Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus is a beautifully bookended chapter in the life of the Tramp as he enjoys his 15 minutes of fame after his natural, if not unintentional, knack for comedy is discovered by a circus ringmaster. While everyone else involved with the production has worked tirelessly on their craft, Chaplin’s Tramp winds up in his situation by absolute chance. He’s funnier than the clowns but doesn’t understand the simple fundamentals of comedy and can only be funny when he’s not trying. He can walk the tightrope successfully but there’s no cleanliness to his act—no showmanship.
Compared to its operatic-like predecessors The Kid and The Gold Rush, The Circus is remarkably low in stakes and yet Chaplin manages to find a way to keep the plot moving in clever, unexpected directions. One could see the 1928 film as the filmmaker’s commentary on the rapidly changing state of Hollywood in the advent of the talkie (even before The Jazz Singer was released in late 1927, change had been bubbling under). Talents were born overnight while many of those who had been at the craft for years weren’t cutting it in the new landscape and losing their jobs.
In Chaplin’s story, he presents an alternative outcome. For the filmmaker, the Tramp’s tragedy conveys an idealistic fate for this unrefined yet fortuitous batch of newcomers. Although you can’t teach funny, there are people in this world who luck into their situation. And Chaplin, ever the workman, uses this as a chance to speak on that. He makes sure never to blame the performer himself but rather the people who urge him into the spotlight, usually out of desperation to appease an audience who doesn’t know method from madness. Of course the performer says yet; he’s promised the world.
By the end of the movie, the Tramp’s girlfriend leaves him for a professional tightrope walker, and every party involved is better for it, even if that’s not obvious at first. The Tramp, realizing he’s merely been an imposter this whole time, walks away from the cavalcade of circus carriages to embark on his new endeavor.
From a technical standpoint, The Circus sees Chaplin fully refined, visually, for the first time. Showcasing a keen eye for photographic imagery, the director, along with his DP Roland Totheroh, improves vastly this time around, really focusing on framing and staging more than ever, while adding even more special effects to his repertoire.
His smartest script since the one for 1921’s The Kid, this story focuses on the people and circumstances involved rather than trying to land the joke—which he still does plenty of times. However, he doesn’t get off track with digressions and non-sequitur skits. Here, the bits are worked into the overall narrative and nothing is forced.
As Chaplin’s first meaningful foray into metafiction, The Circus is also perhaps his most underrated film, mostly due to the fact that it was seldom seen for some 40 years before its rerelease in the late ‘60s (though it’s the 7th-highest-grossing silent in history). Singin’ in the Rain about 24 years in advance, this picture is a satire on charlatanism and career misguidance, all while acting as a love letter to movies as a whole.