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Charlie Chaplin
Charlies Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy
Writing Credits:
Charlie Chaplin

After being mistaken for a pickpocket, the Little Tramp flees into the ring of a traveling circus and soon becomes the star of the show, falling for the troupe’s bareback rider along the way.

Rated G

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English PCM 1.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 72 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 9/24/2019

• Audio Commentary with Biographer Jeffrey Vance
• Interview with Eugene Chaplin
• Interview with Film Scholar Craig Barron
• Interview with Musical Collaborator Eric James
• “Chaplin Today” Documentary
• Deleted Sequence
• Outtakes
• “Swing Little Girl” Audio Excerpts
• “Charlie Chaplin in 1969” Footage
• Hollywood Premiere
• Re-release Trailers
• Booklet


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The Circus: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1928)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 3, 2019)

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 Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus B+

The Circus appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The film didn’t usually belie its age, as it mostly looked very good given its elderly status.

While the majority of the movie appeared accurate and reasonably concise, softness created a few distractions. These manifested during wider shots, which could feel a bit iffy.

Still, the majority of the film showed nice delineation. I saw no issues due to jagged edges or moiré effects, and edge haloes remained absent.

Black levels looked nicely deep and dense, and 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 small bits of dirt and thin lines popped up on rare occasions, but these remained pretty unobtrusive for such an old flick.

Grain felt natural, so I didn’t fear any overuse of digital noise reduction. 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 release, The Circus offered a PCM 1.0 soundtrack. Given its status as a silent film, this meant a focus entirely on music.

An omnipresent factor, the score seemed satisfactory. The music never offered terrific range, but the elements felt concise and clear, without shrill qualities or distortion. This became a perfectly satisfying track for an old silent film.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2004? Audio became the most notable change, as the DVD offered a 5.1 track that didn’t repeat here.

That was fine with me, as the DVD’s 5.1 didn’t fare well. It showed mushy “stereo” spread and offered a mediocre auditory experience.

Given the movie’s roots, 5.1 seemed unnecessary anyway. The mono track here provided superior quality and suited the film.

As for visuals, the Blu-ray looked better defined, with deeper blacks and fewer source defects. I felt the DVD looked very good 15 years ago, but the Blu-ray became an obvious step up in quality.

The Blu-ray mixes old and new extras, and we open with an audio commentary from Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. He offers a running, screen-specific look at cast and crew, story and characters, music, aspect of Charlie Chaplin’s career, and various production notes.

Vance makes this an excellent commentary. From start to finish, he digs into relevant subjects, and he does so with gusto. This ends up as a very informative chat.

Entitled Chaplin Today: The Circus, the next piece runs 26 minutes, 32 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.

A deleted sequence called Stepping Out lasts nine minutes, 52 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.

We also get Outtakes from the film. This section fills 29 minutes, 42 seconds and gives us multiple iterations from the restaurant scene found in the prior “deleted sequence”.

It’s cool to watch the minor variations on this bit, as Chaplin the perfectionist worked it out to his satisfaction. Comedy choreographer Dan Kamin offers fairly informative narration as well.

Under A Ring for Merna, we get seven minutes, 29 seconds of additional outtakes. Some of these get edited into where they’d land in the final film, and we find a few alternate takes as well. All seem enjoyable.

The Hollywood Premiere provides a six-minute, 37-second glance at the flick’s elaborate opening, and we also see luminaries as they arrive. It proves moderately intriguing.

New to the Criterion set, we find an interview with Chaplin’s son Eugene Chaplin. During this 14-minute, 54-second chat, Eugene shows us the Chaplin estate in Switzerland and we also see home movies.

Eugene discusses his life and his memories of his famous dad. Nothing especially fascinating appears, but I like the home movie footage.

With the 20-minute, 31-second In the Service of the Story, film scholar Craig Barron discusses aspects of the movie. In particular, he focuses on elements of Chaplin’s visual humor as well as some technical production topics. Barron offers a nice mix of insights and notes.

From 1988, we get an audio piece with Chaplin’s musical collaborator Eric James. Interviewed by Jeffrey Vance, this clip lasts nine minutes, 55 seconds and offers James’ thoughts about his work with Chaplin. I appreciate the ability to hear from someone in James’ position.

Another audio piece, Swing Little Girl spans five minutes, 12 seconds. This presents sessions for a song co-composed/recorded for a 1968 re-release of Circus. It does little for me but Chaplin buffs may enjoy it.

Under Charlie Chaplin in 1969, we locate five-minutes, 17-seconds of interview clips. These don’t offer revelations but they add some interesting thoughts.

In addition to two re-release trailers, the set concludes with a booklet. This fold-out affair includes credits, art and an essay from critic Pamela Hutchinson. The booklet finishes the package well.

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 Blu-ray presents 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.

To rate this film, visit the prior review of THE CIRCUS

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