You’d think by now we’d have seen all there is to see of Charlie Chaplin on film—but you’d be wrong. The new Criterion Collection release of The Circus (1928) has a cornucopia of previously-unknown material that makes it a “must” even if you already own a DVD of the feature itself.
First and foremost, there are two substantial sequences that were cut from the film. One of them (edited by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in the 1980s) involves Charlie and leading lady Merna Kennedy out for a stroll with his rival, a tightrope walker played by Charlie’s friend and later p.r. manager, Harry Crocker. Some funny bits of business on the sidewalk are followed by an encounter with a boxer in a local café. It’s easy to see why Chaplin trimmed this: amusing as it is, it would have detracted from the flow of the film. Following the edited scene there is a fascinating series of outtakes, narrated by Chaplin expert Dan Kamin. As Brownlow and Gill did in their brilliant documentary Unknown Chaplin, Kamin helps us examine how Chaplin built this sequence in take after take, aiming for comic perfection. The segment includes a new soundtrack composed and conducted by another Chaplin expert, the gifted Timothy Brock.
In another, shorter, scene, Charlie overhears Merna breathlessly describing the man she’s fallen in love with. Thinking he is the man in question, Charlie buys a ring from a fellow clown (Henry Bergman), only to learn that she’s actually describing the newest tightrope walker. Just as he’s absorbing this crushing news he’s told that it’s time for him to perform. Here again is a passage Chaplin found unnecessary, but it contains some lovely pantomime and one precious shot of Charlie facing himself in the mirror that’s so beautiful it seems a crime not to have used it. Outtakes reveal, yet again, Chaplin’s diligence during the shooting process.
The disc also features a charming interview with Eugene Chaplin, the great man’s fifth-eldest son, shot at the family home (now a museum) in Switzerland. He talks about his father’s lifelong affinity with clowns that manifested itself so clearly in The Circus, and shares rarely-seen color home movie footage of his father and family, mostly shot by his mother Oona…a brief but illuminating interview with visual effects maven Craig Barron that illustrates how Chaplin used split-screen photography to achieve “invisible” illusions…a fascinating Swiss press conference from 1969 upon the reissue of The Circus that offers an opportunity to hear the artist speak about himself and his work…rare footage of the hoopla surrounding The Circus’s debut at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, including Chaplin and other stars’ arrival at the premiere…an audio interview with Charlie’s musical colleague Eric James and extracts from a recording session from the late 1960s where Charlie sang his newly-written song “Swing Little Girl”…and a commentary track by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, along with a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson.
If you revere Chaplin as I do all of this is manna from heaven. My thanks to Criterion producer Abbey Lustgarten for going the extra mile to fill this disc with important and rewarding material.