Charlie Chaplin was a perfectionist in his films and a calamity in his private life. These two traits clashed as he was making The Circus, one of his funniest films and certainly his most troubled.
When he released it in 1928, Charlie had been the greatest star in Hollywood for a long time. He must have feared what the talkies would do to him. Bringing sound to the movies would rob him of his silence. But more than sound was on his mind during the three years it took him to finish this film.
Always attracted to young girls, he married the 16-year-old Mildred Harris when he was 29. After affairs with Pola Negri and Marion Davies, he remarried again in 1924 to Lita Grey, who said she was 16 but may have been 15. He learned she was pregnant while preparing The Circus, and after she sued for divorce and threatened scandal, her family scented a big fat settlement. They agreed on $600,000, while the IRS simultaneously determined that Chaplin owed $1 million in back taxes.
Meanwhile, Chaplin had hired Lita’s friend Merna Kennedy as his lead in The Circus. Lita charged that they had an affair, and he also had an affair during the same period with the great silent star Louise Brooks. There were also rumors of wild parties, apparently true. This guy was a serious poon hound.
I’m not trying to be sensationalistic. I only mention these matters to underline his accomplishment with The Circus. Bad luck plagued the production. The circus tent set burned down. A reel of finished film was lost. A mysterious time traveling woman walked in front of the camera at the movie’s premiere while talking on her cell phone. His perfectionism demanded 200 takes for a difficult scene on a tightrope. He was divorcing Grey, romancing at least two other women, his funds were in a mess, the talkies were coming, and yet his Little Tramp carried on.
And then, of course, the familiar closing iris shot of the Tramp, alone and saddened, but with a defiant little hop, going back on the road.
The first comedians depended on silence and they lived in their time. We must be willing to visit it. Like the time traveler lady. Any inability to admire silent films, like a dislike of black and white films, is a sad weakness. Those who dismiss such pleasures must have deficient imaginations.