Digging Through Movie History at Chaplin’s Studios

Inside Criterion / Sneak Peeks — Oct 1, 2019


Charlie Chaplin’s sidesplitting The Circus, the last movie he made during the silent era, is a true testament to the man’s genius, not only as a comedian in front of the camera but also as a director behind it. The film—which sees Chaplin’s ever-lovable Tramp becoming the accidental star of a traveling circus, and falling for a horseback rider in the show—unfolds in a series of flawlessly staged, visually rich set pieces, from a hair-raising encounter with a lion in its cage to the climactic monkeying around on the high wire.

Among the supplemental sideshows on our brand-new edition of The Circus is a program in which film scholar Craig Barron unpacks some of the filmmaking techniques, from production design to visual effects, that Chaplin uses to wring pathos, humor, and thrills from his simple story. In the excerpt above, Barron gives us a tour of the studios that Chaplin began building in 1917 and which opened in 1918 (today the home of the Jim Henson Company), on whose back lot he built the sprawling big top that would serve as The Circus’s primary set. The director-star also complemented his work at the studio—where bad weather and a major fire eventually contributed to significant delays—with some nimble shooting on location: as Barron notes here, a real-life Venice, California, waterfront attraction helps lend a suspenseful immediacy to a pivotal early-film chase scene.