This post is part of the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by Lê at Crítica Retrô and Summer from Serendipitous Anachronisms. Because this has been such a rough week, they have extended the time of the blogathon.
|Film Fun, August, 1915|
In 1918, Chaplin signed with First National, agreeing to produce 8 movies for $1,000,000. Some time between 1919 and 1923 or 1924, Chaplin was tired of playing the Tramp. He created a new character, Professor Bosco, proprietor of Bosco's Flea Circus, and began shooting a movie we now know as "The Professor." He completed one scene and then stopped.
Your first question might be, why did he stop? I don't know. Your second question might be, what is a flea circus? That I know.
|New York Clipper, 05-October-1912|
To create a flea circus with living creatures, a "trainer" would collect fleas, which was easier when standards of cleanliness were lower than they are now, and observe them. Some fleas tend to jump and others tend to walk. The "trainer" divides the fleas by type. Each selected flea of either type gets a harness of gold wire around its neck. A jumper is presented with a lightweight ball. The flea tries to jump away, but is restrained by the harness, so it kicks the ball. The walkers pull carts or other vehicles. Fleas are very strong for their size, so they can move relatively large objects. Mechanical flea circuses might be salted with a few live fleas to make it seem as if they used living fleas as performers.
Here is example of a flea circus using live fleas.
|Moving Picture World, 29-April-1911|
Chaplin's "The Professor" begins with a shot of the Professor limping wearily down an alley. He climbs down a stairway and enters an open doorway. A box under his arm is labelled "BOSCOS FLEA CIRCUS." An old man holds out his hand, requesting payment. The Professor finds a coin and hands it to him. The old man inspects the coin and gestures for the Professor to enter. We see a large, dirty room full of beds. Flophouses offered beds to transients or otherwise homeless people. The blankets and pillows were rarely changed, so flophouses were know for bedbugs, fleas, pillow pigeons and other tiny livestock.
The Professor selects a bed and sits down. He soon starts to feel bites. He finds a flea up his sleeve and teaches it to jump from hand to hand. He has it jump through a hoop formed by his fingers into the box to join the circus.
The Professor sees his neighbor scratching his beard. The Professor checks the box to make sure all the performers are present. He pulls a flea out of his neighbor's beard, inspects it and puts it back. The Professor lies down to sleep and kicks the box to the floor. Everyone starts scratching. The Professor pulls out a lion tamer's whip and drives all the fleas back into the box. They perform various tricks like a high dive and hopping between his feet.
The Professor puts the box on the floor and goes to sleep. A dog comes along and sniffs inside the box, opening the lid. The dog starts biting and scratching. The Professor awakens with an itch. The dog walks out of the flophouse and the Professor chases him with the whip. The last shot shows them running away down the alley.
Even though Chaplin abandoned "The Professor," he didn't forget the flea circus. In 1952, he released Limelight, which many people think was Chaplin's last great film. He played Calvero, a washed-up music hall performer. One of Calvero's routines involves "Phyllis and Henry, Performing Fleas." He repeated some of the gags from "The Professor," especially the fleas jumping from hand to hand and the whip.
Flea Circuses were a popular source of jokes in animated cartoons. Here is "The Flea Circus" (1953) by Tex Avery. It features a French flea circus, Le Cirque Des Fleas. I like the shots of the audience watching the show through their magnifying glasses. Watch what happens when a dog appears. This was a popular gag.
A flea circus later turned up on Sesame Street.
|Washington DC Evening Star, 02-August-1913|
This post is part of the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by Lê at Crítica Retrô and Summer from Serendipitous Anachronisms. Thank you to Lê and Summer for all the hard work. Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can. Bloggers love comments.
This post is my fifth blogathon post of 2016 and my 45th since 2007. This is my 27th blogathon. This page has a list of all my blogathon posts.