Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Cinema concert: The Circus (score: Charles Chaplin, conductor: Günter A. Buchwald, Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone)

Sirkus / Cirkus (Il circo) (Charles Chaplin Productions, US 1928). D, P SC, ED: Charles Chaplin; DP: Roland Totheroh; cameramen: Jack Wilson, Mark Marlatt; AD: Charles D. Hall; ass. D: Harry Crocker; cast: Charles Chaplin (Tramp), Merna Kennedy (Equestrienne), Allan Garcia (Circus Proprietor), Harry Crocker (Rex, the High Wire Walker), Henry Bergman (Old Clown), Stanley Sanford (Chief Property Man), George Davis (Magician), Betty Morrissey (Vanishing Lady); 35 mm, 6431 ft, 71'30" (24 fps); from: Roy Export S.A.S., Paris. English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, 5 Oct 2011.

Original score composed by Charles Chaplin (1968), performed live by Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone, conducted by Günter A. Buchwald. With title song, “Swing, Little Girl”, composed and performed by Charles Chaplin for the 1969 sound reissue.

Günter A. Buchwald (GCM Catalogue): "Forty years after the film’s original release Chaplin finally wrote a score for The Circus. Listening to the music on the soundtrack leaves us a little bit confused: the sound is slightly in a rough tone, too clear, and the violins sound sharp and the opposite of smoothly romantica. Is the composition the problem?"

"I do not think so. I have the impression that the quality of the 1931 orchestra of City Lights has not been achieved again. I especially miss the flexibility of the string section, and the mellow sound of love vibrations. But I see it in the score. Presumably Chaplin must have listened to City Lights when he composed his score for The Circus."

"There are a lot of similarities: the ¾-bar of the waltz is again used to underline and accompany Chaplin’s movements, in front of the nude statue in City Lights and on the tightrope in The Circus. Mickeymousing musical comments are embedded in longer musical phrases."

"This is Chaplin’s “trick”; he avoids a steady “mickey-mousing” – the killer of any good film music – and thus achieves a higher level of attention to the film action when he does employ it in the score."

"And he still composes like a larcenous magpie: the giant lion in the cage is as dangerous as a storm in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, and in the epilogue, when the Tramp makes the way free for the Girl and her lover, we are listening to some variations on Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” musica. Indeed, in this particular situation the Tramp abdicates his love for the Girl like Tannhäuser abdicates the mythical mountain Venusberg."

"In contrast to his music for City Lights, Chaplin’s score for The Circus is flatter. Maybe this is because of a different spatial concept: City Lights has many locations, while The Circus is based in a circus: the show, the rehearsals, the love story, the ending, all take place in the same space."

"Fortunately Chaplin gives us a lot of different kinds of circus music: the clowns on the revolving drum have a theme which exactly describes, in short chromatic scales in intervals of a “fourth”, the sensation of whirling speed. A stumbling block not only for actors and clowns, but also for piccolo flautists: the music is no longer in 1920s style, but has a typical 1960s sound."

"In the spirit of Charles Chaplin, the eternal dancer, lover, musician, and romantic, the gallant and hungry Tramp, let’s bring some straw, and a little smell of shaving cream, horse dung, and gasoline, into the cinema arena for our screening. The circus – and The Circus – are both still fresh and alive!!" – GÜNTER A. BUCHWALD

David Robinson: "In the 80-year game of raising canons that was begun in 1930 by D.W. Griffith and continues with Sight & Sound’s decennial polls (the next due in 2012), the leading directors have consistently been Eisenstein, Griffith, and Chaplin. The Gold Rush and City Lights have remained unshakeable. Yet The Circus, which appeared between these two films, has made only intermittent appearances in the voting since it first figured belatedly in 1962."

"Yet it was certainly not thus overshadowed in its own time: The Circus won Chaplin a special Academy Award – it was still not called “Oscar” – at the first presentation ceremony in 1929, for “his versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing”. The honour still appears merited. The Circus contains some of his finest comic inventions, subtly balanced with sentiment that is kept tightly under control. Perhaps the film’s apparent eclipse can be traced to Chaplin himself, for this is the single film of his major feature productions which he does not once mention in his autobiography: as late as 1964, it seems, this was a film he preferred to forget. The reason however was not the film itself, but the deeply fraught personal circumstances surrounding its production. Chaplin was in the throes of the break-up of his marriage with the teenage Lita Grey: production of The Circus coincided with one of the most sensational and unseemly divorces in 20s Hollywood, as Lita’s lawyers sought every means to ruin Chaplin’s career by smearing his reputation. At the height of the legal battle, production was brought to a total halt for eight months while the lawyers tried to seize the studio assets. Chaplin was forced to spirit such of The Circus as was already shot to safe hiding."

