The Circus (1928)
The Circus (1928)

Genre: Romantic Comedy and Slapstick Running Time: 1 hr. 11 min.

Release Date: January 6th, 1928 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Allan Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Henry Bergman




cruelly exacting ringmaster and circus proprietor (Allan Garcia) slaps and throws about his daughter, while also regularly denying her food. She’s an animal rider and entertainer named Merna (Merna Kennedy), who fails to perform up to his strict standards. Similarly, he berates the clowns for not being funny, blaming them for all the empty seats. Outside the tent, a poor, hungry tramp (Charles Chaplin) is fortunate enough to have a pickpocket plant a stolen wallet on him to avoid the cops – only to coincidentally run into the owner, who then has a policeman pursue the vagabond anyway. In his flight, the tramp stumbles into a house of mirrors and several set pieces in one of the circus rings (including a spinning wheel and a disappearing person magic trick).

After the intruder’s unintentional crashing of the show, the cheering audience demands that the “funny man” be brought back. Reluctant to acquiesce, but desperate to draw crowds, the ringmaster has the tramp return in the morning for a tryout to see if he’s amusing enough to employ. In one of the most creative skits, Chaplin is instructed by a group of clowns on how to do a comedy routine – which is hilariously foiled by the man’s ineptness at understanding and mimicking the sketches. The position doesn’t work out, but when the property men quit over unsettled back pay, the tramp is once again in the right spot at the right time to be offered a different job, now to help with the props. When he destroys Professor Bosco the Magician’s table, he’s an instant, accidental success – causing the circus to prosper handsomely. But the tramp and the owner’s daughter continue to remain in dire straits due to the ringleader’s unrelenting lack of generousness.

Chaplin’s pantomime, especially in a scene in which he portrays a motorized mannequin, is visually sensational, once again showcasing the filmmaker’s knack for acrobatics, goofy hijinks, slapstick, framing, movement, special effects, and action choreography. One of his finest gimmicks occurs when he inadvertently locks himself in a lion’s cage – adjoining an equally terrifying tiger’s pen – only to have his savior, the girl, pass out at the very sight of his predicament. Another laugh-out-loud sequence takes place atop a tightrope as Chaplin is accosted by capuchins that disrobe him and chew on his face as he teeters precariously, high above the patrons. Additionally, Chaplin sings the title song, in line with his one-man-show allocation of filmmaking duties, wherein he stars, produces, writes, and directs.

Like “The Gold Rush” before it and “City Lights” after, “The Circus” is comprised of a series of comedic events tied together by an overarching theme and setting. A prominent love story is also in the mix, amidst the recurring notion of a man unaware of his own hopelessness and, alternately, his worth, along with the potential of the woman he selflessly aids (with, of course, the motive of romance). Adding to the formula is Rex, King of the Air (Harry Crocker), a tightrope walker and love triangle role to complicate things for the tramp, who competes ineffectually against the more physically skilled acrobat. In the end, perhaps heralding Chaplin’s underdog role in “City Lights,” he sacrifices personal happiness for the greater possible happiness of others. But, as anticipated, it all works out quite pleasingly. “The Circus,” though not without striking qualities by itself, serves best as a poignant stepping stone to the auteur’s later, more famous projects, incorporating many of the elements that would make his subsequent pictures like “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator” such iconic masterpieces.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10