Film 16: The Circus

Poster - Circus, The_08

The Circus (1928) dir. Charlie Chaplin.  USA.

Charlie Chaplin was a perfectionist in his films and a calamity in his private life. These two traits clashed as he was making “The Circus,” one of his funniest films and certainly the most troubled. When he sat down to write his autobiography, he simply never mentioned it, perhaps because he wanted to sidestep that entire period. Yet a delightful movie emerged from the turmoil.


It’s interesting to ponder how smart the Tramp really is, and how much he understands the situations he finds himself in. He’s sort of a Holy Fool. In “The Circus,” he gets hired as a clown by accident after he proves so incompetent as a property man that he steals the laughter from the real clowns. He’s the star of the circus, but has to have this explained to him by Merna, who plays the ringmaster’s mistreated stepdaughter. He has no idea what made him funny, no clear idea of why he stops being funny, and usually seems the unwitting pawn of events outside his comprehension.

–Roger Ebert

Abigail:  This was very enjoyable.  It was a well-crafted piece of work.  Unlike “The Gold Rush” the Little Tramp needs only to be a character, and not the main event.  There is even a long bit about how terrible the Little Tramp is when he is the center of attention, and how great he is when he doesn’t know he is being funny.  Also unlike “The Gold Rush,” the comedy all adds up to a plot, as opposed to a jamming of bits into scenarios that cannot really contain them.  Charlie Chaplin was certainly in control of his performance, and his set… and the writing….  and the music… even the singing of the opening number.  This is a great piece of comedic film-making that Charlie Chaplin the actor/writer/director/composer/singer should be proud to stamp his name on – his name just a little bit larger than everyone else’s.

Forrest: I enjoyed “The Gold Rush,” my first exposure to Chaplin, but was underwhelmed by it.  I felt that the Little Tramp wasn’t quite as impressive as I’d been led to believe.  He was charming enough, but not that charming.  Oh well, thought I — I’ll just stick with Keaton and Lloyd.  “The Circus” revealed to me the error of my ways.  Here, everything I’d been told about Chaplin was proven quite true.  He is charming and daring and all the things I’d hoped.  I still, probably tainted by Roger Ebert, don’t like Chaplin as much as I do Buster Keaton.  But I did love “The Circus.”

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