100 Years of Movies

100 Years of Movies
One cinephile's chronological journey through a century of film...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Circus (1928)

Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy and Al Ernest Garcia
Produced by Charles Chaplin Productions

The circus has come to town and our starving and poor, but ever loveable Tramp is checking out the festivities.  He gets mistaken for a pickpocket and ends up running from the police taking refuge in a mirrored fun house and posing as a mechanized mannequin before finally ending up in the center ring of the circus.

The Tramp's exploits make the audience howl with laughter when the circus' own clowns could not.  The ringmaster gives our hero a tryout, but soon realizes the Tramp is only funny when he's not trying to be.  He brings the poor guy on as a janitor, but always makes sure he finds himself in the center of the action.

The Tramp doesn't even notice.  He's too smitten with the ringmaster's step-daughter.  Our hero thinks he has a shot at happiness with this girl until the new tightrope walker Rex enters the picture.  The girl instantly falls for this new and hunky performer.

Can the Tramp win the girl?  And will he survive his own walk along the high wire long enough to find out?

That's more like it.

It's been three years since The Gold Rush, a classic that felt all wrong to me.  I've been looking for the Charlie Chaplin I loved in The Kid and his early shorts.

While not The Kid, The Circus does a much better job of balancing the humor and pathos that have come to define one of cinema's most iconic characters.

The opening few minutes are hilarious and inventive as Chaplin accidentally ends up with a wallet stolen from another man by a pickpocket.  Both Chaplin and the pickpocket end up on the run and keep running into one another throughout the carnival surrounding the circus.  The chase through the mirror maze is funny, Chaplin's posing as a mechanized animatronic is hysterical and the entire chase crescendos on a revolving platform in the center ring of the circus.  It's fun and it gets our plot going.

The one-sided romance between Chaplin and the girl is sweet, but never overbearing.  It's also carried out in a realistic way with the Tramp performing small acts of kindness for his potential love. It's genuinely heart-breaking when the Tramp (and the audience) learn she has fallen in love with Rex.

Of course, the circus setting provides Chaplin with no end of set-ups for comedy bits and a few deliver.  My favorites were his interaction with a slumbering lion, his cheering for Rex to fall from the tightrope and of course the brilliant climax where the Tramp cheats a bit to perform his own routine on the tightrope.

There are a lot of bits that fall flat as well.  The use of the magician's booth was a bit too obvious. His racing around inexplicably kicking people due to his happiness just felt wrong.  But these are moments and they pass.

The ending of the film was pitch perfect, reminding me of the character's portrayal in his early shorts.  I won't spoil it here, but it's definitely the Tramp we all know and love in the end.

The Circus isn't perfect, but it's much better, tighter and funnier affair than The Gold Rush.  If you are a fan of Chaplin's other works, you should check it out.

**** out of *****
Photo from the Museum of Modern Art


  1. The more I read reviews of Chaplin's work, the worse I feel that I haven't seen nearly enough of it.

  2. How do you feel about buster keaton?

  3. Thanks for the information on Circus. I have never seen it, although I have seen most of Chaplin's other work. I look forward to seeing Circus soon.