The Circus (1928) Review

The Circus (1928) Director: Sir Charles Chaplin

“Time brought many changes to the Circus; New Hopes and New Ambitions.”


In truth, The Circus was one of the most difficult movies Charlie Chaplin ever made. During filming, his mentally ill mother died, there were numerous scheduling delays, a studio fire broke out, and he faced a bitter divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey (his teenaged bride whom he first met when she was a 12 year-old flirtatious angel in the dream sequence of The Kid). Also Chaplin suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his her public accusations of sexual perversion and infidelity, and additionally the IRS publicly announced Chaplin owed significant back taxes. It seemed everything was going wrong in Chaplin’s life. All of these scandals and troubles stalled the production of The Circus for eight months, and the stress of suddenly becoming tabloid fodder caused Chaplin’s hair to go white, so much so that it had to be dyed black for shooting. In addition, an early negative of the film was found to be scratched. Per Chaplin, it contained some of the best footage of him walking a tightrope 40 feet off the ground. Once it was finally completed, The Circus was hailed as a classic, it became the seventh highest-grossing of any silent film.

At the outset of The Circus, the Tramp stumbles upon a traveling circus while avoiding the police in an amusing robbery mix-up. The circus ringleader (Al Ernest Garcia), who is headstrong and abusive, gives the Tramp an audition after the Tramp accidentally wanders into the circus ring while fleeing the police, and he unexpectedly steals the show. However his audition ends in disaster when he pies the ringleader in the face and the ringleader promptly kicks him out. Again, he steals the show when trying to be a stage hand, but he befriends the ringleader’s step-daughter, an unnamed circus rider (Merna Kennedy) and he sneaks food to her behind the back of the ringleader. He quickly brought back into the circus to perform when they are desperate for clowns; he runs into the ring spilling pies, falling into the audience, accidentally releasing the magician’s birds. The ringleader decides to keep the Tramp, but tries to keep quiet the fact that the Tramp is the hit of the show. Meanwhile, backstage the Tramp causes all kinds of mischief, including accidentally getting himself locked inside the lion’s cage in a classic scene (Chaplin later admitted to truly being afraid during these shoots).

Finally, the Tramp begins getting paid what he deserves for his performances, and a theme that is common in Chaplin’s films, with newfound riches the Tramp’s life significantly improves. One day, the Tramp overhears the girl’s fortune being told, that she will meet a handsome man, and the Tramp assumes she has fallen for Rex (Harry Crocker), the disgruntled tightrope walker. With the belief that she loves someone else, the Tramp’s next few performances are dismal (there is a delightful technical scene in which the Tramp imagines himself beating up Rex, I love these little glimpses into the Tramp’s mind) until the Tramp is sent out in the tightrope walker’s place when Rex is a no-show. At the end, he finds Rex the tightrope walker and brings him back to the circus to marry his beloved circus rider, preventing her from being abused by the ringleader. As the circus travels away, the Tramp is left alone in the remnants of the circus ring (in a simply gorgeous shot) with a small remnant of the circus. He crinkles it up and throws it away as he walks off into the distance.

Much like the Tramp being left alone while the great pageant carries on without him, the film industry in 1928 was embarking on its own great leap into the talkies leaving behind many of its talented creators from the silent era. In The Circus, we see the self-sacrificial Tramp teaching the circus clowns how to be funnier, he helps the girl he loves, he is a paragon of altruism only to be left alone in the end. The artist is abandoned by his art medium.

All throughout the twenties, Chaplin had been discussing making a film about a circus. Inspiration for The Circus came from his earlier silent short “The Vagabond” as well as from French comedian Max Linder’s movies. Although he won a special Academy Award at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony and the film received positive reviews and fanfare, Chaplin never remembered the film fondly, even omitting it from his autobiography and struggling to record an official score in his later years. He later sang the opening title sequence in the 1969 re-release (Chaplin was 79 years-old at the time). The song is entitled “Swing High Little Girl.”

The Navigator (1924) Review


The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp



Whereas Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” was an impoverished, downtrodden yet dreamy sort of fellow, Buster Keaton often portrayed the opposite kind of clown –a despoiled and soft milquetoast who is perpetually the disappointment of his father. In The Navigator Buster Keaton offers another delightful parody of adventure films that is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which because it foreshadows the work of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat surrounded by confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery.

The Navigator contains some of Keaton’s best stunts, it is based on a screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer of other great comedies, whose other works include the likes of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a co-writer for other famous Buster Keaton films, such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The Cameraman, and The General. Later, in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Buster Keaton claiming he needed it for a hunting trip, and instead, he drove himself to a restaurant in Santa Monica and shot himself in the bathroom. Some have speculated this was because of his declining career with the rise of talkies as well as his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles. When I learned this fact, it simply added to the mounting tragedies Buster Keaton faced in later life, however The Navigator was completed in his golden age, at the pinnacle of Old Stone Face’s success.

