Release Date: 6 January 1928
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Duration: 70 minutes
With: Allan Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Henry Bergman, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Tiny Sandford, John Rand, Steve Murphy
Story: Hired as a clown by the ring master of a circus, the Tramp discovers he can only be funny unintentionally…
Production: Charlie Chaplin’s trip to The Circus (1928) is often overlooked, coming as it does between two bona fide classics—The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Immediately after The Gold Rush Chaplin reached a new level of fame (or, perhaps, notoriety). He’d spent months in New York, playing at being part of ‘high society’, while his wife and newborn son remained in Los Angeles. He’d embarked upon a short-lived affair with a pre-Pandora’s Box (1929) Louise Brooks, who was then best known for her W. C. Fields films; she would shortly marry Chaplin’s assistant director Edward Sutherland. Many of those who met Chaplin during this period came away with the peculiar feeling that they’d in fact experienced a ‘performance’ of ‘Charlie Chaplin’ and had not actually engaged with the real man. ‘Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you happen to encounter,’ said Max Eastman, ‘but don’t try to link them up to anything you can grasp. There are too many of them.’
In 1920 Chaplin had claimed: ‘My greatest ambition is to make a film about a clown.’ The ideas that eventually formed into The Circus had been running around in Chaplin’s head for a number of years. The making of the film would fulfil that ambition, but it would also cover a period of intense personal turmoil for Chaplin that included a major fire at his studio, estrangement and eventually divorce from Lita Grey, and demands from the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid back taxes. Through all the delays and distractions, Chaplin soldiered on in the making of a film that is often overlooked as part of his overall filmography. The Circus may not be an acclaimed classic, but it is still a great Chaplin film and deserves greater attention.
Prior to working on the new film Chaplin had hired 30-year-old Harry Crocker as his new assistant, replacing Eddie Sutherland. Born in 1893, Crocker was a journalist working for the Los Angeles Examiner. As well as working as Chaplin’s personal assistant through The Circus and City Lights, Crocker began an onscreen career, including his appearance as Rex the tightrope walker in The Circus and taking in such films as The Big Parade (1925), Tillie the Toiler (1927, opposite Marion Davies who was romantically connected both to Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst), right through to Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Crocker came from a wealthy San Francisco family whose fortune had come from the railroads, but he was attracted by the film business, initially working as an entertainment reporter for Hearst (ironically a great enemy of Chaplin, thanks to his dalliance with Davies). Cocker’s long-running column ‘Behind the Make-up’ ignored the kind of gossip peddled by Louella Parsons and focused instead on the business of filmmaking. He’d write several books on Hollywood, including an unpublished biography of Chaplin. Crocker and Chaplin would clash and fall out during the making of City Lights, but they would quickly reconcile and their friendship extended right through to Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux (1947; he worked as a publicist on both films) and Chaplin’s eventual exile in Europe. Crocker died in 1958, aged 64.
Chaplin and Crocker developed the basics of what would become The Circus during a 10-day working trip in November 1925 to a Monterey luxury resort known as Del Monte. It was reported that Chaplin monologue the outline of the film to Crocker (who took notes) for 28 hours non-stop, although there was as much politics and philosophy in Chaplin’s stream-of-consciousness outpouring as plot developments. Chaplin also spoke of the other roles he wanted to play in subsequent films, including Napoleon (in a long considered but ultimately unmade movie) and even Jesus Christ (a provocation to critics, no doubt; it seems unlikely that Chaplin would dare to take on that role). He’d also looked into filming Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club (which had previously been filmed four times in the US, Germany, and Britain, and would go on to be re-adapted many times over).
Chaplin had already hired a new leading lady for his next picture, 20-year old red head Merna Kennedy. Born to Maude Kahler in 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois, Kennedy was one of Lita Grey’s best friends. Her family background was troubled, with a parental divorce and much moving around, before settling in California where her mother remarried. Despite Kennedy’s friendship with his wife (or perhaps because of the taboo), Chaplin embarked upon an affair with her. She was an athletic dancer, ideal for the role of the bareback rider in The Circus, although at the time she had no acting experience beyond some limited stage vaudeville (it was Chaplin’s habit to pick co-stars with little experience he could shape as he wanted). She would go on to a series of minor roles in silents (Broadway, 1929) and into the talkies (King of Jazz, 1930; Son of a Sailor, 1933), only to retire in 1934 and marry choreography Busby Berkeley. That only lasted a year and the pair divorced in 1935, although Kennedy appears to have been economically independent following the divorce (there is no evidence of subsequent stage or film work). Later, in 1944, she would marry Master Sergeant Forrest Brayton in Las Vegas (having waited three years for him to complete his service in the Pacific), only to drop dead of a heart attack four days later. Merna Kennedy was only 36 years old.
Based upon Chaplin’s discussions with Crocker, production designer Danny Hall began sketching circus environments within which the action could take place and provide what today would be considered ‘storyboards’ of key sequences. Chaplin himself drew upon some elements of his Mutual short The Vagabond (1916), essentially the idea of a romantic triangle that in The Circus sets the Tramp up against Kennedy’s horse rider and Crocker’s tightrope walker. The cruel ringmaster (Garcia), who employs the Tramp, is Kennedy’s stepfather and recalls the cruel gypsy chief of The Vagabond. Chaplin also drew upon some of the comedy ideas of French comic Max Linder, who died in October 1925, for some elements of The Circus including Linder’s final film The King of the Circus.
