“The Circus” - Charlie Chaplin (1928)

Charlie Chaplin’s” penultimate silent film, The Circus (1928), was an extravagant display of slapstick and a big hit at the box office, but it has not stood up over time as one of Chaplin’s great silent classics, such as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and City Lights (1931).  Indeed, Chaplin, himself, didn’t even bother to mention The Circus in his 1964 autobiography [1].  This neglect might be partly attributable to the fact that this film had a slightly different and more somber undertone than his other works.  The Circus doesn’t just feature comedy; it is essentially about comedy and its often essential connection with loneliness.

This more serious underside may have been connected with the difficult circumstances affecting Chaplin at that time [1,2].  Chaplin’s mother died that year, and he was going through a difficult divorce lawsuit with his teenage wife, Lita Grey.  In addition, he was facing costly financial demands from the IRS concerning back taxes.  There was also a major fire in Chaplin’s studio during production that burned some of the negative and ended up necessitating some reshooting.  And, of course, there was always Chaplin’s ever-turbulent romantic relationships, which inevitably must have complicated his life.  All of these things must have piled up on Chaplin and interfered with his meticulous film-production tendencies.  As a result, it took Chaplin about two years to complete the production of The Circus.

Chaplin, being the production perfectionist that he was, served as usual as the film’s producer, director, writer, editor, and lead-actor – and in 1967 he even composed a musical score for a re-release of the film.  The result was a hit.  Upon the original release of the film in 1928, it was nominated for four Oscars (US  academy awards) – for the following categories:
  • Outstanding Picture
  • Best Director, Comedy Picture 
  • Best Actor (Charlie Chaplin)
  • Best Writing, Original Story
Nevertheless and despite the film’s obvious virtues, there are a couple of limitations that keep this work from achieving greatness.  The two main narrative threads in the story – (1) the Tramp’s relationship with the girl horseback rider and (2) the Tramp’s progress in securing employment with the circus – don’t really go anywhere.  They merely serve primarily as vehicles for a disconnected sequence of slapstick set-pieces.  These set-pieces, it is true, are meticulously crafted, featuring amazingly adroit and subtle coordination between Chaplin and the person with whom he is interacting.

The story of The Circus plays out over four movements.

1.  Joining the Circus
At the outset a traveling circus is shown, with its overbearing and short-tempered Ringmaster (played by Al Ernest Garcia) berating the glamorous circus horseback rider Merna (Merna Kennedy), who is the Ringmaster’s step-daughter, for some minor shortcomings in her performance. He tells her that as punishment she can’t have food that night.  Then we shift to seeing the Tramp (Chaplin), penniless and hungry as always, lurking about the circus’s sideshows.  There his back pocket is furtively used by a pickpocket as a temporary stash for a stolen wallet, and we move into the slapstick Pickpocket Sequence.  Naturally, the Tramp is accused of the theft and comic confusion reigns.  When the Tramp tries to flee the scene, he stumbles into the sideshow’s hall of mirrors, and we quickly move into the slapstick Hall of Mirrors Sequence.  

Still fleeing the cops, the Tramp runs into the circus ring and messes up the circus magician’s performance in the slapstick Magician Sequence.  The circus crowd, which had been bored with the circus’s routine acts, is delighted by the Tramp’s antics in the circus ring, assuming his appearance there is a staged act.  They immediately call out for more pranks from this “funny man”.

All three of these hectic slapstick scenes – the Pickpocket Sequence, the Hall of Mirrors Sequence, and the Magician Sequence – are brilliantly performed, and they represent an early highpoint of the film.

Later, after the circus’s show, the still-hungry Tramp meets the equally-hungry Merna, and they share some food together.  The Ringmaster doesn’t want to see his step-daughter eat, but when he sees the Tramp and remembers the crowd’s demand for more of him, he calms down and decides to give the Tramp a tryout to join his circus show.

2.  The Tryouts
The Ringmaster tells the Tramp to rehearse some of their routine comedy acts, but the Tramp botches all of them.  Fed up with the Tramp’s incompetence, the Ringmaster fires him.  However, shortly thereafter the circus’s property men (they set up and dismantle the staged acts
in the ring) collectively quit just before the next show.  Desperate to have his show go on, the Ringmaster then rehires the Tramp to be a property man.

Again, the Tramp botches up all the performances, this time before a live audience.  But the crowd assumes this is all staged hilarity, and it expresses its enthusiastic approval.  The Tramp is now the unwitting star of the show.  His property-man bungling gets incorporated as a regular feature of the circus.  When the Tramp finally realizes he is the new star, he successfully demands from the Ringmaster a higher salary and that he stop bullying Merna.

Later, when the Tramp is chased around by an enraged donkey, he seeks refuge in a circus wagon, not realizing he is entering a lion’s cage.  The ensuing slapstick Lion’s Cage Sequence is fascinating, because it shows Chaplin in close and exposed proximity to a lion (and also even a tiger).

