Cast: Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp), Merna Kennedy (Merna, the circus owner's daughter), Allan Garcia (the circus owner), Harry Crocker (Rex, the tightrope walker), Henry Bergman (a clown), Tiny Sanford (the head property man), George Davis (the magician), Steve Murphy (the pickpocket)
Charlie, a tramp, is chased into a circus by a cop when he accidentally gets caught with a wallet a pickpocket has slipped into his pants pocket. The antics of the tramp and the pursuing cop make the crowds laugh, so the circus owner gives him a tryout to see what he can do. He fails, and, after hitting the circus owner in the face with a large paint brush full of shaving cream, he is fired. Later, the head property man hires Charlie when all of his workers quit. Charlies ineptitude at setting up props during the circus is thought to be part of the act by the crowds, and once again, he is the hit of the show. The circus owner decides to keep him on in this capacity, but also keep Charlie from knowing that he is anything more than a worker. All this time, the circus owner is physically abusing his daughter, Merna, every time she makes a mistake in her bareback riding routine or displeases him in any other way. Charlie is helpless to do anything about it, but when Merna reveals that he is actually the star of the show, Charlie threatens to quit if the circus owner lays a hand on the girl again. After overhearing a fortune-teller predict that love and marriage are in Merna's future with someone close to her, Charlie thinks it's him and is ecstatic. However, it turns out that she's interested i the tightrope walker, Rex. When Rex fails to show up for a performance, Charlies agrees to do the high wire act to impress Merna. After a harrowing episode on the tightrope with a group of monkeys who got loose, Charlie once again catches the circus owner whipping Merna. This time, he beats up the owner and is fired and run off from the circus. That evening, as he prepares a meal over a campfire in the woods, Merna arrives saying she has run away from the circus and wants to go with him. Charlie knows he cannot provide adequately for her, and arranges for Merna and Rex to be married.
The critics of "The Circus" offer their criticism on the basis of Chaplin's previous films - "The Kid" (1921) and "The Gold Rush" (1925) are mentioned for comparative purposes over and over again. However, let's measure "The Circus" against 99 percent of the other feature comedies from the 1920's (we'll include the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd comedies in that one percent we are NOT using for comparison). There can't be but a handful that would come close to "The Circus."
For example, Welford Beaton in The Film Spectator (December 10, 1927, said, " . . . 'The Circus' will suffer by comparison with its predecessor. . . 'The Circus' is a good picture, one of the best Charlie has made . . . but to enjoy it to the utmost, you must forget 'The Gold Rush' and close your mind to the exquisite tenderness of 'The Kid.' These two pictures taught us what Chaplin can do, but in his last offering he reverts to what we knew he could do before he made the others."
But rather than assessing the quality of "The Circus" on the basis of other films, let's just take a look at the movie and how it measures up for sheer entertainment.
The story begins on an dark note as we see the Simon Legree-like circus owner mistreating his daughter because she "missed the hoop again" in her bareback riding act. This immediately establishes the drama portion of the story and instills a certain amount of anticipation in the viewer since we know the Tramp is certainly going to become involved in this family drama in some fashion.
The film then moves to some fine comedy blending both ingenious
gags and a mild amount of slapstick (and that's not a bad word
as some "highbrows" would have you think). Chaplin happens
to be watching an attraction at the amusement park when a pickpocket
standing next to him is nabbed by a policeman. The pickpocket
slips the evidence in Charlie's pocket. Later, at a hot dog stand,
the pickpocket catches up with the Tramp and tries to lift the
stolen wallet from Charlie's pocket. Coincidentally, the policeman
shows up just at that moment and, thinking it's the Tramp's wallet,
returns it to him. The quizzical look on the Tramp's face is magical.
He then proceeds to enjoy his new found wealth until the real
owner comes along, recognizes his wallet, and now it's the Tramp
running from the police. One of the most comical moments shows
the Tramp come in from one side of the frame running toward the
camera at exactly the same time as the pickpocket enters from
the other side of the screen running from a cop. The two run side
by side, sharing a like crisis, each with a cop on his tail. What
an ingenious comedic twist on what could have otherwise been just
a standard shot of a chase!
