Tuesday, June 12, 2012


The Circus (1928)

This week Charlie Chaplin's The Circus is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other interesting reviews over there. 

The ending of The Circus, the silent film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1928, reminded me of the ending of a typical Bollywood film where the hero sacrifices his love for the sake of his best friend.

In this film the Tramp steps aside so that Rex (Harry Crocker), a tight rope walker in the circus where they are both employed, can marry the girl of his dreams, played by Merna Kennedy.

As Rex and his new wife, a circus rider and the stepdaughter of the mustachioed owner and ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia), depart with the caravan of clowns and animals for a new town, the Tramp replaces his bowler hat and walks away, his little suited frame moving from side to side in that familiar manner we know so well. 

The film is funny right from the start when policemen chase the broke and hungry Tramp because they suspect him for a pickpocket. The Tramp seeks refuge in the circus and finds himself in the ring, smack in the middle of an act that fails to excite the restless spectators. The Tramp, inadvertently so, brings the circus alive with his mad dash in and out of the big tent with the cop hot on his heels. The audience thinks it is all part of the show: they jump out of their seats, throw their hats into the ring and burst into uproarious laughter, demanding more buffoonery from the Tramp who clearly has more pressing matters on his mind, like saving his skin.

It’s not long before the ringmaster, a mean taskmaster, realises that the fortunes of his loss-making circus lie with the Tramp and exploits the situation to his advantage. However, it takes the ringmaster a while to realise that the Tramp is funny without appearing or meaning to be so. He can't be trained as a clown.

There are many tender moments in this film, like the time when the Tramp, reluctant at first, gives away his single boiled egg and sliced bread to the horse-riding girl who is prohibited, by her overbearing stepfather, from eating for the rest of the day. 

As the Tramp turns the circus around, unwittingly, he uses it as a clever leverage to demand better treatment of the girl he has fallen in love with. Later, he overhears the girl tell a fortuneteller of her love for the tight rope walker. This breaks his heart and he begins to under-perform till the ringmaster kicks him out of the circus. In the end he unites Rex and the girl and walks away, as he usually does in his inimitable style.

The most memorable scene in the film is when the Tramp, while running away from the ringmaster (I think), accidently enters the lion’s cage and gets locked in. This scene, captured in the presence of a real lion, or so I read, runs for nearly ten minutes and is an absolute stand-out. It’s an edge-of-the-seat comic scene, if there’s ever one, especially in a silent movie. 

The Circus, one of two of my favourite Chaplin films, the other being The Kid (1921), won the Tramp his first Academy Award. I am not surprised it did for The Circus is one of the most hilarious and entertaining films I have seen from Chaplin’s portfolio. Not all Chaplin films succeed in making you laugh, but this one does and all the way through its 71-minute run.

I have always rated Charlie Chaplin a few notches lower than Laurel and Hardy who will always rank first, for me at least, followed by Buster Keaton, Marx Brothers and the rest of a fine class of comedians that include The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, and George Burns. 

Laurel and Hardy are as jobless, penniless and hungry as the Tramp, but it is the sheer innocence and cheerful disposition of the duo, in spite of the unending troubles they find themselves in, which endears them to my comic senses. Laurel and Hardy is slapstick in its truest form which often seems contrived in Chaplin’s films: their stark portrayal of life’s realities often overshadows the absurd hilarities I expect from comedy films. With Laurel and Hardy you have no such worries — you sit back and soak up the humour. 


  1. Charlie had a real sentimental streak, which you don't find in Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton. Nice review; I've never seen this film, and the lion sequence sounds like it makes the film worth a watch all by itself.

  2. Ron, the sentimental aspect of the Tramp never occurred to me. Thanks for mentioning it. One views the same film in so many different ways. The lion scene, I thought, was very well done. I wonder if the film crew had a tranquilliser gun ready at hand, just in case...

  3. Great choice Prashant - this is perhaps the real forgotten film amongst Chaplin's silent feature films. <My admiration for Chaplin has increased over the years though Buster Keaton remains my own personal favourite.

  4. Thanks very much, Sergio. Many of his early films, I'd assume, have been forgotten. A few years ago, I bought a few CDs of his films which, strangely, are no longer available easily in Bombay. While I also have a formidable collection of L&H, I have absolutely nothing on Buster Keaton. I don't know if his films are on DVDs.

  5. I have seen very few Chaplin movies. I think the charm of silent films basically eludes me. I am so much about speech rather than sight.

  6. I saw this, or parts of it anyway, in a show 'about' silent movies, and I was surprised at how well it came off.

  7. Patti, I prefer talking films over silent movies too. The latter can entertain only to an extent. One of the English movie channels out here has been showing Chaplin films regularly for the past one year or so.

  8. Charles, I think Charlie Chaplin honed the art of silent films and he carried them off well. Though, I wonder if I'd like Mel Brooks' THE SILENT MOVIE if I watched it now.

  9. I love Chaplin's film, The Great Dictator in which he plays a Hitler like character. The scene where he and the Italian dictator meet is simply hilarious.