★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Circus is one of the lesser-known comedies by Chaplin during his golden age of feature making in the 1920s and 1930s. Though more obscure to most audiences than The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights or Modern Times, this is still an incredible comedy drama.
Chaplin returns as the Little Tramp in this film and, at the beginning, is mistakingly suspected as a pickpocket. A chase with the police ensues that leads the tramp to a traveling circus tent. In the midst of the chase, the tramp stumbles onto the middle of the circus stage and, unknowingly, becomes the hit of the show. After averting the police, the tramp is asked by the flailing circus’s proprietor (Allan Garcia) if he would like to become part of the group; the tramp agrees. However, the tramp can only be funny when he doesn’t intend to be. So, though he becomes the star of the show, he can’t give his talents on beck and call. In the process of his tenure with the circus, the tramp develops an infatuation with circus rider and step-daughter to the proprietor (Merna Kennedy). The tramp seems to have won her interest until a new tightrope walker comes to the circus named Rex (Harry Crocker). Will the tramp be able to win the heart of his love or will he be beat out by the new man on campus?
The Circus began filming in 1926, but was marred by a slew of production related and non-production related problems. In September 1926, a large fire broke out in Chaplin Studios that burned much of one of the main sound stages. This delayed production for well over a month. Furthermore, it was during the post-production phase of this film that the bitter divorce between Lita Grey occurred and the federal government was coming down hard on Chaplin concerning tax problems. Also, during this time, Chaplin’s beloved, though mentally unstable mother, Hannah, passed away. These circumstances combined resulted in a delay of nearly one year for the film’s release theatrically.
Upon release, the film was well-received and ended up being one of the top ten highest grossing silent films of all-time. With Chaplin’s masterful acrobatics and physical comedy in full form, it is a wonder why this film doesn’t retain the same level of grandeur in audience’s minds today as several of his previous and forthcoming titles. For his performance, direction, production and writing, Chaplin was nominated for Academy Awards (at the first Academy Award presentation no less). However, the Academy eventually retracted all four nominations and gave him a Special Award for “writing, directing, producing and starring in The Circus.” To this day, the Academy does not acknowledge the nominations for this film originally given, only the Special Award.
Any Chaplin lover, or lover of silent comedy for that matter, should not pass this film up if they get the opportunity to see it. Though you may not have heard of it or heard of it less than other Chaplin titles, it’s thrills, comedic precision and touching slice-of-life presentation will not fail to impress.