At any rate, the film tells the story of Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), disappointing son of means and privilege. One day, he spots an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to prematurely purchase tickets for his honeymoon and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house where he proposes to Betsey O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire). However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads for the ship that evening, but he mistakenly boards from the wrong dock. He actually hops aboard The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a smaller nation which is currently at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and now she boards The Navigator, as well. Both Rollo and Betsey eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, and after a series of gags they are very nearly rescued by another ship but it turns away when Rolo raises the wrong flag. Then Rollo and Betsey develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground at a remote island filled with cannibals. While Rollo is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the cannibals until they catch sight of Rollo’s underwater suit which scares them away. The couple tries to escape in a small dinghy but it becomes filled with water as the cannibals close in. At the last moment, a submarine surfaces and saves Betsey and Rollo (an amusing gag which is later used in the James Bond film You Only live Twice).

The idea for The Navigator came to Buster Keaton as he envisioned two wealthy spoiled children who are cast adrift and must learn to survive together. The USAT Buford, named after the prominent Union Civil War hero, was the actual boat used in the film and it was re-purposed after being used in the Spanish American War and World War I. It was also used to deport radicals during the first so-called Palmer Raids of the “Red Scare”, where socialists and anarchists were deported from the United States to Russia, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. It was also later dubbed the “Red Ark.” Buster Keaton’s producer Joseph Schenck nearly nixed the whole project when he discovered that Keaton purchased the boat for $25,000. Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shots for the underwater scenes were originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool but the pool unfortunately broke under the weight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay out of pocket, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only stand being underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. These little anecdotes help to round out Buster Keaton’s brilliance and dedication as a film-maker.

I picked up on the fact that film titles like The Navigator or The General have a certain double meaning. The Navigator references obviously the boat in the film, but it also points to Buster Keaton’s character, Rollo Treadway, who is navigating his way through life only to accidentally succeed in the end. The same can be said of The General which obviously references the train, but also it points to Buster Keaton’s character, Johnnie Grey, who transforms himself into a courageous, albeit under-appreciated, general of sorts in the Civil War.

Our Hospitality (1923) Review


Our Hospitality (1923) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton and John G. Blystone


With Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton delivers a delightful film –the second of his ten brilliant films produced under Buster Keaton Productions. Our Hospitality is more sentimental than some of his later films, such as The General (1926) or Sherlock, Jr. (1924). The vast luxury of rural southern plantation life is nicely captured, and the slapstick humor of a typical Buster Keaton film is wonderfully orchestrated, as well. As with most Buster Keaton films, Our Hospitality offers a perfect blend of humor, delightful story-telling, and simple sentimentality to make it a classic. This film comes highly recommended from this reviewer.

The setting takes us to Appalachia. It tells the story of the feud between the Canfield and the McKay families, an obvious spoof of the Hatfields and the McCoys, and out of fear of the dispute, the matriarch of the McKay family sends her son, Willie (Buster Keaton), away to New York where he is raised without knowledge of the feud. When his mother dies, Willie returns to the south to claim his inheritance. He arrives with a woman named Virginia who turns out to be a Canfield (played by Buster Keaton’s wife Natalie Talmadge). Upon arrival, Willie mistakenly asks a Canfield where the McKay estate is and the man tries to stop at each shop on the way to purchase a pistol in order to kill Willie. However, Willie escapes to find that his estate is more dilapidated than he had hoped, and Virginia invites him over for dinner.

The Canfield patriarch reassures his sons that welcoming in Willie will be “our hospitality” and a local parson also comes to stay for the evening just as it starts to rain, but Willie overhears about the danger he faces and he tries to escape while wearing a dress. A chase scene ensues which sees Willie tumble down a cliff, into a lake, tied together with one of the brothers, onto a train, and down a river. The scene ends when he floats by Virginia Canfield who is rescued in a famous scene while dangling at the edge of a waterfall, hanging precariously in the air. Yet again, it was actually Buster Keaton performing this dangerous waterfall rescue stunt.

Image result for buster keaton our hospitality

The film ends when the Canfields give up the chase at dusk only to find Willie and Virginia embracing and the parson beckons a kiss to the bride below a “love thy neighbor” sign. This causes the Canfields to end the feud and Willie empties his pockets of all the Canfield guns he had stolen.

