By David Cairns
Charlie Chaplin gave The Circus (1928) one of his favorite themes, some of his most sublime gags, and an incomparably poignant ending. It’s a hugely personal work, which draws on moments from his whole career, from his early stage work to his cinema back catalog, and also seems to anticipate Limelight, his last great movie, which was twenty-four years in the future. He even won an Academy Award for it. Yet famously, Chaplin barely mentions The Circus in his 1964 memoir, My Autobiography.
He had made the film against all the odds, with his usual obsessive perfectionism, during a hugely testing time in his life, and the bruises must still have been tender, even four decades later. When Chaplin was getting ready to shoot The Circus, in December 1925, a storm battered the big top, delaying the start of filming. A month in, he discovered that the lab was developing the film poorly, and everything he had done would have to be reshot. In autumn 1926, a fire demolished the set. And at the end of the first year of production, Chaplin’s wife, Lita Grey, left him, initiating a humiliatingly public divorce. While the divorce was in the courts and the headlines, Chaplin had to suspend operations again, and when he resumed filming, he found one key location now built over by a hotel, and even the film’s closing scene was threatened when students stole the circus wagons for a campfire.
Further, while The Circus was working through its nine lives, Chaplin was overseeing another film as producer. Members of Chaplin’s team, along with his former costar Edna Purviance, were shooting A Woman of the Sea, an ill-fated project written and directed by Josef von Sternberg. This film was never released, and was in fact destroyed in 1933. As Chaplin biographer David Robinson has said of The Circus, “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.”
By the time The Circus finally came out, there was yet another dark cloud hovering over the film, and Chaplin’s career: he was due to release his new film at the moment of silent cinema’s obsolescence. In October 1927, when the movie was all but completed, Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, and the film industry began to enter one of its most fundamental periods of change. The coming of sound affected everyone in Hollywood, but Chaplin had sworn his opposition to the idea of the talkies as far back as 1921, saying: “I would as soon rouge marble cheeks. Pictures are pantomimic art.”
“Chaplin is walking a fine line, in which failure and mortification are only ever a whisker away from success and laughter.”
“It’s not hard to read The Circus as Chaplin’s identity-crisis film, in which the idea of the great star playing ‘some little extra without a job or a place to live’ suddenly becomes too painful to bear.”
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