The Circus (1928)    3 Stars


The Circus (1928)

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia

Synopsis: The Tramp finds work and the girl of his dreams at a circus.







Chaplin was going through a pretty hellish time when he made The Circus — so much so that he neglected even to mention the movie in his autobiography. Much of the turmoil was of his own making: an acrimonious split from his precocious young wife, Lita Grey, two affairs, and the unwanted attentions of the IRS. He must also have been concerned about the cinema’s increasing pre-occupation with talking pictures. And yet little of it is evident in The Circus, a film that is perhaps overlooked simply because of its position in his filmography — sandwiched between two bona-fide classics: Gold Rush and City Lights. The deft comic touch is unaffected, and a clinical adherence to a proven formula rarely abandoned. But something’s missing; something that prevents The Circus from occupying a place alongside his greatest movies.

Chaplin’s little tramp is reassuringly unchanged. His shabby dignity remains intact, even as he covertly steals – not candy, but a hot dog — from a babe in its unwitting father’s arms. He’s pursued by the police, who mistakenly believe he has picked the pocket of an elderly gentleman on a seaside pier. After a bewildering chase through a Hall of Mirrors, Charlie loses them when he runs into a circus tent and his antics inadvertently surpass those of the lacklustre clowns who seem incapable of making their audience laugh. The circus ringmaster (Allan Garcia) may be a cruel tyrant who mistreats his trapeze artist daughter (Merna Kennedy), but he knows an opportunity when he sees one, and employs Charlie to be his funny man. The trouble is, the little tramp is only funny when he’s not trying to be, so the ringmaster demotes him to the position of property man, pays him a pittance, and lets his incompetence wring laughs from the crowds as he shifts props around the ring.

Charlie develops a relationship — and a crush — on Merna, but she only has eyes for Rex, the dashing young tightrope walker (Harry Crocker). In desperation, Charlie attempts to teach himself the art of tightrope walking, and when Rex fails to turn up for one performance, he steps into his shoes with predictably chaotic results.

While The Circus provides a steady stream of sight gags and Chaplin displays his usual physical dexterity, the humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. There are some incredibly clever set-pieces, where Chaplin poses as an automated sideshow attraction for example, but for each of these there is invariably a more pedestrian routine (how many times must a sequence in a hall of mirrors already have been played out, even in 1928?). And while Chaplin, for once, reins in his sentimental streak, he creates a leading lady with zero personality and throws in a puzzling change of heart for his own character in the final reel. Not one of Chaplin’s best, then, but The Circus still provides an entertaining diversion.

(Reviewed 6th July 2012)