Chaplin later does a superb job is imitating a moving mechanical figure on a Noah's ark attraction, too, which is a delight to see.
The entire sequence is beautifully constructed so that one incident smoothly segues into the next. For example, all of these shenanigans lay the groundwork for the Tramp's entry into the circus (we knew he had to end up there in some logical fashion). He runs into the circus tent and into the center ring trying to evade the cop. His and the cop's pratfalls and antics are thought to be a part of the show, and the crowd is suddenly laughing uproariously at what, to that point, was a dull performance. Of course the circus owner sees the value in this buffoon, and hires him. Thus begins his stint with the circus.
From this point on, the film is basically a series of comedy segments loosely strung together by the story of the girl and her abusive relationship with her father. The New York Times (January 8, 1928) review commented, "It is more like a series of incidents that are more like his earlier films than either 'The Gold Rush' or 'The Kid'." This has been a source of criticism by many - and certainly the lack of a strong, cohesive story line is a weakness - but that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the various comedic vignettes.
The first is a sequence where the circus owner is giving the Tramp a "tryout" with some of the circus clowns to see what he can do. They attempt a couple of tried and true comedy routines, but, of course, the Tramp makes a shambles of each one - but for us, his blunders make these worn out old routines hilarious.
In another, he is supposed to use a long tube to blow a pill down the horse's throat. However, the horse blows first, and the huge pill goes down Charlie's throat. He scurries around in a panic as he is choking on the pill, and along comes a donkey that chases him wildly between the circus tents. (This becomes a hilarious running joke in the film that is used more than once but appropriately.)
The two most memorable are the scenes in the lion's cage and the high-wire act. To get away from the aggressive donkey, Charlie runs into the lion's cage and shuts the door behind him. Fortunately, the lion is asleep, but Charlie backs up, petrified, to the door, and it won't open! No one's around, and he "jumps" every time the lion moves. Although he's trying very hard not to wake the lion, a dog comes up, sees him in the cage, and begins barking. Charlie is doing all he can to quiet the dog without waking the lion. This is funny, bur the humor is also enhanced by the tension of this dangerous situation.
In the high-wire scene, Charlie is told to do the act because the real wirewalker, Rex, has disappeared. He had been practicing (without success) to impress Merna, but his ineptitude does not stop him from going through with this dangerous stunt. One would think that Chaplin could get enough laughs by simply being on the high wire, but he adds so much more to it by having a collection of monkeys who have gotten loose clamor on him as he tries to maintain his balance. They are all over his head and face and tugging at his clothes. By the way, the formal tuxedo he is wearing is a "tear away" suit designed to peel off easily and reveal the wirewalker's tights underneath. The only problem is, Charlie forgot to put on the tights, and - you guessed it - the clothes are ripped off to reveal underwear and garters. Sounds like the old sure-fire gag of "if you can't make them laugh any other way, drop your pants." But this is so much more apropos for the situation - the pants, fallen and gathered around his feet obviously make walking a tightrope somewhat more difficult!
Welford Beaton in The Film Spectator (December 10, 1927) said, "But his failure to make the most of the opportunities to build up sympathy for himself is the greatest weakness of the picture. His appearance is not as pathetic as usual, and the fact that he loves the girl is not stressed sufficiently. There are none of the one-sided love scenes that made 'The Gold Rush' notable."
This is indeed a flaw of the film. The Tramp is never given the opportunity to express his love for the girl in any way. The closest indication we have of this is when he overhears the fortuneteller predicting, "I see love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who is near you now." Charlie flits around like a giddy teenager when he hears this, but, beyond that, nothing in the film gives expression to the emotions he feels for the girl. Actually, he has the ideal opportunity to run away with her at one point, but does not take advantage of it. Charlie has been kicked out of the circus and is in the woods nearby sitting by an open fire at night. Suddenly, the girl shows up having run away from her abusive father. She wants the Tramp to take her away. Although he does the noble thing and goes to find Rex who he knows is much better able to care for her than he - but, it's almost as if he does this too quickly and willingly. There is no sadness or reluctance on the Tramp's part.
