In which a tramp briefly clowns his way to fame and fortune.
Released right at the beginning of the sound era, The Circus began filming in 1925 but didn’t reach cinemas until early 1928. The movie was re-released like many of Chaplin’s films with a new score and opening song in the late 1960s.
The Circus sits comfortably alongside The Kid and The Gold Rush as a 1920s trilogy of adventures starring Chaplin’s Tramp character. Each blends comedy and tragedy to different degrees, all succeeding to roughly the same degree. I find The Circus to be the tightest of the three, with the clearest and most straightforward story.
This time around, the Tramp finds himself in the middle of a failing circus whilst escaping from a misunderstanding with the police. His pratfalls and lack of self-awareness make him an instant hit with the crowds and the circus’s owner.
Invited back the next day to perform for real, the Tramp is unable to follow instructions and sucks the life out of the clowns’ usual routines. He’s saved when the circus’ porters all leave and, after being hired to help backstage, he again delights the crowds with his natural clumsiness.
Whilst working for the circus, the Tramp falls for the owner’s acrobat daughter, who seems to appreciate his kindness in return. When a dashing tightrope walker joins the troupe, a love triangle develops, and the now morose Tramp begins to lose his star quality.
Unlike his previous films, there’s no drastic change of location from isolated cabin to popular town or extended dream sequence to interrupt The Circus. It begins and ends around the big top, encompassing all life and drama within it.
Perhaps mirroring Chaplin’s life as an entertainer, the Tramp is slow to realise his value and only able to enjoy stardom for a short period before his personal life changes his path. During the filming of The Circus, Chaplin lost his mother and divorced his second wife, those elements bleeding into his narrative as the Tramp finds himself alone once more.
If there’s a criticism of the film, it is that love triangle which rips the Tramp from his perch. Merna the acrobat falls in love with the tightrope walker all too easily, which results in us finding it hard to believe and sympathise with their romance. This makes the Tramp’s final act sacrifice less meaningful than it should be.
Perhaps some of the authenticity of the relationship has more to do with our perceptions of the Tramp. As Roger Ebert said in 2010 when comparing Chaplin with Buster Keaton:
“They are often yearning romantics, with this difference: Buster seems a plausible mate, and the Tramp hardly seems to possess a libido, only idealized notions. If their comedies had been made in a more liberated time, it is possible to imagine Keaton in bed with a woman, but disquieting to think of the Tramp as a sexual being.”Roger Ebert, 2010
Despite that, the film’s ending is one of the most poetic of Chaplin’s output to that point. Having done the right thing in bringing them together, the Tramp bows out of Merna and her new husband’s lives to become a fading memory. The circus pulls out of town, caravan by caravan, and the Tramp is left alone in the falling dust. Undefeated and heading to even brighter things, both Chaplin and the Tramp walk away with a twinkle of the future in their shared steps.
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