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 took a tremendous amount of will to complete and release the film, which is perhaps why, for the opening credits of its 1969 rerelease, Chaplin wrote an anthem of defiant optimism called “Swing Little Girl”: “Swing high to the sky / And don’t ever look at the ground.” Sung by the seventy-nine-year-old Chaplin, and accompanying shots of a dejected Merna Kennedy, however, the song is as pitiful as it is buoyant.
This duality of tone characterizes The Circus. The mercurial film contains thrill-comedy stunts with tightropes and caged lions as well as some of Chaplin’s greatest gags, from the magical automaton joke to first-rate slapstick in the circus ring. It’s an intellectual film, though, in which jokes are broken down and picked apart: witness the deconstruction of the William Tell and barbershop routines. Also, while it pivots on a story of abuse and its hero’s romantic defeat, it’s not as sentimental as, say, The Kid (1921). When Chaplin walks away at the end of the film, his rejection of the circus is as briskly philosophical as it is melancholic or defeatist—as he kicks a leg into the air and marches off with that distinctive waddle, surely he has a smile on his face. Without wishing to introduce too simplistic an analogy, here Chaplin is walking a fine line, in which failure and mortification are only ever a whisker away from success and laughter.
Small wonder that the germ of this film was an image encapsulating the angst of an anxiety dream. In 1925, as he concluded work on The Gold Rush, Chaplin was toying with making his long-dreamed-of Napoleon film, or an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club. But as he told his colleague Henry Bergman, he suddenly had a better idea: “a gag placing me in a position I can’t get away from for some reason. I’m on a high place troubled by something else, monkeys or things that come to me and I can’t get away from them.” Bergman suggested that a circus tightrope would fit the bill, and Chaplin’s comedy cogs were set in motion—this would be The Circus’s faultlessly hilarious climax.
That nightmare scenario proved prophetic, with all the unforeseen headaches of the production as well as Chaplin’s own self-imposed challenges, such as learning to walk the tightrope and staging a scene inside a lion’s cage that required two hundred takes. After two years of ordeals, a test screening in October 1927 necessitated retakes of the tightrope scene, and when close-ups were matched in the edit, the stresses of the preceding two years were made uncomfortably obvious on Chaplin’s lined face, in his now dyed black hair.
Still, as Chaplin persevered, he must have known he was destined to make a clown film. Since his start in London’s music halls, he had admired and studied famous clowns such as Marceline, and after he became a film star he was flattered by comparisons to Grimaldi. A 1919 article in Picture-Play found Chaplin in a reflective mood after visiting a big top. “I enjoyed it immensely, you know,” he told nature and travel writer Emma-Lindsay Squier, “and yet—well, it seemed sort of pathetic to me . . . I couldn’t help thinking of the people as puppets dressed gaily for a little hour, to bend and nod and smile, to do their little stunt, then to be chucked back into their box.”
Chaplin was disturbed not just by the incongruous double life of the circus performers but by his own, in that setting. As the article explains, he had spent time with the troupe backstage. “I was a sort of shadow that had come off the screen for a while, and I’m afraid they were disappointed in me. They expected me to be funny and to crack jokes; they seemed awfully surprised to find that I was just human.” Despite or because of these ruminations, he told Squier: “I’d like to make a circus picture.”
So it came to be that The Circus is not just a film with a grand finale set on a high place, it’s a film about the pressure to be funny, about a man who can make people laugh only when he isn’t trying, and in which the identity of the Tramp himself begins to fracture. The story is simple. The Tramp is as down on his luck as usual, and one day, while fleeing the law, he runs straight into the ring of a traveling circus. The audience finds him hilarious, funnier than the real clowns, so the ringmaster (Allan Garcia) eventually decides to hire him, but the Tramp struggles to play written gags—he can win laughs only when he’s not performing. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a horseback rider (Kennedy), who is being bullied by her stepfather, the ringmaster. Sadly, she loves another, Rex (Harry Crocker), the tightrope walker. The culmination of the story involves the Tramp standing in for Rex on the high wire, but also bringing the two lovers together so they can be married. Although the happy couple insist that the Tramp be made a permanent fixture of the circus, he hangs back and lets the wagons go on without him.
“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.”