Our Hospitality was shot in California and Oregon, and some of the scenes featuring trains were precursors to Buster Keaton’s great film, The General (1926). Many of these scenes were even shot in the same locations as would be shot in The General (1926). Keaton nearly died in the Truckee River filming one of the scenes in Our Hospitality after his safety cable snapped. As in many of his early films, this dangerous scene remains in the final cut –Keaton was luckily saved by a branch as he happened upon a bend in the river. Also, in the climactic waterfall scene, Buster Keaton inhaled so much water that he needed to be medically treated –he very nearly drowned. Our Hospitality is the only Keaton film to feature both his father, as the train engineer, and his infant son who played a young Willie. Thus it was, appropriately, a whole family affair, rife with themes of homeliness and hospitality.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Review

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Director: Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton



Along the Mississippi River, a riverboat called the “King” floats into the harbor at River Junction Bank. The wealthy owner of this big fancy boat, Mr. J.J. King, boasts about how the “King” will run the old but lovable steamboat “Stonewall Jackson” out of business. The “Stonewall Jackson” is owned by local riverboat Captain William Canfield. However, Capt. Canfield receives a telegram that his son, Bill, will be visiting him. Mr. Canfield has not seen his son for many years and he hopes that his son has grown into a large and muscular man so that he can help with the steamboat business.

Annex - Keaton, Buster (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)_NRFPT_03

Bill (Buster Keaton) arrives via train, wearing fancy urban garb, donning a white carnation and an effeminate Parisian hat. His father is immediately shocked and dismayed at how silly and clumsy his son appears. Once again, in a Buster Keaton film we encounter the recurring theme of a son disappointing his father. Bill’s father takes it upon himself to transform his weakling son into a man. They head into town so that Bill can have a shave and be outfitted in new clothes, hopefully ones that don’t appear quite so foolish. In town, Bill meets the owner of the “King” and his lovely daughter, Kitty. The Kings are a high class family, wanting for nothing. However, J.J. King and Capt. Canfield are mutual enemies and they instruct their children to stay away from one another.


However, in the evening Bill sneaks away from his room to meet Kitty but he is caught. The next day, both fathers get into a brawl and Capt. Canfield is imprisoned. Bill tries to go break him out of jail but he is in unsuccessful (there are some hilarious gags here). Bill tries to sneak into jail for his father, but Bill winds up in a hospital. Suddenly the weather conditions change and a cyclone begins to emerge. Buildings begin to crash down and people are blown away. Cars are sent skidding down the road, and objects are sent barreling into people as the river dock breaks apart. What follows is a meticulously orchestrated, utterly iconic scene. The walls of the hospital come rocketing upward while Bill’s hospital bed comes flying down the road. For these incredible scenes, Buster Keaton actually used massive plane engines to create the illusion of severe wind conditions. Bill is blown into one chaotic situation after another –including an old theatre which grants Buster Keaton’s the chance to flex some of his old vaudevillian chops. At one point, a house lands on his head only for Bill to cartoonishly open the front door as the house comes collapses behind him. In another, he stands in the road while the side of a building comes crashing down around him, he is only saved by the third floor window which just so happens to land right where he stands (this iconic scene has been parodied innumerable times). In yet another scene, Bill grabs hold of a tree which is suddenly uprooted and is sent flying all over town. The technical ingenuity of this whole cyclone is the summit of Buster Keaton’s engineering skills.

Bill eventually rescues Kitty and his father who is trapped in a floating prison. It is Bill’s engineering prowess which saves the day. The film ends as he rescues the town’s minister much to the appreciation of all parties. At the end, Bill has earned the respect of his father and the love of Kitty.

Keaton. Steamboat Bill Jr.tree fly

The last of Buster Keaton’s independent films created under Joseph Schenck, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonderful homage to the near-end of Buster Keaton’s golden years. Sadly, during filming, Keaton’s increased alcohol abuse allowed him to perform these highly dangerous stunts. In fact, in the famous scene where the wall comes crashing down around him, most of the staff and crew actually walked off the set rather than watch Buster Keaton possibly kill himself –in truth, Keaton used a real full-sized wall to perform the stunt! Amazingly, he survived to tell the tale. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was followed by Buster Keaton’s ill-fated MGM deal which coincided with his messy public divorce and the coming demise of silent cinema. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a reminder of his glory days –an era where one stone-faced clown could cheat death over and over in a string of carefully-crafted, mathematically-calculated gags. Buster Keaton’s world gives the illusion of anarchy but, in truth, it is actually a well-ordered vaudevillian stage framed only by Buster Keaton’s cinematic lens. With trains, steamboats, and cameras, Buster Keaton offers us an engineer’s dreamland –and what a marvelous world it is!