The Circus (1928) Director: Sir Charles Chaplin
“Time brought many changes to the Circus; New Hopes and New Ambitions.”
The Circus is a wonderful film filled with humor and melancholy. It is one of my favorite Charlie Chaplin films, alongside The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. Filmed right at the moment the silent era began to fade away, The Circus is one of the triumphs of the 1920s, an enduring example of the importance of silent movies, even as the cinematic circus parades onward without its beloved silent pioneers.
In truth, The Circus was one of the most difficult movies Chaplin ever made. During filming, his mentally ill mother died, there were numerous scheduling delays, a studio fire broke out, and he faced a bitter divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey (his 17 year-old wife, they first met when she was 12 years-old playing a flirtatious angel in the dream sequence of The Kid). Also Chaplin suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his her public accusations of infidelity and sexual perversion, and the IRS publicly claimed Chaplin owed significant back taxes. It seemed everything was going wrong in Chaplin’s life. All of these scandals and troubles stalled the production of The Circus for eight months, and the stress of suddenly becoming tabloid fodder caused Chaplin’s hair to go white, so much so that it had to be dyed black for shooting. In addition, an early negative of the film was found to be scratched. Per Chaplin, it contained some of the best footage of him walking a tightrope 40 feet off the ground. Once it was finally completed, The Circus was hailed as a classic, it became the seventh highest-grossing silent film of all-time.
At the outset of The Circus, the Tramp stumbles upon a traveling circus after avoiding the police in an amusing robbery mix-up. The circus ringleader (Al Ernest Garcia), who is headstrong and abusive, gives the Tramp an audition after the Tramp accidentally wanders into the circus ring while fleeing the police, and he unexpectedly steals the show. However his audition ends in disaster when he pies the ringleader in the face and the ringleader promptly kicks him out. Again, he steals the show when trying to be a stage hand, but he befriends the ringleader’s step-daughter, an unnamed circus rider (Merna Kennedy) and he sneaks food to her behind the back of the ringleader. He quickly brought back into the circus to perform when they are desperate for clowns; he runs into the ring spilling pies, falling into the audience, accidentally releasing the magician’s birds. The ringleader decides to keep the Tramp, but tries to keep quiet the fact that the Tramp is the hit of the show. Meanwhile, backstage the Tramp causes all kinds of mischief, including accidentally getting himself locked inside the lion’s cage in a classic scene (Chaplin later admitted to truly being afraid during these shoots).
Finally, the Tramp begins getting paid what he deserves for his performances, and a theme that is common in Chaplin’s films, with newfound riches the Tramp’s life significantly improves. One day, the Tramp overhears the girl’s fortune being told, that she will meet a handsome man, and the Tramp assumes she has fallen for Rex (Harry Crocker), the disgruntled tightrope walker. With the belief that she loves someone else, the Tramp’s next few performances are dismal (there is a delightful technical scene in which the Tramp imagines himself beating up Rex, I love these little glimpses into the Tramp’s mind) until the Tramp is sent out in the tightrope walker’s place when Rex is a no-show. At the end, he finds Rex the tightrope walker and brings him back to the circus to marry his beloved circus rider, preventing her from being abused by the ringleader. As the circus travels away, the Tramp is left alone in the remnants of the circus ring (in a simply gorgeous shot) with a small remnant of the circus. He crinkles it up and throws it away as he walks off into the distance.
Much like the Tramp being left alone while the great pageant carries on without him, the film industry in 1928 was embarking on its own great leap into the talkies leaving behind many of its talented creators from the silent era. In The Circus, we see the self-sacrificial Tramp teaching the circus clowns how to be funnier, he helps the girl he loves, only to be left alone in the end. The artist is abandoned by his art medium.
All throughout the twenties Chaplin had been discussing making a film about a circus. Inspiration for The Circus came from his earlier silent short “The Vagabond” as well as from French comedian Max Linder’s movies. Although he won a special Academy Award at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony and the film received positive reviews and fanfare, Chaplin never remembered the film fondly, even omitting it from his autobiography and struggling to record an official score in his later years. He later sang the opening title sequence in the 1969 re-release (Chaplin was 79 years-old at the time). The song is entitled “Swing High Little Girl.”