Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

charliechaplin.com, on The Circus (1928):

The story had all grown out of a single idea: Chaplin imagined a scene of comic thrills, such as his contemporary Harold Lloyd had made his speciality. The scene he envisaged was the climactic sequence in which, having taken the place of the tight-rope walker, and suspended high over The Circus ring, he is attacked by malicious escaped monkeys.

From the New York Times, upon a re-release of the Circus in 1969:

Little Tramp:’Circus,’ ’28 Film With Chaplin, Is Revived 

By Roger Greenspun (December 16, 1969)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S “The Circus” opened Jan. 2, 1928, at the Strand Theater. If this review seems a little late, it at least has an occasion to justify it—a new run for “The Circus,” which has begun playing at the 72d Street Playhouse.

Chaplin has added a soundtrack, no dialogue, but a musical score that he himself composed. Anybody who has seen recent Chaplin movies, especially the miraculous “A Countess From Hong Kong,” knows that he writes the loveliest kitsch background music since the Oskar Straus waltzes that graced the great Max Ophuls films of the early 1950’s.

“The Circus” discovers Charlie, in the person of the Little Tramp, standing hungry outside a traveling circus, and it leaves him, sitting in the ring, after the circus itself has pulled away. In between, Charlie joins the circus as roustabout, saves it with the humor of his monumental ineptitude, falls in love with the circus owner’s daughter (Merna Kennedy), and loses her to the handsome tightrope walker — whose suit he bravely promotes.

The theme of unhappy romance is not unusual in the major Chaplin films, though it is treated with less circumstance and much less pathetic detail in “The Circus” than in, say, “The Gold Rush” or “City Lights”—both of which enjoy accidental happy endings that are more gracious than gratuitous.

The exemplary renunciation at the end of this film essentially begs an appreciation of what the Little Tramp stands for and what, despite his deserts, he is likely to get.

But the image of the circus itself, an arena partly intended for comic performance, is a little unusual. Chaplin works very hard not to exploit it.

As a circus employe he succeeds at everything except comedy. He services the animals, moves the props; and, even in a pinch, walks the high wire (the film’s great climactic routine, and as prodigiously funny as anything in Chaplin), but he never makes it as a clown, and all the laughs are, from Charlie’s point of view, unintentional.

Even the regular circus clowns are unfunny, which is why Charlie is hired in the first place—to get laughs without meaning to. That group of clowns, seen in medium long shot, tumbling, jumping, running, working like crazy in the ring, but to no avail, are for me the most mysterious and moving image in the film. Everything in Chaplin’s circus militates against good times. Acts fail, the owner beats his daughter and denies her food, the property men quit because they are not paid—and the ring itself displays failure, pain and frustration.

Charlie succeeds, in effect, by disrupting the circus—by interrupting the acts, exposing the secrets of magician’s prop table (another great comic routine), running to escape a normally placid donkey that charges madly every time it sees him. Therefore the circus functions much like any other Chaplin locale that Charlie divides to conquer. But at the same time it is meant to keep much of its traditional sentimental weight and even some of its handy metaphorical significance. “The Circus” is very knowledgeable about its world, but I don’t think it is very deeply committed to it.

At the end, the Little Tramp sits alone in the tentless ring. The circus wagons have all vanished in a cloud of dust—a really speedy desertion. A memento of his beloved lies in the dirt at his feet, and only sky and suburban scrubland surrounds him.

A call to emotion is at hand, but at least in me, the response is not forthcoming. We have too often throughout the film, in the spaces between the great set pieces, glimpsed the mind behind the matter, and now we confront not so much the pathos of the situation as the careful promotion of a well-beloved institution.

The Cast
THE CIRCUS, written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin; released by United Artists Corporation. At the 72d Street Playhouse, east of Second Avenue. Running time: 72 minutes. (The Motion Picture Assocation of America’s Production Code and Rating Administration classifies this film “G—suggested for general audiences.”)

Charlie . . . . . Charlie Chaplin
The Equestrienne . . . . . Merna Kennedy
The Vanishing Lady . . . . . Betty Morrissey
Rex, King of the High Wire . . . . . Harry Crocker
The Circus Proprietor . . . . . Allan Garcia
The Merry Clown . . . . . Henry Bergman
The Tent Master . . . . . Stanley J. Sanford
The Magician . . . . . George Davis
The Property Man . . . . . John Rand
Tha Pickpocket . . . . . Steve Murphy

Assorted Images

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The tramp is polite

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Running from the law.

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Trapped between an awake tiger and a sleeping lion.

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A ferocious kitten.


The Costume

The physical attributes of the Tramp include a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, a small bowler hat, a large pair of shoes, a cane and the famous small mustache. The Tramp walks strangely and uncomfortably because of the ill-fitting clothing; either he is wearing secondhand clothes, or they are originally his but he cannot afford new ones. The Tramp may have seen better days, but he maintains the attitude and demeanor of a high-class individual; as long as he acts like one he can believe that he is one, and is able to keep his hope that some day he actually will be again. -Wikipedia

chaplin costume

In silhouette form, the costume became, in the eyes and minds of early film-going audiences, one of the best-known, most instantly recognisable screen images in the world — up there with Mickey Mouse’s ears… Chaplin designed the costume himself. It lasted on the screen, in numerous shorts and features, for 22 years.

There are several versions of how the Tramp costume came to be invented. One, put out by the Keystone Comedy Studio, where Chaplin worked from December 1913, was that he was passing the time one afternoon in the male dressing room (a converted farm shed) — while waiting for the rain to stop — by trying on various articles belonging to other contracted comedians: Fatty Arbuckle’s trousers, star performer Ford Sterling’s shoes and so on. The stick-on moustache was intended for a villain, but he cut it down to the dimensions of a toothbrush. And it all seemed to work.
Another was that the costume was a collage of elements dating back to late-Victorian music-hall routines — Dan Leno’s ill-fitting jacket, Little Tich’s boots, George Robey’s small hat and umbrella maybe — and that Chaplin could have been more generous in acknowledging this. Chaplin: “I had no idea what make-up to put on… However, on the way to the wardrobe, I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat… I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born… Gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.” – From an article by Christopher Frayling for the Telegraph

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Chaplin in The Pawnshop (1919)