the true victim alerts the cops, and the Tramp escapes into the circus funhouse.

The Tramp next tries to evade capture by posing as a dummy outside the funhouse, but when the ruse is up, he runs back into the hall of mirrors. He then ends up under the big top, with the cop unwittingly becoming part of the entertainment.

The Tramp is such an audience hit, he’s asked to audition in the morning. Being starving and poor, he jumps at the opportunity for any job.

As destitute as he is, he kind-heartedly share some of his meagre food with Merna in the morning. Her abusive stepfather forced her to go without food yesterday.

Every act the Tramp auditions for goes hilariously wrong, and the ringmaster orders him out. He’s leaving the fairgrounds when he runs across Merna, who helps him to clean up, and expresses sorrow for how he won’t be joining the act after all. She also thanks him for giving her the egg.

The Tramp’s fortune changes when the property men quit on account on not getting their rightful back pay. The ringmaster orders the head property man (veteran character actor Tiny Sandford) to get anybody to fill the role, and of course the Tramp is roped in.

Once again, the Tramp unwittingly stumbles into a circus act and becomes a huge hit. The ringmaster agrees to keep him on as a pretended property man, without the pay he’s owed.

The Tramp is kept in the dark about how he’s the hit of the show, and given a lot of gruntwork when the circus isn’t performing, such as cleaning equipment and giving horses pills.

The Tramp accidentally runs into a lion’s cage after running away from the head property man’s wrath, and then accidentally locks himself inside as well.

After Merna saves him, the Tramp shimmies all the way up to the top of a pole. Once he comes down, Merna reveals he’s the hit of the show. Her stepfather is quite displeased to overhear this, and tries to whip her.

The Tramp threatens to quit if he strikes her, and the ringmaster finally agrees to pay him. The Tramp haggles his weekly pay up to $100.

This newfound windfall not only increases his quality of life, but also Merna’s.

The Tramp is thrilled to overhear a fortuneteller predicting Merna will find love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who’s close to her now. Who else but himself could that be referring to?

In steps Rex, the new tightrope-walker. Naturally, he and Merna fall in instalove.

The Tramp, still believing he’s the one, gives a clown $5 for a fancy ring. His hopes are sadly dashed when he overhears Merna telling the fortunerteller she’s just fallen in love with a new tightrope-walker.

The Tramp barely makes anyone laugh during the next show, too depressed about his unrequited love. As the season passes with a similar lack of laughs, he becomes determined to become a tightrope-walker himself, so he might impress Merna more than Rex.

The Tramp is given one more chance to make the audience laugh, on a day Rex is nowhere to be found. He’s compelled into taking Rex’s place, in spite of having zero experience and Merna begging him not to do it.

Will the Tramp be able to save the show and help Merna get away from her abusive stepfather once and for all?

Limelight at 65, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though Chaplin had become enormously unpopular in the U.S. by 1952, Limelight was nevertheless filmed by Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. Calvero’s street was a Paramount set; the music hall scenes came from RKO; and some outdoor scenes used back-projected London images.

Chaplin spent over two years writing an unpublished, 100,000-word novel, Footlights, in which he created the story that became Limelight. This book includes biographies of Calvero and Terry before the actual story begins.

Footlights contains episodes from Chaplin’s own life, and his parents’ lives. There are a number of strong parallels between Calvero and Charles, Sr., while Terry was strongly based upon Hannah Chaplin and Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love.

There are shades of Dante’s love for Beatrice in Chaplin’s love for Hetty, since they only met five times, and most of their meetings didn’t last longer than twenty minutes. Those brief encounters were enough to leave a strong, long-lasting impact.

When Claire Bloom rehearsed, Chaplin often recalled his mother’s and Hetty’s gestures and clothes.

In spite of all these strong parallels, Chaplin maintained the story was based upon U.S. blackface clown Frank Tinney and Spanish clown Marceline, both of whom he’d worked with as a boy.

Chaplin wanted very much to accurately recreate the London of his childhood. Towards this end, he hired Ukrainian-born designer Eugène Lourié, who decorated an RKO-Pathé theatre to look like London’s grand Empire Theatre. Lourié also remodelled a Paramount set to look like a Victorian-era London street.

Chaplin surrounded himself with his nearest and dearest during filming. His three oldest children from his fourth and final marriage, Geraldine, Michael, and Josephine, play the street children in the opening scene, while his second son from his second marriage, Sydney, plays secondary male lead Neville.

Chaplin’s younger halfbrother, Wheeler Dryden, plays Terry’s doctor, and his wife Oona doubles for Claire Bloom in two brief shots. His oldest son, Charles, Jr., plays a clown.

Sydney is on the far left

Chaplin was very happy and energetic during filming, due to having so many loved ones nearby and because the story gave him a chance to waltz down memory lane. At the time, he believed Limelight would be his final film.

