Tramp brings laughs to ‘The Circus’

By Austin Dale

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Courtesy Steve Rhodes, via FlickrThe great French filmmaker Claude Chabrol had a famous quote: “Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating than intelligence.” He went on to say, ”Intelligence has its limits while stupidity has none. To observe a profoundly stupid person can be very enriching, and that’s why we should never feel contempt for them.” No character personifies this idea as much as the famous creation of another great filmmaker, perhaps the greatest of all.

Charlie Chaplin‘s character, called simply the Tramp is the quintessential fool of the cinema and, indeed, of the world’s consciousness. Over the course of two decades and both World Wars, the Tramp gave people from all over the world comfort, tears and laughter. He bumbles around in his raggedy ensemble – the too-small tailcoat, the too-big pants and shoes, and, of course, the derby hat and cane – forever an underdog among men and a perpetually-failing romantic with a heart of gold.

In film after film, he meets the same fate, ends up where he began, and starts again, always looking for a permanent transformation through love. In perhaps no Chaplin film are his idiocy or pure heart more passionately presented than in “The Circus,” which screened in a new print at Amherst Cinema’s ongoing Chaplin retrospective.

The story of “The Circus” is simple. It begins with the Tramp, who, running from the police in a lovingly edited slapstick sequence, ends up in the center ring of a traveling circus. The ensuing on-stage chase from a cop ends up being the most entertaining part of the whole show, and the ringmaster, who knows a good thing when he sees one, hires the Tramp on the spot. His circus is failing, so the ringmaster takes out his frustration on his daughter, the innocent and beautiful young trapeze artist. Unbeknownst to him, the Tramp becomes the show‘s starring attraction, and he gets the girl’s affection.

The final act of the film changes all of this. In the penultimate scenes, the Tramp’s incredible gestures of love are at the same time brilliantly funny and completely devastating. And by the time he walks off into the darkness alone like always, we are reminded that undying hope, and not necessarily love, is all we need to carry on.

The world of “The Circus” is every bit as cruel and indifferent as ours. Yet, amid all this, Chaplin and what can only be called his divine humanity and creative grace manage to make us laugh, and wildly so, at the ridiculousness of it all.

If, in the first few weeks of school you have found little to laugh about or cry over, give Chaplin a chance. ”The Circus“ is 80 years old and in it, as he does in so many of his other great masterpieces, he offers us a shoulder to cry on, a pat on the back, a touch of cheer and, of course, the push we all need.

The Chaplin Retrospective continues with another Chaplin film every week until November.

Austin Dale can be reached at [email protected]