The Circus Jaime 2 March 2013

It is impossible to dispute the talents of Chaplin, especially when he was masterful at so many aspects of filmmaking – producing, writing, directing and acting.  So honored was this film that Chaplin was given a special award at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.  But while The Circus is a fine film, it is hard to ignore that much of its appeal also stems from Chaplin’s own personal troubles at the time of its production.   Nevertheless, this is a silent comedy that provides enough charm for centuries to come.

The Players:

  • Director:  Charles Chaplin
  • Writer:  Charles Chaplin, Joseph Plunkett
  • Cast:  Charles Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker


After a pickpocketing incident, the tramp (Charles Chaplin) finds himself being chased just as a circus is setting up.  The Tramp runs into the Circus mid-show and manages to dazzle the audience.  The Ring Master (Al Ernest Garcia) recognizes that the tramp has become a sensation and proceeds to exploit him, as he remains oblivious of his appeal.  Meanwhile, the Tramp falls in love with the Ring Master’s step-daughter (Merna Kennedy), though his efforts to win her affection run into competition with a fellow tightrope-walking star.

Chaplin was so effective as a comedy actor that it is easy to overlook his impeccable skill as a director.  Chaplin’s ability to manipulate emotions, maintain a consistent tone, and merge separate action set pieces, all serve as a testament to the sophistication that silent films had reached.  The seamless incorporation of the tramp’s early chase sequence into an ongoing circus act is so effective that the circus crowd reactions feel earned.  The Circus is not as epic as The Gold Rush, but it has enough to justify its place as one of Chaplin’s best films.   With great physicality, many of the gags are memorable, such as those involving mirror rooms, a lion’s cage, a merry-go-round, and the tight rope walking finale involving monkeys.

Chaplin’s name  is synonymous with comedy and you get what you expect.  But beyond laughter, the most endearing quality here is the sense of tragedy conveyed by the tramp’s naive optimism, and the notion that the tramp will remain in permanent pursuit of an idealized love.  Despite his awkward clothes and mannerisms, Chaplin knows how to pull the heart strings, and his tramp wins over his audience with a universal ability to convey humanity.  When the ring leaders daughter is denied dinner, he is there to share to his food.  When he realizes that his romantic efforts are unsuccessful, not only does he gracefully step aside, he goes out of this way to unite his love interest with his rival.  There is so much simplicity and tenderness to The Circus that it is no wonder that nearly 90 years later, audiences can still respond to the heart of this film.

The Circus Jaime March 2013

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

The first third of your review focuses on Chaplin’s troubled personal life at the time that The Circus was in production.  You do this so as to “underline the calamities that struck the production”.  While this is a solid film, such time spent discussing external qualities about the film provide the sense that much of its bestowed greatness is due to context.  I don’t dispute such praise, since this is as close as a film can get to greatness without achieving transcending the narrative.  Knowing that Chaplin was a perfectionist, some moments in The Circus do feel contrived, with music sometimes forcing an emotional response, as when violins can be heard just as the tramp learns that the ring leader’s daughter loves Rex (Harry Crocker).   In  your review, you refer to the end of City Lights, where you mention that “audiences still snuffle on cue at the end”, which points out this film lacks a certain level of spontaneity.  The Circus has so much going for it that it is still a remarkable achievement from the era of silent films.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like The Circus?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Mon Oncle

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Charles Chaplin’s The Circus this week, he now has 304 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.