Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fire destroys the set of The Circus



The studio production report for September 28th, 1926 read: "Were shooting scenes in entrance to dressing rooms on enclosed stage. Fire broke out and whole interior of stage was burned--burning sets, props, etc."

It was Chaplin himself who first noticed the blaze while walking from the main circus set to the dressing room set where flames were already licking the canvas walls of the tent. "Chaplin, shouting the alarm, converted his entrance into a hasty exit. Miss [Merna] Kennedy and other members of the company also fled from the stage as the flames bit into the flimsy canvas and rolled toward the upper beams. As they ran, the skylight cracked from the heat and sent showers of glass falling around them."1

While firemen battled the blaze, cameraman Rollie Totheroh shot 250 feet of film which reportedly shows Chaplin "dashing about in his bathrobe among firemen, flames, and drenching water."2 Evidently this film is no longer in existence, however  a stills photographer captured shots of a distraught-looking Chaplin, still in costume, gazing at the burned-out circus set (below). Totheroh's film of the catastrophe was shown in theaters as pre-publicity for The Circus.



Film stills exist of Chaplin wearing the same checkered robe he is wearing above, in a dressing room scene with Henry Bergman that was never used in the film.


The fire caused $40,000 worth of damage and may have been started by a short circuit in the Klieg lights.3 The studio was put back into partial operation while the circus set was rebuilt. In the meantime, Chaplin came up with scenes that could be filmed elsewhere, including a scene with Merna strolling down Sunset Blvd en route to a cafe, as well as a scene inside the cafe. But neither were used in the final film.

The crew of The Circus pose next to a "No Smoking On Stage" sign following the fire.

More photos here.
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1Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1926. Some reports state that the glass skylights were broken by the firemen in an attempt to contain the fire.
2Motion Picture, January 1927
3L.A. Times 9/29/26; Film Daily 9/30/26

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