Chaplin gave the role of Calvero’s former partner to Buster Keaton after learning about the hard times Buster had gone through. Though the role was rather small, Chaplin insisted on giving it to Buster. This was the only time they performed together on film.

According to rumour, Chaplin cut Buster’s scenes out of jealously at his superior performance, not wanting to be upstaged. In reality, Chaplin heavily edited the scene of their duet to elevate Buster. He also gave Buster free reign to do what he wanted, despite his notoriously rigid directorial style.

Buster was thrilled to be in this film. Since losing his MGM contract and having his career sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, he’d been reduced to mostly bit parts. Chaplin gave him the chance to shine like he deserved, even if it were only a secondary role near the end.

Sydney, who didn’t believe the rumours about his father cutting Buster’s scenes, said even if that had happened, it wouldn’t have made any sense for a secondary character to suddenly appear and upstage the protagonist by his own climactic comeback.

Chaplin composed all his own scores, with help from arrangers. He was relieved to be reassured by ballet partners Melissa Hayden (née Mildred Herman) (who doubled for Claire Bloom in dance scenes) and André Eglevsky that his music for the ballet could be choreographed.

In 1972, Chaplin, Larry Russell, and Raymond Rasch belatedly got an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score. This was Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, as his previous two (1971 and 1928–29) were honorary. Chaplin was the only surviving awardee.

“Terry’s Theme” remains one of Chaplin’s most popular and belovèd compositions. As “Eternally,” with lyrics by Geoff Parsons and John Turner, it’s been covered multiple times.

Limelight was heavily boycotted in the U.S., and only made a million dollars. Outside of some East Coast cities, many theatres refused to play it. Chaplin was denied a re-entry visa to the U.S. while promoting the film in Britain.

In comparison, it was very successful in the rest of the world, and made seven million more dollars. Only in 1972 was it finally released properly in the U.S.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its 60th anniversary with a screening, reception, and film panel by the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Claire Bloom and co-star Norman Lloyd shared their memories in a conversation moderated by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

Today, the film is highly regarded as one of Chaplin’s greatest and most personal works.

Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.

A King in New York at 60, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In 1957, Charles Chaplin and his family had left the U.S. for good and settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. His re-entry permit for the U.S. was revoked in 1952, and he didn’t try to return. His fourth and final wife, Oona, handled his remaining affairs, such as the sale of his studio and their Beverly Hills home.

Chaplin’s final professional ties to the U.S. were severed in 1955, when he sold the last of his United Artists stock. Given the personal and political attacks he’d weathered since at least 1942, and the widespread boycotts of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), he knew A King in New York wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. at all.

Chaplin no longer had the luxury of his own studio, all the time he wanted for filming and editing, or loyal employees. He now had to rent expensive, unfriendly studios by the minute and work with strangers. AKINY was wrapped in a record twelve weeks.

The rushed production really shows in the frequently improper lighting. Though Chaplin hired legendary cameraman Georges Périnal, there often wasn’t enough time to light the set properly before filming. Many of the shots are dark and shabby instead of crisp, focused, and light.

Chaplin always spent a lot of time editing his work to a high level of perfection, but this wasn’t possible now. As much as I love a good satire, I have to agree the film suffers from taking on way too many targets—plastic surgery, TV commercials, widescreen movies, popular music, celebrities, politics, materialism, the HUAC, social pretension.

Shows like American Dad and Family Guy can wear thin after awhile, since everything is up for lampooning, with not much treated seriously. Even a deliberately over the top satire needs to rein it in to avoid coming across as cartoonish and divorced from any semblance of the real world.

If the film had stuck to a few well-developed targets, instead of stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink, the satire would’ve been even stronger and funnier. The storyline with Rupert is so strong, so relevant both then and now (for different reasons). It would’ve been even better had it been introduced earlier.

A few other things could’ve been worked in as secondary targets, maybe TV commercials, materialism, and social pretension. It’s not that the film isn’t funny or brilliant, just that it’s trying to do way too much at once.

AKINY was filmed in London, in spite of the title. Chaplin didn’t return to the U.S. until 1972, when his reputation finally was rehabilitated. The London scenery and architecture don’t exactly suggest a true New York setting.

The role of 10-year-old Rupert, like that of little Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), was crucial. At the last minute, Chaplin’s son Michael was chosen. Michael (now 71 years old) is Chaplin’s second child from his fourth and final marriage, and the fifth of his eleven total children.

At first, Charles and Oona wanted to keep Michael’s true identity secret through the pseudonym John Bolton, but Michael insisted upon using his real name. He plays Rupert brilliantly, and inspired debates by his parents in later years as to whether he or Jackie Coogan were the better actor.

Oona always argued in favor of her son’s performance.

AKINY generally got good reviews in Europe, where it did well commercially. Though it’s a social, political, cultural, and comedic study of 1950s America, the jokes and deeper themes are timeless. In some ways, the lack of an editor may have enhanced its appeal.

Sometimes an honest story with rough edges is more compelling than a polished and defanged one.