Charlie Chaplin and several monkeys in The Circus.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus was the final Little Tramp appearance of the silent era. In 1927 nearly all movies were silent and by 1929 the majority featured sound. 1928 was transitional; the only year where silent movies and talkies were produced in roughly the same number.
Chaplin would go on to make 2 more Little Tramp silent movies in the 1930s, City Lights and Modern Times. He finally gave in to the pressures of the changing times and retired the character for good in 1936 after 22 years and more than 70 films. Chaplin was just 46 years old at the time. Although he would use the bowler hat and cane one last time as the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator, Chaplin insisted it wasn't supposed to be the Little Tramp whom he wisely chose not to let ever speak on film.
The Circus was made at a bad time in Chaplin’s life. During production his studio burned to the ground and Chaplin (also dealing with some intense personal issues) suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped work on the film for several months. He lost the original footage he shot of the Little Tramp on a tightrope (after rehearsing for weeks to master it) and later confessed that the re-shot scenes weren’t nearly as good.
A clip from this movie became a viral sensation in the fall of 2010 when a scene where what appears to be a woman strolling down the street while talking on a cell phone was posted online. The woman (rather than being a time traveler) is actually believed to be using an old-fashioned hearing aid (without the use of satellites her phone wouldn’t work anyway).
The Circus tells a familiar Little Tramp story. The movie begins with a chase as Chaplin is mistaken for a pickpocket. He runs into a circus tent and unknowingly causes uproariously hilarious antics. The circus owner sees a gold mine in the Little Tramp but since Charlie is in the dark about his ability to make audiences laugh, he gets hired as a property man (think janitor) for much less cash.
Of course he falls in love with the Ring Master’s oppressed, trick-riding step-daughter and winds up a hit attraction before performing a climactic tightrope stunt involving several monkeys. This being the Little Tramp you just know how the movie will end.
The Circus is not one of Chaplin’s better movies. Still it contains his trademark combination of silliness and pathos so identified with the Little Tramp.
A pensive Charlie Chaplin.
The problems Patrick mentioned about Chaplin's issues associated with this film and his personal life at the time were quite serious. It was such a difficult period for him that he did not even mention this film in his autobiography, even though it won him his first Academy Award. However, in the late 1960s he revisited it by writing a new score and theme song that he can be heard singing at the beginning of the film.
As Patrick wrote, the Tramp joins the circus and becomes a sensation doing an act with the clowns, but is in the dark about his ability to make audiences laugh. In rehearsal he is flat but when being spontaneous he is hilarious. It is that gimmick that creates much of the film's lighter moments.
My favorite scene is when the Tramp and the girl he is in love with are watching Rex on the tight rope. At one point Rex appears to almost fall. Everyone in the tent, including the girl, react with shock, except Chaplin who smiles delightfully and claps enthusiastically.
No other silent film comic expressed emotions as well as Chaplin, especially when it came to matters of the heart. Look at his joy when he thinks the girl is in love with him. He becomes very jealous when he sees her with Rex. He imagines himself punching him.
Putting the Tramp in a circus was a no brainer. It allowed Chaplin plenty of excuses for prat falls and slap stick. What caps the film off is the symbolic ending. With all of his problems at the time and talking films becoming popular, the final scene expresses what Chaplin was possibly feeling at the time. The circus has just left town, leaving him behind sitting alone on a trunk. He picks up a torn poster with a single star on it. He looks directly into the camera, wads up the poster, stands up, turns and walks off as only the Tramp could.
The Little Tramp wanders off at the end of The Circus.
This film may not live up to City Lights or The Gold Rush, but Chaplin may have let his personal issues cause him to reflect unfairly on this movie. It's not perfect, but some of it is classic.
The opening scene of Chaplin wandering the Circus and getting chased by the police could stand as a short of its own. It actually reminded me of one of those Buster Keaton shorts from 10 years earlier. The tramp doesn't do anything particularly physical as Keaton would have done, but the original visuals, such as the maze of mirrors and the speed at which the gags are thrown at the screen, are reminiscent of Keaton.
Once the Tramp joins the circus is when the feature really begins. There are several amusing sequences, but like Eric I think I laughed most when Chaplin is watching the tightrope walker and applauds when he nearly falls. The re-shots of the Tramp on the tightrope himself may not have been as good as the lost footage, according to Chaplin, but I still found the finished scene to be very funny as Chaplin becomes virtually a live action cartoon, reminding me again how much Bugs Bunny owed his personality to the Little Tramp.
The final scene is a classic as Eric mentioned. Pathos was something Chaplin did better than Keaton and Lloyd, those other Kings of silent comedy. But what makes that final moment so great, beyond the symbolism that Eric mentioned, is that while the Tramp allows himself a sad moment of regret, it's only for a moment. He soon stands up, wads up the star as he wads up his troubles, giving it and them the boot, before strolling off with a jaunty step, cane twirling, into the sunset.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1928)