This is reactionary, vitriolic, and probably ill-advised. Please forgive me.
I was thrilled to find Chaplin’s “The Circus” added to your Great Movies canon. I think it’s one of his best (certainly better than “The Great Dictator”, but that’s an argument for another day). Having previously read your comprehensive column on “The Works of Buster Keaton”, I assumed that a similar piece on the works of his mustached rival master had not yet been written, and would not be written, because A) Chaplin’s films are more lovingly restored and much more readily available as independent works, and B) Every film Chaplin made between “The Kid” and “Modern Times” (as well as “Monsieur Verdoux”) is worthy of its own essay, an astonishing run that combined universal box office success and acclaim with enduring artistic achievement like nobody before or since. Most of Keaton’s works are also worthy if individual recognition, though I think we’d agree his are more of a whole.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, to barrel into your essay and find it little more than an excuse to tout Buster Keaton over Chaplin. While undeniably remarkable, Keaton had nothing to do with “The Circus”. If this was the argument you wanted to make, why not an essay on “Sherlock Jr.”? At least that way you wouldn't have to paint Chaplin as something less than he is -- a master.
I feel that, in your effort to hold Keaton above Chaplin, you’ve misrepresented, or at least over-simplified, Chaplin’s universe. You attempt to undercut the daring of Chaplin’s stunts, dwelling on the extent to which they must have been staged and what role editing must have played, presumably in an effort to lionize the stunts of Keaton. Keaton’s stunts were more impressive, certainly, but Chaplin’s films were far less concerned with stunts. You mention his sight gags and list them accordingly – the pickpocket scenario, the house of mirrors, the magician’s table – but what you do not mention is the manner in which Chaplin seamlessly establishes and foreshadows those gags, weaving them into an eloquent tapestry. Context, in other words – which is so easily and unintentionally avoided when we labor toward a point, yours being that Keaton was better than Chaplin.
For instance, you mention the lion’s cage, if only in passing, but do not mention that up to that point Chaplin had established that the Tramp elicited an inexplicable and unprovoked ire on the part of ALL the animals in the circus, creating a heightened sense of absurdist comic tension within the lion’s den, because of this added context. And finally, when monkeys descend upon the Tramp in his greatest moment of desperation, there is a kind of cosmic logic to it. “Yes,” we think. “This would happen.”
The point I’m ultimately trying to make is this – For all the writing you’ve done about Chaplin, you have not acknowledged what I think is the most important element of his universe, and that element is anger. It is not just you though, Roger. Of all the writing I’ve read of Chaplin, only Richard Brody discusses this element openly (note that Brody is also the only elite critic I can think of who prefers Chaplin to Keaton). Indeed it is easy to miss, cheerful optimism being held at the forefront of his films, but if the Tramp is an eternal optimist, it is because Chaplin himself was a dire cynic, one who understood what humans were capable of and saw a society that was suffocating that possibility. The Tramp has so often been described simply as this plucky little fellow, always chipper, always considerate and dignified. A closer look reveals a more omniscient dimension. He was a moral compass, one who acted as a foil for the problems Chaplin saw in the world. He used this character to paint a devastating portrait of America, and “The Circus” was one of Chaplin’s most furious demonstrations of this hostility.
You describe the Tramp as a “holy fool”. I love this label. But then you assert that this makes him inferior to the characters of Keaton because those were “smart and calculating, if also beset by life’s disappointments”. I would argue that the Tramp’s blissful ignorance makes him a more tragic figure than Keaton’s for precisely this reason. Chaplin’s argument with the Tramp is essentially this - Only if you are ignorant to the ways of the world and the true nature of the society you inhabit can you be genuinely optimistic. The Tramp is a sad figure not because he is a tramp, but because his optimism is not contagious, because his compassion and generosity are so seldom reciprocated, because he will not make a difference. He was, by nature, an indictment of what Keaton’s characters were reactions to, which makes both of them great in entirely different ways.
That, finally, brings me to one last issue I took with your essay – the ending. You hold that it is “rather a letdown”. I feel it is one of the two or three best endings in all of Chaplin, because it is a demonstration of the themes I see apparent in all of his work. It makes less sense to me when Chaplin gets the girl, as in “City Lights” or “The Gold Rush” or “Modern Times”, though there is an upsetting suspicion looming over those endings that the Tramp is destined to lose her, that he will be alone when we see him again, suggesting that he is doomed not by society but by the frame, and maybe even suggesting a parallel between the two. But here we find a more complex ending, if considered as a part of the entire Chaplin canon, because it seems at first that Chaplin does get the girl, but then loses her, and voluntarily. For all of Chaplin’s issues in the making of “The Circus”, which you wisely document well, the film’s ending might offer some evidence of Chaplin’s momentary weakness.
You say the Tramp’s reasons were “oddly motivated,” but to me they make perfect sense. The Tramp understood that he could not provide Merna with anything better than what she had in the circus, aside from companionship, and saw companionship as something that society conspires to destroy. By keeping her in the circus, where she would have Rex’s companionship, and where the Tramp was destined to fail, he was protecting her from the atrocities of the world, hinting that the Tramp was aware of those atrocities, that he was not oblivious to the ugliness of man, which ultimately begs the question, just how smart is the Tramp indeed? If he is aware of society’s problems, then perhaps the world does not conspire against him. Perhaps he understands that he has no place in society and stands outside it voluntarily, his survivalist instincts (like hunger, yes, and a need for money) and irrepressible compassion leading him into the conflicts with this society that make up the central focus of most of Chaplin’s films.
Again, I know that this is reactionary, and I understand that the most important thing here is that you placed “The Circus” under the “Great Movie” banner in the first place. I just feel that you sidestepped detailing the film’s greatness in favor of sacrificing it in the name of a “Keaton Was Greater” argument that sells the film short and I wanted to discuss what you didn't. I see Chaplin and Keaton as equals, and prefer to avoid the downplaying of one to enhance the other. I know you think “The Circus” is a great film. I only wish you’d explained why.