Photo Essays
1. Exile’s Return
2. Chaplin’s Parents
3. Hannah Chaplin’s Femmes Fatales
4. Playing Dress-Up  In The Land of Make Believe
5. Teenage Girls and Fear of Aging
6. Chaplin’s Three Teenage Wives
7. Mildred Harris
8. Lita Grey
9. Oona O’Neill
10. Chaplin’s Father
11. A Royal Lion
12. Vesta Tilley as Bertie
13. Ella Shields as Bertie
14. Making A Living
15. The Lion Comique’s Son: Dressed Like A Bum
16. Monsieur Verdoux as a Lion Comique
17. Calvero as a Lion Comique
18. The Lion Comique’s Son in the Limelight
19. Charlie as a Child
20. The Kid’s Lucky Break
21. Syd Chaplin
22. A Family Album of Theatrical Drunks
23. Chaplin’s Family Romance
24. Edna Purviance
25. Purviance’s Influence on Chaplin’s Character
26. Essanay
27. Chaplinitis
28. Chaplin’s Predecessors
29. Eye Contact: Audience-Performer Intimacy
30. Chaplin the Auteur
31. Chaplin’s Two Autobiographies
32. Going It Alone
33. The Circus
34. Autobiographical Starvation Scenes From The Gold Rush
35. Autobiographical Madness Scenes in Modern Times
36. Two British Music Hall Traditions and Topical Comedy
37. The Great Dictator
38. Fatal Attraction: Joan Barry
39. Monsieur Verdoux: Guillotine or Hatchet Job?
40. Limelight
Chaplin: A Life In Film
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 The Circus
© Roy Export


When  his  personal  life  deteriorated into    a chaotic, public “three ring circus,” Chaplin attempted to regain   his creative momentum  and to cope   with his profound sense  of humiliation   by filming  The Circus  (1928). The  plot of that  movie   addressed    his artistic anxiety over the  pressures on him  to be funny; while  the film’s visual imagery explored and expressed his anxiety as a celebrity whose personal life was being exposed to glaringly negative publicity. The centerpiece gag in The Circus consists   of a brilliant   nightmare sequence  in which Chaplin—a circus clown--unwittingly makes   a monkey out of himself in public  by getting caught with his pants down.   Dressed up    in lion comique evening clothes for his tightrope act, Charlie, the would-be  leading man, great  lover  and star of the show,    is attacked by a pack of monkeys  (photos above). They tear his trousers off while the  public looks on in shock and horror  as he teeters and hovers on the brink of disaster while still attempting to perform   this complex balancing act with his pants around his ankles (and no safety net to protect him).

To help set the stage for this centerpiece gag  sequence, Chaplin cleverly  bracketed the   film with an opening shot of a pretty bareback rider who tries but fails  to  jump through the hoop of stardom, and ends the   film with a very  disillusioned Charlie crestfallenly contemplating his own crumpled  and devalued  star-image before waddling off on the open road—lonely and isolated—in a classic Chaplinesque closing shot.

During this scandal-ridden  “three ring circus” period in his  life (1924-1928), the great Chaplin—the most universally revered  and  renowned clown in the world—in reality barely escaped  plummeting  from the heights of popularity to the depths of ignominy after being caught with his pants down. This brilliant verbal-visual film    gag succinctly  epitomized his real-life  plight.

He   narrowly  avoided being deported or going to prison  for the statutory rape and impregnation of a 15-year-old girl (Lita Grey) whom he was forced to marry. He barely dodged a bullet from  a ferociously enraged William Randolph Hearst who was on the warpath after being provoked by a spiteful gossip columnist from a rival syndicate who gleefully published a juicy item suggesting  that Chaplin was repeatedly cuckolding Hearst with his Nell Gwyn-like mistress, Marion Davies.

If Charlie did make  a monkey out of Hearst, Grey, just three  years after their marriage, certainly made a monkey out of him. Her team of no-holds-barred  lawyers released juicy  vignettes of Chaplin’s technically illegal  sex practices in a widely circulated divorce complaint (and were also threatening   to name publically Davies as an adultery correspondent if Charlie  refused to pony up). As a result of that threat and Chaplin’s fear of Hearst’s ire, Gray walked away with $850,000 (approximately $10,000,000 in 2006 CPI  equivalent dollars).  At the same time, the IRS successfully nailed Chaplin for $1,000,000  in illegally undeclared back taxes and penalties (approximately $11,500,000 in 2006 CPI  equivalent dollars).

The film Chaplin made to deal  with his excruciating  feelings of humiliation  over all three of these mortally embarrassing experiences  was considered artistically brilliant enough by his peers to be awarded an honorary Oscar “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing.” But Chaplin’s  emotional experiences while   making  The Circus also were sufficiently painful to make this  movie the only feature length film he  studiously failed  to mention in his late life autobiography. Not only did Charlie’s hair literally turn completely white while making  The Circus, but  he also was placed (briefly) on suicide watch and underwent psychiatric treatment for depression. Chaplin’s   astounding ability to transform private adversity into brilliant  comedy was not without a personal price. His understandably strong  desire to forget completely this painful episode in  his  past probably contributed to his later neglect of  The Circus, the most vastly underrated and overlooked feature length comedy  in his entire  canon. It was packed with wonderful gags, the creation of which—as the plot of The Circus suggests--must have felt like pulling teeth without anesthesia.
© 2008 All Essay Rights Reserved.

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