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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "THE CIRCUS"

In the weekly "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series, we select what we view as the best shot from a pre-selected movie. Everyone who does the same gets linked up! This week's film is Charlie Chaplin's somewhat underappreciated slapstick comedy The Circus (1928).

Don't you love it when a movie character is so iconic that you only have to see their backside as intro? The movie's plot kicks into gear when a pickpocket puts his catch into the Tramp's pocket to prove his innocent. Comedic complications ensue.

In truth, I have never quite understand the Little Tramp's appeal being mostly a Buster Keaton man. With Water For Elephants coming out on Friday, I thought a circus movie was in order and why not give Chaplin a second chance... or a fifth. In the past I've found his films a touch too saccharine -- it's a personal taste thing -- but it turned out that The Circus was just what I needed since it went light on the "awwwww" and sniffly pity and leaned into its gags with something in the general vicinity of wicked glee. I was super drepressed and ended up laughing for two hours. Win!

The best illustration of the naughty comic touch might be the late in the film when the Tramp, who usually squirms from delight, reveals that his squirming while watching a tight rope walker (his rival for the love object's affection) is actually something like physical exertion to telekinetically will the walker into falling and I laughed heartily at an early variation on that old saying "stealing candy from a baby" as he devours an entire pastry from the hands of an infant.

But in the end I kept going back to this very simple shot near the beginning which is much much funnier in context.

It's part of the perfectly judged opening slapstick theft with hilarious confusions and plot consequences. Both the Tramp and the thief have been running from the cops and from each other and they suddenly enter the frame looking like partners in crime; Chaplin's hat tip at the tail end of the run is a super funny nod to this odd turn of events (they'll be enemies again in a second).

It got me to thinking about why slapstick is mostly dead in the movies. We don't have any Tatis or Chaplins or anyone left anymore and it's not because it's 2011 or because comedy is dead or because [cue nostalgic violins] "they don't make it like they use to" or  because the movies found sound. It's because the currently preferred style of rapid cutting and the absolute manic attachment to closeups --even in scenes without heavy emotional components -- prevents the longform comedy of careful set-up and physical punchline; it's tough to maximize the humor of a pratfall or a surprise twist in the action when you can't see the entirety of a comedian's body in motion. The modern musical has the same problem in finding its voice, if you will. If you can't see the choreography it's awfully tough to join in the dancing.

Other Tramps

The complete index of "Hit Me" episodes

UPDATE. We were supposed to do Sofia Coppola's Somewhere next. But we keep running into snags with this series. I know the majority of you rent from Netflix (as do I) and for some reason though the movie is out on DVD and Blu-Ray it is strangely not available on Netflix for another month. Perhaps this is some new contract problem between studios and Netflix? SIGH.

So next Wednesday no episode. But stay tuned for more news on this series.

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Reader Comments (11)

My post went up, albeit a bit late.

As a die hard Keaton man myself, I find that Chaplin's films are growing on my more and more as I get older. When he's laying on the cheesy sentimentality - I sat stoned faced through The Kid - he can be pretty tough to resist. He even pulls off the heart string tugging from time to time. I do fall for City Lights completely. I'm only human.

His talkies, on the other hand, I can't stand. Ever tried to sit through Limelight or Monsieur Verdoux? For a guy who made it big in silent films he sure loved the sound of his own voice.

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I meant to say "laying OFF the cheesy sentimentality"

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

I was going to ask. Yeah. I'm definitely not into The Gold Rush and i forget the other one that bugs. But I liked this one a lot and it was definitely just what i needed tonight: short funny and sweet... but not TOO sweet.

April 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

My post is at my blog: (I think). I have had aversion to silentmovies in general but this movie made me a convert. To fill that gap as soon as possible!

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Nathaniel, great post. this is a Chaplin film I haven't seen; I've seen City LIghts (lovely) and The Kid, which was a good more saccharine than I was prepared for (having not really done my homeowork in advance). The "angel dream sequence" went on FOREVER; I think I was surprised because I was comparing it to the Chaplin shorts, which had no room for sentiment. And I do remember enjoying the Gold Rush - but that was on a small TV with lousy reception in college.

Whilst in college I read an essay written in the 1960's by a film critic (whose name escapes me) who talked about the very thing you do, the death of slapstick. He compared a sequence by Buster Keaton with one in a Bob Hope movie, and noted that the failure of the Bob Hope sequence was that it simply "petered out", that the "physical punchline" as you note, was missing, and missing in general from comedies in most sound pictures compared to silents. The death of slapstick is apparently nothing new.

Michael C - that doesn't surprise me (about being in love with his own voice). The nonsense song in City Lights goes on much longer than it needs to.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Sorry I meant "Modern Times", not "City Lights" (which I have not seen). Argh.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

According to my Netflix queue, Somewhere is not available until May 17. :-(

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Pedro -- i don't know what's going on either. that's so weird. it's out on DVD but not on Netflix? that's the service i use to (and most readers). I guess we'll have to cancel or postpone.

April 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw Chaplin's daughter perform live with her husband and children in Le Cirque Imaginaire, a kind of delicate theatre fantasy. The whole audience was entranced by her, like being in the presence of a different kind of being. If her father had even more of that kind of charm, charisma, and presence, I get why they loved him.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Very, very nicely done! bbiish bbiish - Belstaff Jacket.

March 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrwzkcs rwzkcs

Very, very nicely done! scoqsk scoqsk - Belstaff Jacket.

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermnpvyl mnpvyl

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