Sunday, December 18, 2011

'The Circus' (1928) on New Year's Day in Wilton, N.H.

Chaplin's great silent comedy 'The Circus' presents an interesting musical conundrum.

When released in 1928, the film (like most other silents) did not have a soundtrack. And so during its initial run, audiences around the world would have heard accompaniment provided on the spot by local theater musicians. That's how cinema-goers experienced the film, which was a solid success for Chaplin and went on to be the seventh-highest grossing film of the silent era.

And then, four decades after the film's original run, Chaplin (then approaching 80 years of age) worked with late-in-life collaborator Eric James to put together music for a re-release. The resulting soundtrack, including a song that gets sung over the opening titles by Chaplin himself, accompanied the 1968 release. And since that time, it's the only score authorized by the Chaplin estate to accompany 'The Circus.'

Yes, Chaplin's score is quite effective, and there's a unique value in knowing what kind of music he preferred to go with certain types of scenes. (It's quite spartan in some places, but that makes sense for a comedy, I think.) However, keep in mind that the music is from a completely different time in his life—four decades distant! And while there's nothing wrong with Chaplin's score, I think an argument can be made for 'The Circus' to be open to other scoring approaches, too.

After all, audiences saw its original release without Chaplin's music. And I've come to think that one of the things that helps make silent film timeless is that the films themselves are open to fresh scoring approaches, both today and in the future. A good score can help bridge the gap between this now-unfamiliar visual form and today's audiences, I think.

Well, the folks who control the Chaplin films feel differently, and they really have no choice. Acting on the wishes of Chaplin (who died in 1977), they insist to this day that whenever 'The Circus' is screened, the recorded score from 1968 be used for accompaniment. No others can be used.

I'm conveying all this to let folks know why we're not doing live music for this film, to be screened on Sunday, Jan. 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. (Free admission!)

I do feel that live music is an important part of the silent film experience. But if we're going to show 'The Circus,' we need to follow Chaplin's wishes, at least as his estate interprets them. The good news is, yes, it's a fine score, and does provide a unique point of reference not available for most other silent film artists. What kind of music would Chaplin have preferred for this film? With the score he created, we don't have to guess.

However, how different would the music be if he'd done it in 1928, at the time of the film's initial release? That's something we'll never know. However, just a few years later, he did create a score for 'City Lights' (1931) for its initial release, and it's clearly the work of the same person behind the 'Circus' music much much later.

Well, back to our New Year's Day screening. We're leading off with two silent comedy shorts for which we will have live music: 'Big Business' (1929), starring Laurel & Hardy, is the perfect film for people tired of Christmas cheer, while Buster Keaton's 'One Week' (1920) is another timeless (but time-oriented) comedy to start 2012 off with some laughs.

Hope to see you there! Press release follows below...

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Chaplin's classic comedy 'The Circus' to be screened on New Year's Day in Wilton, N.H.

Holiday weekend family-friendly screening includes silent Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton films with live music

WILTON, N.H.—Laugh your way into 2012 with Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy 'The Circus' (1928), to be screened on New Year's Day at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. The program, part of the theater's monthly silent film series, will also include short silent comedies starring Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton, with live music by Jeff Rapsis.

'The Circus' will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 1 at 4:30 p.m. Admission to the family-friendly screening is free, with donations accepted to help defray costs.

Chaplin made 'The Circus' at the height of worldwide fame for his "Little Tramp" character. Set in an impoverished travelling circus, the film is noted for its mix of uproarious comedy and a dramatic story line. 'The Circus' features several classic sequences, including a high wire scene for which Chaplin actually learned to walk on a tight-rope.

In 'The Circus,' Chaplin's tramp plays an incompetent prop man who unwittingly becomes the show's comedy sensation. Offstage, he befriends a young lady horsetrainer (Merna Kennedy) who suffers mistreatment from her abusive father, the owner of the circus. Can the Little Tramp help her escape without losing his own job or ruining the show? And will she return the feelings that he's developing for her?

'The Circus' is a light-hearted romp, but the film was a behind-the-scenes nightmare for Chaplin. During production, he endured the death of his mother, a contentious divorce from his second wife, IRS allegations of unpaid taxes, and a disastrous studio fire that set shooting back months. Despite these obstacles, 'The Circus' went on to become one of Chaplin's most popular successes. It also earned Chaplin a special Academy Award for acting and directing at the very first Oscars in 1929.

Four decades after the original release of 'The Circus,' Chaplin at age 80 composed his own musical score for the picture and rereleased it in 1968 with a recorded soundtrack. The version with Chaplin's score is the only one licensed by the Chaplin Estate for exhibition, so the Wilton Town Hall Theatre's screening of 'The Circus' will feature recorded music rather than the usual live music.

A restored version of 'The Circus' was released again to arthouses in 2010 as part of a worldwide Chaplin retrospective, with contemporary critics praising the film's timeless qualities.

"It's a brilliant combination of light and darkness, tenderness and violence and, yes, laughter and tears," wrote Andrew O'Hehir for, while Keith Ulrich of Time Out New York wrote "There's an edge to 'The Circus' that suggests a man gazing deep into the void, laughing at the darkness and urging us to do the same."

In the Internet age, 'The Circus' gained notoriety when footage taken at the film's 1928 premiere seemed to show a woman talking on a cell phone. The footage, filmed outside Graumann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles and included as an extra in a DVD release of 'The Circus,' quickly went viral and become a YouTube sensation. Explanations for the scene included the theory that the woman had traveled through time from the present day, although most observers believe she was using some kind of hearing aid.

At the Wilton screening, accompanist Jeff Rapsis will provide live music for two comedy short films on the program: 'Big Business' (1929) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and Buster Keaton's 'One Week' (1920).

'Big Business' finds Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as unsuccessful door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen. An encounter with one particularly unsympathetic customer (Jimmy Finlayson) escalates into a destructive battle sure to please anyone who's had enough of this year's holiday season. Made just before the comedy duo transitioned into sound films later in 1929, 'Big Business' stands as one of Laurel & Hardy's most popular comedies.

In 'One Week,' Buster Keaton and his new bride (Sybil Seeley) attempt to construct a do-it-yourself home, unaware than Buster's former rival for the girl has switched the numbers on the crates. The resulting home is just the beginning of Buster's misfortunes, which all lead to one of the all-time best comedy endings of any silent film.

'The Circus' and other short comedies will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. For more information, visit or call (603) 654-3456. The Wilton Town Hall Theatre runs silent film programs with live music the last Sunday of every month. For more information about the music, visit

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For more info, contact:
Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •
Images attached. More high-resolution digital images available upon request.

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