By the time THE CIRCUS was released in 1928, the Little Tramp personified the time-honored notion of the tragic clown smiling on the outside but crying on the inside. So it’s not surprising Chaplin and Arthur Kay turned to Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s 1892 tragic opera Pagliacci when they were compiling the score.
Pagliacci was part of pop culture and had been for decades. It was the first opera to be recorded in its entirety and Enrico Caruso’s 1907 impassioned rendition of the famous Act I closer, “Vesti la giubba,” became the first million-selling recording in history.
Rather than opening the film with the expected “Thunder and Blazes” march (though it appears in later transition segments), Chaplin and Kay use Pagliacci‘s trumpet fanfares and energetic Act I chorus music to underscore the CIRCUS main titles. In the opera, the music accompanies the villagers welcoming the arrival of the ragtag band of entertainers, much as Chaplin welcomes us under his cinematic big top.
A succession of dotted rhythms and swirling sixteenth notes (beginning at 0:53 in the audio clip below) in the opera Prelude’s opening bars usher us into “a world of sawdust” (Chaplin removed this title card for the 1969 reissue), ending with a cymbal crash as Merna bursts through the star.
Crippled Tonio’s revenge music from the opera accompanies the Ring Master’s (Allan Garcia) cruelty as he berates Merna (“So you’ve missed the hoop again”), shoves her to the ground, and denies her food.
Chaplin and Kay make poignant use of “Vesti la giubba” in the Tramp’s dream sequence. In the opera, Canio’s pained aria (usually replete with traditional melodramatic sobbing) is his emotional reaction to finding his wife Nedda in the arms of the handsome peasant Silvio.
Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina.
La gente paga e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t’invola Colombina,
Ridi, Pagliaccio…e ognuno applaudirà!
Trameta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto
In una smorfia il singhiozzo e ‘l dolor…
Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!
On with the costume, the paint and the powder,
The people pay you, and want their laugh, you know.
If Harlequin has stolen your Columbine,
Laugh, Punchinello! The world will cry “Bravo!”
Go hide your tears and sorrow with laughter ,
Sing and be merry, playing thy part.
Laugh, Punchinello, for the love that is ended!
Laugh, for the love that is eating your heart!*
In the film, Rex the tight rope walker’s attentions to Merna affect the Tramp’s performance in the ring. Sitting backstage after yet another failed attempt to get the audience to laugh, unable to bear the sight of the lovebirds any longer, the Tramp (in a clever bit of special effects) leaves his body, dreaming of giving the handsome smooth talker a swift kick in the butt.
Most audiences in 1928 wouldn’t have heard Chaplin and Kay’s compilation score. Most likely it was only used at the premiere and perhaps in a few other large theaters that had the requisite orchestra. Musicians at most theaters compiled their own selections or took ideas from the cue sheet published by Cameo Music and compiled by Ernst Luz, the musical director of the powerful Loews theater chain. Instead of Pagliacci, Luz suggested using the requisite “Thunder and Blazes” and P. Fahrbach’s chaotic “Skaters Galop” to convey a circus atmosphere at the beginning. Oddly, Luz lists Herman Finck’s “Jocoso” to underscore the Ring Master throwing Merna to the ground, whether as irony or as source music playing under the big top is open to interpretation. A little-known song by Kate Vannah, “A Remembered Kiss,” is marked for Rex’s comeuppance.
“Swing Little Girl” obviously adds a more poignant tone for Chaplin’s 1969 score. Pagliacci‘s melodrama is replaced with newly composed “Incidental Music,” the rousing main theme for the circus, to play against the Ring Master’s cruelty. And the cue for the Tramp’s dream sequence is appropriately titled “Dreaming,” a brief sad waltz for mandolin.
There have been few opportunities to hear Chaplin and Arthur Kay’s original compiled score outside of a few live-to-picture performances in the mid-1990s, when Gillian Anderson first reconstructed the score. Given the dramatic circumstances surrounding the filming of THE CIRCUS, especially the bitter public divorce from Lita Grey, the use of these themes from Pagliacci provide an interesting contrast to Chaplin’s later musical vision.
*Translations adapted from Frederic E. Weatherly (1900)