During all this time the Tramp has sometimes been meeting up with Merna and shyly succumbing more and more to her feminine charms.

3.  A Newcomer Arrives
Merna visits the circus fortune teller, who tells her she is about to fall in love with a handsome man near to her.  The Tramp surreptitiously overhears the fortune being told and jumps for joy.  After all, he thinks to himself, he is handsome, isn’t he?  He even hurriedly buys a wedding ring so that he can propose to Merna her at once.  But soon a handsome tightrope walker, Rex (Harry Crocker), joins the circus troupe, and Merna immediately falls for his charms.  The Tramp is crestfallen, and his resulting morose demeanor ruins his previously energetic circus performances.  The crowd no longer finds him funny, and once more his job status with the circus is in jeopardy.

Now the Tramp is consumed with jealousy, and he imagines himself, in a creative double-exposure shot, flooring Rex with a couple of punches.  When he watches Rex doing a difficult turn on the tightrope, he hopes that Merna’s handsome suitor will fall.  He even ridiculously strings up his own tightrope a couple feet above the ground so that he can practice walking on a tightrope himself well enough to match his rival’s prowess.  But it is obvious that all his efforts are hopeless.

However, one day Rex fails to show up for work, and the show-must-go-on Ringmaster, having seen the Tramp practicing on his makeshift tightrope, orders him to take Rex’s place on the high wire.  The Tramp is scared, but given his shaky job status and his fervent desire to impress Merna, he goes ahead.  There follows the most famous slapstick scene in the film – the Tramp’s Tightrope Sequence.

One can only marvel at how Chaplin managed to stage this amazing scene.  Although the Tramp tries to cover himself by wearing a harness attached to a hidden safety wire manned by a prop man, the wire comes off and the Tramp is left on his own on the hire wire.  Then, while the Tramp is trying to balance himself, a bunch of monkeys crawl out on the wire and climb all over him.  They clamber all over his head and even remove his pants while the Tramp is still struggling to keep his balance.  Chaplin needed over 700 takes to complete this incredible scene, which concludes with the Tramp riding a bicycle down a wire to the ground successfully [3,4].

4.  Shutting Down
When the Tramp gets back to the circus offstage, he sees the Ringmaster physically abusing his step-daughter again, and he angrily punches him out.  This, of course, results in his permanent dismissal.  We next see the Tramp sitting alone that evening on the outskirts of town, but he is surprised to be joined by Merna.  She tells him she has run away from the circus and wants him to take her with him.  This is surely what the Tramp had dreamed of, but now mindful of his own impecunious circumstance, he here shows a hitherto unseen altruistic side of himself.  He rushes off to summon Rex and get him to marry Merna, knowing this would be better for her.

The marriage takes place the next day, and with the circus troupe ready to depart, the Ringmaster is mollified enough to accept Rex, Merna, and even the Tramp, back into his circus.  But as the circus wagons start rolling out of town, the Tramp doesn’t climb aboard.  Instead he just watches them pull away, and with a melancholic and resigned look on his face, walks off alone into the sunset.

The Circus is primarily memorable for its extremely well-crafted slapstick sequences:
  • the Pickpocket Sequence
  • the Hall of Mirrors Sequence 
  • the Magician Sequence 
  • the Tramp’s Tightrope Sequence
Each of them shows off Chaplin’s extraordinary agility and coordination with respect to his complicated surroundings of people and artefacts.  But as I mentioned, the film overall is about the nature of comedy and its connection with loneliness.

In this film the Tramp is at all times fundamentally alone.  There is noone in the story with whom the Tramp fully resonates, not even Merna. Although the Tramp sometimes laughs in this film, noone laughs with him.  He laughs alone.  Everyone laughs at the Tramp.  He is a perpetual object of derision.  People put up with him only insofar as he can make them laugh at him.  The Tramp gradually learns that this is his fate, and he reluctantly comes to accept this at the end of the film.

In many ways when we laugh at something, we are often distancing ourselves from and dismissing something as absurd nonsense.  Even when we laugh together, we are expressing our isolation from the object of laughter.  Perhaps this was an existential revelation that Chaplin, himself, was coming to.  The sound-movie era was already beginning – The Jazz Singer (1927) was released several months prior to the release of The Circus [4].  Chaplin probably knew that the silent-movie medium was doomed, and along with it its way of arousing the viewer’s empathy purely by visual expression.  So his The Circus was a laugh-riot, but also something of an elegiacal swan song to the silent-film era.

  1. Alan Vanneman, “Looking at Charlie: The Circus: An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (30 April 2008).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Circus”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.Com, (20 October 2010).   
  3. Christian Blauvelt, “Film Review: The Circus”, Slant, (12 July 2010).   
  4. Sam May, “Revisiting The Circus: Charlie Chaplin’s troubled comic triumph”, Little White Lies, (27 January 2018).   

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