The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus

Chaplin’s The Circus – arguably the least known and lauded of his “tramp” features – is a film that  succinctly captures the ephemeral quality of life: How one can fall in love and how that love can be smitten away from you in a blink of an eye; how in one moment you’re penniless and running from the law, then in another minute you’re a celebrity, then shortly after you’re obsolete, and finally you’re back from where you came from. The Circus is driven and revolves around this topsy-turvy nature; and as such, is also Chaplin’s most realistic film as it captures life’s most exhilarating triumphs and most heartbreaking falls from grace.

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a narrative; and being set in a circus, features some of the more physical gags from Chaplin. It also features some insights into the comedic process as the the tramp tries to incorporate his “accidental comedy” into the circus troupe’s more meticulously planned routines. The uniqueness of the film’s setting allows for some of Chaplin’s most magical moments, the most enchanting of which comes early on in the film as the poor tramp runs into a hall of mirrors to elude the chasing cops. The camera remains fixed on a multitude of reflections as the tramp and the cop run around chasing and running from reflections of each other in a brilliantly choreographed sequence. To say that it’s the best gag in the film and one of the best scenes that Chaplin has put together would not be an exaggeration.

Yet at the heart of it all, the way Chaplin’s character progresses in the film’s romantic subplot proves yet again that he is as much a sentimentalist as the comedian for which he is known for. In the film’s “meet cute,” the tramp chances upong a young female performer enjoying the breakfast that he’s been cooking for himself and chases her off. Upon realizing that she’s the ringmaster’s daughter and has been denied her meal, he develops a fondness for her and secretly hands her his meal anyway. The fondness soon develops into a romance; but once a dashing tightrope walker joins the circus, the romance turns into jealousy. Through all of the character’s ups and downs, Chaplin still manages to deliver the laughs and let shine the kind of truths that will make you nod and smile in acknowledgement. His ability to capture all of these changes in tone so poignantly in such a short amount of time can lead one to argue that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he had built his legacy on.

In the film’s final act, realizing that the happiness of the girl lies with the tightrope walker, the tramp devices a plan to resolve everyone’s problems as the circus caravan prepares to leave town. Everyone’s problems except his own that is, and the final scene sees the tramp left alone in the middle of a field where the circus used to be. So in the end, The Circus is ultimately a film that shows Chaplin maturing as a person as well as a filmmaker. It shows him having gained wisdom about the realities of life and the knowledge that not all romances need to end with a happy ending. That sometimes, the most truthfully effective stories are the ones that reflect life’s sad realities. It shows him expanding his technical prowess, reaching deeper into his repertoire of camera magic, and learning to deal with the nuances in juggling multiple themes yet still producing a cohesive whole. I went into watching the film expecting to surmise why The Circus has ended up as Chaplin’s least revered tramp film, and now that I’ve seen it though, I ask myself “…why?” indeed.

Rating: A (excellent)

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