The ending of the film is what we have come to almost consider a Chaplin trademark - the sad little Tramp, having lost the girl, remains behind as everyone leaves and then shuffles off into the distance. For some reason, it just doesn't work as well in "The Circus" as it had in other films, though. Maybe it's because he did this by choice and actually coordinated circumstances so that we feel his solitude is his own fault. (Although married to Rex, Merna made her father promise to take Charlie along as they moved to the next town, but, for some unexplained reason, he quietly slipped to the rear of the procession of wagons and stayed behind.)
With only a few criticisms mixed in, the film basically received universal praise, as well it should. Harrison's Reports (January 14, 1928) said, "It seems 'The Circus' is going to prove the most comical big picture Charlie Chaplin has ever made. . . The outstanding feature in all Chaplin comedies is the fact that every movement of the famous actor has a meaning. In other words, he mixes acting and intelligence. And that is what makes him stand out above many other comedians."
Variety (January 11, 1928) declared, "For the picture patrons, all of them, and for broad, laughable fun - Chaplin's best. It's Charlie Chaplin's best fun maker for other reasons: because it is the best straightaway story he has employed for broad film making, and because here his fun stuff is nearly all entirely creative or original in the major point."
The New York Times praised it but not without pointing out some shortcomings. "'The Circus' is likely to please intensely those who found something slightly wanting in 'The Gold Rush,' but at the same time it will prove a little disappointing to those who reveled in the poetry, the pathos and fine humor of his previous adventure."
The public received the film well, too. During a time when most theatres were changing their programs every week, Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles ran "The Circus" from January 28 through May 11, 1928. "The Circus" also brought Chaplin an Oscar at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony for "versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing."
Allan Garcia makes does a commendable job of making us dislike him as the mean circus owner who beats and abuses his daughter. It's also a delight to see Chaplin's reliable Henry Bergman, who had been with him since his Mutual days, as one of the clowns, and Tiny Sanford, seen in so many Hal Roach shorts, as the head property man.
Newcomer Merna Kennedy, who was actually recommended by his wife, Lita Grey Chaplin. She turned in an acceptable performance, considering the lack of depth to the part, and was received favorably by the critics in her debut. Beaton said in The Film Spectator, "Merna Kennedy, the girl of the picture, will prove to be another of Charlie's gifts to the screen. She is beautiful, natural and talented." Kennedy's film career, however, was negligible after this, appearing in minor roles through 1934. She was married to famous choreographer Busby Berkeley for one year, but sadly died of a heart attack in 1944 at only 36 years of age.
So, simply assessing "The Circus" on the basis of a good, solid comedy with plenty of laughs and entertainment value, it ranks very high. After all, we could spend all of our time nitpicking about faults and flaws and how to improve this and that - but in the end, "The Circus" is just 71 minutes of good fun, and that's what it's all about anyway, isn't it?
As a side note, the bad luck that haunted Chaplin during
the production of "The Circus" is almost unbelievable:
- A violent storm all but destroyed the circus tent set that was nearly completed on the back lot
- A full month of production, which was of the difficult tightrope walking sequence, was lost when unexplained scratches were found on the film. Chaplin fired the entire laboratory staff.
- A fire destroyed props, electrical equipment and thousands of panes of glass in the walls and roof on the interior stage.
- All of Chaplin's property was put into receivership as the bitter divorce proceedings with Lita Grey Chaplin took place.
- The Internal Revenue Service declared that Chaplin owed $1.6 million in back taxes, and a lien was put on his assets
- In January, 1927, Chaplin suffered a nervous breakdown and suspended work on "The Circus" for eight months
"The most surprising aspect of the film is not that it is as good as it is, but that it was ever completed at all," wrote historian David Robinson. Our course, it is certainly our good fortune that is was.
Copyright 2006 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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