The circus setting allows Chaplin free rein to follow gag upon gag, and early on, this film offers one of the best jokes of his career. The sideshow-automaton gag is a master class in physical humor, as Chaplin controls his movements meticulously to mimic a robotic mannequin. Instead of converting an object—the trick stairs of One A.M. (1916), say, or the licorice boot of The Gold Rush—Chaplin mutates himself. With each jerking motion, he embodies the cubist Charlot of Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924) and reminds us that critic Viktor Shklovsky once suggested that the essence of his comedy was that his way of moving was “mechanized.” What elevates the gag on the level of humor is not just the fact that he draws his victim into the same stunt, and duly bashes him on the head, but that the Chaplin-puppet roars with silent laughter as he does so. The put-upon Tramp reveals his cruel streak, knowing he has already captured our sympathy. As Tom Gunning puts it, Chaplin’s art resides in his ability to “metamorphose from one physical identity into another”: here, the Tramp transforms from victim to villain, from human to machine and back again.
Metamorphosis is also in play during the tightrope finale, but this gag is more psychologically acute. The flip side of a thrill-comedy stunt is the fear of failure, and a tightrope walk is in part a triumph of buoyant confidence over the laws of physics. So it’s not just the steep drop to the circus floor that threatens the Tramp but also a psychological tumble: the abject loss of confidence that will scupper his performance. And if he fails in this stunt, then the gulf between him and the love rival he is impersonating will open wider.
It was not unusual for Chaplin to place himself on the losing corner of a romantic triangle. He told the New York Times in 1923: “I am physically not equipped for romantic roles. I am no Valentino.” As far back as The Tramp (1915), his signature character was known to step aside to let the object of his affections be happy with another man. We could hardly expect this film, which was conceived while he was miserably married to Grey and concluded after their divorce, one of the decade’s biggest Hollywood scandals, to have a happy ever after. What makes the scenario in The Circus so bittersweet is that the Tramp cross-identifies with his rival—we can almost see the underdog succeeding. Like Rex, he embodies the clairvoyant’s description of a “dark, handsome stranger” newly arrived at the circus. He impersonates Rex, not just in the public tightrope stunt but also in his own private rehearsals. Our hero is torn apart by jealousy—a double exposure shows the Tramp’s shadow self standing up to knock Rex out, while his flesh-and-blood body sits idly by. Crocker, for the most part a journalist, played Rex as well as other minor roles in the film, and was also Chaplin’s stand-in.
More doubles: Chaplin filmed a lengthy sequence, never included in the final film, in which he encounters twin prizefighters. One of the gags in the hilarious carnival sequence at the beginning of the film involves the Tramp being mistaken for both the victim and the culprit in a pickpocketing. Shortly afterward, the automaton. And then there are the magnificent Mirror Maze scenes, in which images of Chaplin are multiplied until it is impossible to know which, if any of them, are real. Endlessly reproduced, Chaplin’s image was everywhere, and yet elusive.
Filmmaker Robert Florey would describe encountering Chaplin walking alone in Hollywood during the shoot’s enforced hiatus: “I cannot express what melancholy overwhelmed me in recognizing the total solitude of the most popular man in the world . . . To see Charlie Chaplin, alone on the boulevard, like some little extra without a job or a place to live, wrung my heart.” 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. In this film, he plays both a hobo reduced to stealing food from a baby’s hand and a beloved, famous clown.
Self-referentiality abounds in this deeply introspective film. The carnival-sideshow sequence was shot at Venice Beach, near the scene of the Tramp’s first appearance on film (Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914), and the movie is filled with comic routines and incidental gags that recall Chaplin’s early shorts, as well as his music-hall days—faces are obliterated by shaving cream and a thrown pie, Chaplin mops a dirt floor and polishes goldfish, he even plays a propman again (after The Property Man, 1914, and Behind the Screen, 1916). Look at the taut, fixed-camera staging of the Tramp’s tightrope rehearsal; the way he jogs up and down toward the camera recalls the simplicity of the Keystone aesthetic. Robinson suggests that the gag in which Chaplin snaffles a hot dog from a baby was inspired by an anecdote of music-hall legend Fred Karno’s about his circus pals stealing jam sandwiches from schoolchildren when they had no funds for breakfast. Doubtless Chaplin, who chafed under almost every contract he ever signed, smiled over the scene in which the naive Tramp makes a hash of negotiating his weekly fee: offered sixty dollars doubled, he refuses to go lower than a hundred dollars.
Chaplin may have envisaged The Circus as a thrill comedy, like Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, but what emerged from this grueling experience was a bittersweet romantic tragedy spiked with performer’s angst. It’s a film about the fear of falling that perhaps unconsciously reveals Chaplin’s doubts about his career, and casts doubt on the future of the Tramp himself. In Limelight, Chaplin’s Calvero will die onstage, a clown to the last, but this film ends with Chaplin letting the wagons leave him behind. In The Circus, at least, there are no more terrifying words than the order “Now go out there and be funny.”