Finding autobiographical elements in the films of Charlie Chaplin is not a difficult task . Ironically, The Circus, his film most invaded by matters in his personal life until A King in New York, was left entirely out of Chaplin’s autobiography. The sordid production details involve divorce, numerous affairs, sets aflame, a stolen circus train and the IRS. The painful process of making the film eclipses most any review of the film even ninety years after its making.
It must have seemed a disappointment to Chaplin after all that. Although it became his third highest-grossing film and was given a prize at the first Academy Awards, it’s rarely mentioned in the same way as the film preceding it (The Gold Rush) or the three that would follow (City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator). The film itself is no disappointment, however. It’s a slighter bit of Chaplin that relies on elaborate setpieces and only falters when it strains to reach the pathos of his best films.
Through a series of mishaps and mistakes, Chaplin’s Tramp character finds himself chased by the police, as is his wont. The cops chase our hero into the big top of a circus where the Tramp inadvertently becomes part of a slapstick routine and wins the thunderous approval of the crowd. He makes his escape as the audience demands the return of “the funny man.” The oblivious Tramp, however, has fallen asleep in his hiding place outside the tent. “The Funny Man” says the intertitle before cutting to an image of a rumpled Chaplin huddled and alone in the back of a haycart.
The impromptu performance is enough to score the Tramp an audition as a clown the next day. The other clowns walk him through the motions of their old routines and ask him to replicate them. Here Chaplin shows his comic ingenuity as the Tramp proceeds to unwittingly improve on each routine by failing to perform them correctly. Further circumstances see Chaplin employed at a pittance as a property man whose bumbling nonetheless makes him the star of the show.
If the depictions of the exacting talents of Chaplin as so natural that he himself is unaware of them seems a little disingenuous, the love story makes for an outright whopper. The Tramp falls for the circus proprietor’s abused daughter. The daughter is played by Merna Kennedy – one of Chaplin’s real-life paramours, naturally – who strangely is also called Merna onscreen by the other characters. It is she who informs the Tramp in that he’s the real star and allows him to cash in on his fame and talent (he returns the favor by using his newfound status to get her father to stop beating her for a moment).
Alas, Merna falls for a hunky tightrope walker named Rex, a man with dashing looks and the sense to update his wardrobe when paid fairly. The heartbroken Tramp cannot perform like he used to and he’s given just one more chance to earn the laughs that made him a star. In the meantime, the Tramp has been practicing tightrope walking on his own. When Rex fails to show up for a performance, the ringmaster sends the Tramp in to replace him. In the film’s signature sequence, The Tramp performs the tightrope act first with the aid of a hidden wire, then minus the wire and plus several escaped monkeys.
Chaplin’s anxiety about being left behind is the subtext of a few of Chaplin’s longer works. Modern Times would later fret about Chaplin’s career after the introduction of sound and Limelight worries about his place in cinema history. The Chaplin who made The Circus had plenty of other matters on his mind at the time, and The Jazz Singer would not be a recognized gamechanger until after the release of The Circus.* But one can sense Chaplin’s concern with show business leaving him behind like the Tramp at the end of the film, watching as the circus wagons depart. He can outclown the clowns, but can he match the physical feats of his contemporaries?
In his own way he does, though much like the Tramp’s subversion of the clowning routines, he does so through ingenuity rather than straight-up courage. Sure Lloyd makes it clear there’s no trickery when he’s hanging from that clock in Safety Last and Keaton really did have to calculate how to make a house façade fall around him without killing him in Steamboat Bill Jr. And by comparison Chaplin’s tightrope routine leans heavy on the camera tricks. There’s only one wide shot showing the relation of the wire to the ground and the absence of a net and it’s during the part when the safety wire is in play. But while actual danger is eschewed, Chaplin uses the safety wire to enhance the gag as the Tramp performs acrobatic feats on the wire – including hovering over it, staff in hand. Also, Lloyd and Keaton may have risked death in their stunts, but did they perform them while being pantsed by monkeys?
After seeing off the happily-wedded Merna and Rex, the Tramp reverts from show business star to poor little put-upon tramp once again, a man unlucky in love and money whose wits never fail him even when his courage does. Chaplin’s weariness with the world of stardom starts to show in the world of The Circus, though it’s worth noting both worlds are of his own creation.
* In a bit of retro-anxiety, Jeffrey Vance notes that when Chaplin later oversaw sound version of The Circus, for the final scene of the Tramp being left behind by the circus he “scored that sequence with ‘Blue Skies’, the song Jolson had made famous, only Chaplin played it slowly and sorrowfully, like a funeral dirge.”