The Tramp gets mixed up with a pickpocket and finds himself running from the law. During the chase, he ends up bringing life to the circus’ comedy act and becomes part of the show. The ringleader hides the fact that the tramp is the star and the tramp fails to see it as well. The tramp falls in love with the ringleaders daughter, but she falls for a handsome tight rope walker instead.
The film feels like a microcosm of Charlie Chaplin‘s career. His films all tend to feature a chase at some point and this is more prevalent in the earlier films. The Circus has him running from the law, a common theme in his early films, and finding his way into the circus and becoming a clown. After being the hit of the show and trying to get the girl, he ends up on his own and with the show moving on without him. This same year the film industry would make a huge transition into talking films, a format that Chaplin was not eager to transition into.
The tramp breaks the mold of “the expected comedy traditions” within the circus. The ring leader and comedy troupe are expecting him to replicate and learn their gags. However, these gags are not landing with the audience and thus not working. When the Tramp attempts to replicate them he ends up modifying the gag and making it fresh and unexpected. This can be compared to Chaplin’s own track record within comedy and filmmaking. He even highlights how perfect his timing is executing each gag throughout the film.
There are several noteworthy sequences that stand out in the film and show up in later films for decades. The two that stood out the most were: the Tramp getting lost in the mirror fun house and the harness coming off during the tight rope walking.
Mirror Maze Fun House
While the Tramp is running from the police, along side the true criminal that framed him, he finds himself lost in a fun house mirror maze or a hall of mirrors. For the tramp the mirror maze is a unique place that is ripe for comedic mishaps. In films to follow, the maze will become a unique place to highlight introspection, two faced characters, chaos and suspense. These are films like: The Lady From Shanghai, Enter the Dragon, The Man with the Golden Gun, Black Swan, etc… For The Circus only the chaos and a dash of suspense is needed for this sequence.
The Rope Falls Off
There is a scene where Chaplin is forced to take the place of the tight rope walker or lose his job. Likely he had been practicing so that he could show off to his love interest, since the tight rope walker had swooped in and become her love interest. He is not particularly good at tight rope walking though and so he enlists a member of the crew to help him stay safe by handling a rope tied to a harness.
Now that the Tramp has a harness he is free to go wild on the tight rope stunts and do things that would be impossible on the rope without a harness. As you would expect, the harness falls off mid-walk and the Tramp is completely unaware. He continues to do the stunts until he realizes the rope is gone. Now that he is aware, he struggles to stay on the rope at all.
I am not sure if this is a trope, but it is something I know I have seen in movies and TV. The trope being that the character only needs confidence in order to perform and his seemingly low skill level is in fact not the issue. Maybe it is because I have small kids, but the only movie that comes to mind right away is Onward (2020). The rope falls off mid way through the task at hand and the character can still perform. Once they find out there is no support, they plummet and narrowly make it to safety.
The ending of The Circus is not necessarily atypical for a Chaplin film. In the end he doesn’t get the girl and is all alone. However, this time a lot more effort was put into both courting the love interest as well as choosing to bring “the other guy” back when he realizes that he can’t support her.
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Editing By: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker, and Henry Bergman.
Runtime: 1h 12m
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Family
Distributed by: United Artists