Released in 1928, The Circus marked the final appearance of the Little Tramp during the silent. era. 1928 was a time of transition for the motion picture industry. It would be the only year where silent movies and talkies were produced in roughly the same number. By 1929, most films had dialogue. Chaplin would make two more Little Tramp silent in the 1930’s, City Lights and Modern Times, before acknowledging the changing times and retiring the Little Tramp in 1936, never having uttered a word.
Production on The Circus came at a tough time for Chaplin. Not only was he has going through personal problems at home–his mother died, tax issues and a contentious divorce–but a major fire broke out at the studio. Things were so bad for Chaplin, he suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped work on the film for several months. Knowing that information, it’s even more amazing that The Circus is as good as it is.
Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, The Little Tramp escapes the police by running into the circus. While interfering with the ongoing clown act. Believing him to be part of the act, the audience finds the Tramp’s antics hilarious. Seeing a potential goldmine, the dour owner-ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia) a dour man who mocks and physically abuses his circus rider stepdaughter, Merna (Merna Kennedy) hires the Tramp and offers him a job as a property master.
Audiences are quick to refer to the Tramp as The Funny Man. The success of his performances makes the owner lots of money. Realizing that the Tramp isn’t properly paid for his work, Merna encourages him to demand fair compensation. Unfortunately, the Tramp misinterprets her words and instead falls madly in love with her. He sets out to protect her from the abuse inflicted by her stepfather.
The story is a rather simple one, but several hilarious set pieces make The Circus worthy of being considered Chaplin classic. The opening pickpocket/sideshow sequence is decidedly clever. It includes a house of mirrors scene in which several Tramps, policeman and strangers chase each other. Impressive, particularly for the time. One of my favorite scenes is when the Tramp and Merna are watching Rex (the guy she’s fallen in love with), on the tightrope. At one point, he almost falls. Everyone in the tent reacts with shock, except for Chaplin who smiles delightfully and claps enthusiastically.
While we can certainly debate who was the best silent era comedian–Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would be in a close race–no one was better than Chaplin at expressing emotions, particularly when it concerned matters of the heart. He radiates with joy when he believes Merna is in love with him. He’s filled with anger when he sees her with Rex.
Though not as highly regarded as City Lights or The Gold Rush, The Circus offers a wonderful combination of silliness and style so identified with the Little Tramp. Putting him in a circus gives him endless opportunities for prat falls and other sight gags only Charlie Chaplin could create.
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a strong one. The image is pleasing throughout, with no real issues to mention. As with other Chaplin films, this is not the original release version, but rather Chaplin’s preferred 1969 reissue. It has new opening and closing titles, a new title song and music by the director-star recorded circa 1967. It’s presented here in a 1.0 LPCM format.
Criterion has included an impressive slate of old and new extras:
- Audio Commentary with Chaplin Biographer Jeffrey Vance: In this running, screen-specific commentary, Vance offers a look at cast and crew, story and characters, music, aspects of Chaplin’s career and notes on the production. Vance clearly knows his stuff and this is an informative track.
- Chaplin Today: The Circus (HD, 26:32) Clips from the film are shown, along with some archival materials. There’s some discussion of Chaplin’s background and methods. Filmmaker Emil Kusturica occasionally offers his thoughts.
- Stepping Out (HD, 9:52) A deleted sequence presents a “date” gone wrong between the Tramp, Merna and Rex.
- Outtakes (HD, 29: 42) Multiple iterations of the restaurant scene found in the prior “Deleted Scene.” It’s interesting to see just how much of a perfectionist Chaplin was.
- A Ring For Merna (HD, 7:29) Additional outtakes
- The Hollywood Premiere (HD, 6:37) A glance at the films elaborate premiere and a peek at the luminaries as they arrive.
- Interview with Eugene Chaplin (HD, 14;54) Eugene discusses memories of his famous father, gives us a tour of the Chaplin estate in Switzerland and shares home movies.
- In the Service of the Story (HD, 20:31) Film scholar Craig Barron discusses aspects of the film, with particular focus on Chaplin’s visual humor and some technical aspects.
- Interview with Chaplin’s Musical Collaborator Eric James (Audio, 9:55) Conducted by Jeffrey Vance in 1988, James discusses his work with Chaplin. It’s interesting to hear from someone who actually worked with the man.
- Swing Little Girl (Audio, 5:12) A session for a song co-composed recorded for a 1968 re-release of
- Charlie Chaplin in 1969 offers (5:17 in HD) of interview clips.
- Re-release Trailers (HD, 5:21)
- Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.
The Circus (1928)
Movie title: The Circus
Director(s): Charles Chaplin
Actor(s): Charles Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia , Merna Kennedy , Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, ,
Genre: Romance, Comedy