The Great Scenes: “Chaplin walks a tightrope” from THE CIRCUS

Movie: The Circus (1928)

Spoiler Level: Low

The Setup: Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 comedy masterpiece The Circus often gets overshadowed by the auteur/star’s more famous works like Modern Times, City Lights and The Kid. True Chaplin-fans know, however, that The Circus possesses just as much heart and hilarity as any of Chaplin’s best films.

It follows the famous Little Tramp as he unwittingly stumbles onto a travelling circus. He’s soon hired as part of the troupe when the audience mistakenly thinks that his attempt to elude the police is actually part of the act. When the ringmaster realizes that the Tramp isn’t a natural comedian, he demotes him to a janitorial position. The Tramp soon falls for the Ringmaster’s abused daughter and must compete with a dashing beau for her affections.

This leads the Tramp to embark on a very risky attempt to impress her. He pays a stagehand five dollars to attach a nearly-undetectable harness to his trousers that will allow him to walk a tightrope without actually having to apply the skills required by the physically demanding activity.

At first, things go swimmingly, as the Tramp safely dances along the rope – the harness being the only thing separating him from certain death. Eventually, however, the harness malfunctions, leaving the Tramp stranded atop the tightrope, where he is soon attacked by a gang of mischievous monkeys who do their best to send him plummeting to the ground.

Why It’s Great: Whether you’re a Chaplin-fan or not, I recommend that – if you ever wanted to see the screen-legend at his absolute best – you should start here. The scene begins as a showcase for Chaplin’s gifts as a physical comedian. He shows great acrobatic prowess with the stunts he performs while wearing the harness.

What catapults the scene into the realm of greatness, however, is the instant in which he is attacked by the monkeys. Chaplin settles on a medium close-up and lets it rest there while the monkeys climb all over his face, bite him and put their tails in his mouth. I think that – upon being bitten on the nose and enjoying a mouthful of monkey-tail – a lot of actors would have demanded that the director stop rolling immediately until the animal wrangler could get some control over the monkeys. Chaplin, however, lets the chaos ensue, resulting in a scene that elicited – from me – more intense belly-laughter than I can remember experiencing anywhere else.

This scene supports the argument that film, like music, can exist as a universal language. There is no doubt that, upon seeing this scene, everybody – whatever their age, gender or ethnicity – will likely derive from it a sense of unadulterated joy. I can’t wait to watch this scene with my kids one day and witness them discovering the true power of laughter from one of its most reliable sources: the great Charlie Chaplin.