"As if his domestic troubles were not enough, the film seemed fated to catastrophe of every kind. Even before shooting began, the huge circus tent which is the principal setting for the film was destroyed by gales. After four weeks of filming Chaplin discovered that bad laboratory work had made everything already shot unusable. In the ninth month of shooting, fire raged through the studio, destroying sets and props. Later, when the unit returned to work after the enforced lay-off, they discovered that Hollywood’s mushrooming real estate development had changed locations beyond recognition, so that they could not be used for retakes. The troubles persisted to the very end. For the final scene of the circus moving out of town, the wagons were towed to the location. When the unit returned for the second day’s shooting, the whole circus train had vanished. It had been stolen by some highspirited students who had planned to use if for a marathon bonfire."

"This time luckily Chaplin was just in time to avert the catastrophe. Somehow, from all this chaos, Chaplin conjured a film of admirable comedy and deft structure. The story had all grown out of a single idea. Chaplin had imagined a scene of comic thrills such as his contemporary Harold Lloyd had made his speciality in films like Safety Last!. The scene he envisaged was the climactic sequence in which, having rashly taken the place of the tightrope-walker, suspended high over the circus ring, he is attacked by a horde of malicious escaped monkeys. They rip off his trousers, to reveal that he has forgotten to put on his tights. With this moment as the climax he built up the whole story that leads up to it and a swift finale to conclude. The Tramp is engaged as a clown by a travelling circus: his problem is that he is only funny when he does not mean to be. He falls in love with the ill-treated daughter of the brutal circus proprietor, but meets an insuperable rival in the person of the glamorous tightrope-walker. It is while endeavouring to compete with this challenger that he suffers his confrontation with the malevolent monkeys."

"The heroine was played by Merna Kennedy, a beautiful 18-year-old dancer, making her film debut. The Tramp’s rival in love was played by Harry Crocker, a handsome young socialite, who also collaborated with Chaplin on developing the story. Chaplin and Crocker spent weeks mastering the art of tightrope-walking. Chaplin ran other risks beside the tightrope though. For the scenes with the lions he made some 200 takes, in many of which he was actually alone inside the lions’ cage. As he later confessed, his looks of fear are not all merely acting."

"Alongside the thrills the film includes some of his most accomplished gags, notably the virtuoso scenes in the fairground hall of mirrors, and outside the funhouse, where the Tramp and a hostile villain are forced to pose as automata. A delirious scene in which he becomes entangled in a magic act is an odd autobiographical allusion: the magician is called “Professor Bosco”: on the day that Chaplin was born, in April 1889, his father was performing in magician Leotard Bosco’s theatre in Hull. The film was so rich in comedy that Chaplin felt able to remove an entire sequence – so skilfully composed that it is practically a film in itself – where he became involved in a fracas with a pair of identical twin prize-fighters. Like the hall of mirrors, this sequence, with its brilliant use of double exposure to enable the same actor, “Doc” Stone, to play both prize-fighters, is a tribute to the ingenuity of Chaplin’s technical collaborators."

"In the late 1960s, after years of trying to forget the film, Chaplin returned to The Circus, to reissue it with a new musical score of his own composition – the score that will be performed live for the Giornate performance. He even composed a theme song, “Swing, Little Girl”, to be performed over the titles. A professional vocalist was engaged, but the musical director, Eric James, recognized that Chaplin sang the song much better. So he was persuaded, at the age of 80, to record the song. It seemed his reconciliation to the film which had caused him so much stress." – David Robinson

AA: I had a ticket to this music event, but the seats were not numbered. Because of previous meetings I got in front of the cinema on time but found myself to be the very last person in the row. I literally received the last seat in the cinema on the top balcony, in the back where there are no chairs but only benches. After a long day I stayed to hear Chaplin singing the theme song during the opening credits and long enough to have an impression of Orchestra San Marco's rousing, inspired playing with Günter A. Buchwald conducting Charles Chaplin's score as arranged by Timothy Brock. I have always considered The Circus among the great Chaplin films, but somehow it has been less prominent for reasons explained by David Robinson above. The print screened was fine.

Swing, little girl,
Swing high to the sky,
And don’t ever look at the ground,

If you’re looking for rainbows,
Look up to the sky,
You’ll never find rainbows,
If you’re looking down.

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