On the run from the law (as he ever was), the Tramp stumbles into a circus tent mid-performance and proves to be the most popular clown with the audience. Hired to entertain the crowds, the tramp simply cannot get the hang of the gag routines. He’s fired, but retained as a prop man. Once more, he accidentally interrupts a performance while carrying a stack of dishes, and once more proves a hit. The wily circus owner keeps the Tramp around and manipulates him to enter the ring and inadvertently perform. He becomes the hit of the show (which was on its last legs), but is entirely unaware of this until the ringmaster’s daughter, the bareback rider (Kennedy), tells him. In between, there is comic business with lions, donkeys, and monkeys. Now the actual star of the circus (with his own dressing room) the Tramp romances the horse rider, only to face competition in the shape of new arrival, Rex the tightrope walker. The Tramp feels he can only compete by being as daring as Rex and so prepares to walk the tightrope. In the end, he realises that Rex and the girl belong together, and the circus leaves town without him.
Prior to the planned beginning of filming in January 1926, a full size circus tent was erected within the Chaplin studios, only to be blown away by an unexpected storm in early December 1925. The making of The Circus was off to an inauspicious start. Chaplin decided he must learn to properly walk the tight rope for the film to be convincing, so he dedicated weeks to the effort (he was supposedly taught this skill by Henry Bergman, an unlikely thought). A month into filming that included completion of the sequence where the monkeys attack Chaplin as he is walking the tightrope, it was discovered that a significant and noticeable scratch marred the negative for all the footage shot so far, meaning that much of the material had to be reshot, including Chaplin’s hard-won tightrope walking scenes.
During the period he was making The Circus, Charlie Chaplin was beset by several personal tragedies and problems. On 28 August 1928, his mother Hannah Chaplin died at the age of 61. She had been briefly ill, but Chaplin had every expectation that she would recover. Earlier, in September 1926 a major fire at the Chaplin studio destroyed the tent used on The Circus (again!) and many of the props required for the film. A famous photograph shows a disconsolate Chaplin amid the ruins of his circus set. His cameraman Rollie Totheroh also shot some dramatic footage of the aftermath of the fire. The fire was a major blow, compounded by a communication from the Internal Revenue Service that Chaplin was under investigation for non-payment of over $1 million in tax that could amount to criminal fraud. Initially related to his ownership of United Artists stock, as one of the co-founders of the company, the inquiry broadened out beyond that to cover much of Chaplin’s personal financial arrangements. Work on The Circus all but ceased and Chaplin retreated to the personal bungalow he’d had built on the studio property.
Early in January 1927, Lita Grey finally filed for divorce, recognising that the breakdown in relations between her and Chaplin was beyond saving. She left the family home taking their two children with her (by this point, she had given birth to a second son, Sydney). A major part of the allegation against Chaplin made by Grey concerned repeated attempts by him to pressure her into an abortion that included boasts that several women had done this for him, one of them twice (widely believed to have been Edna Purviance). Even more salaciously, Grey accused Chaplin of making her perform acts in service of his ‘abnormal, unnatural, perverted and degenerate sexual desires’. The complaint ran for 52 pages (at the time such documents were more usually only three or four pages) and made for sensational headlines in the press just at a time when Chaplin was at his lowest ebb. A statement was issued that the filmmaker had suffered ‘a serious nervous breakdown’ that had led to a suicide attempt in New York when he’d tried to jump out of a hotel bedroom window. At one point, Chaplin and his brother Sydney plotted a move to England, where Chaplin could resume his work unmolested.
Eventually, Chaplin turned a corner. His lawyers came to a settlement with the IRS, and similarly, a settlement for divorce was hashed out with Lita Grey’s representatives (including her lawyer uncle). In August 1927, Grey was awarded $625,000 and a $200,000 trust fund was established for the two Chaplin children. She agreed to withdraw all the charges in her lengthy complaint and settle on the basis of just one: ‘cruelty’. It was, at the time, the largest divorce settlement in American history. It also severely damaged Chaplin’s reputation, but worse was to come in the following years…
Although the majority of The Circus had been completed by November 1926, Chaplin returned to the film at the end of August 1927 to finish it (after a delay of eight months) a changed man—his black hair had turned almost completely silver/white nearly overnight. ‘I was shocked, profoundly shocked,’ said Henry Bergman in response to Chaplin’s changed appearance. ‘If anybody ever wanted proof of what Charlie had been through, that was it.’ Chaplin worked hard to achieve the right feeling for the final scene of the film that shows him alone where the circus ring had been, everyone else having left. It was first shot in Glendale, then a suburb of Los Angeles, but Chaplin kept revisiting it and reshooting it. Watching dallies of the scene, he repeatedly found things to criticise, from his own performance to the lighting, to the way the Tramp was wearing his hat. Nothing was quite right, but in the end he had to pick a final shot, as the film was mere months from opening.
Recognising the growing importance of music in filmmaking, Chaplin decided to commission a special score for The Circus. He enlisted Arthur Kay to replace the temporary music used on previews of the film in Glendale and Los Angeles with a bespoke score. Always interested in composing, Chaplin worked closely with Kay in devising the music for the film.
The release of The Circus had been significantly delayed by the ongoing litigation in the divorce from Lita Grey, with Chaplin fearing among his latest film would be seized as part of his sequestrated assets, recalling the situation that affected the completion of The Kid several years before. The film finally premiered in New York on 6 January 1928, two years after production had begun. By this time, the era of the silent movie was coming to an end (The Jazz Singer, 1927, had been released just a few months earlier), but Chaplin stuck to his guns as a silent filmmaker. It would be an issue that would dominate his next few films as he faced the challenge of either adapting to sound filmmaking or refusing—instead, he chose a kind of equivocal middle ground.
Chaplin was somewhat wary of the reception his latest film might get from a critical press that had reported every development in his divorce from Lita Grey with some glee. He was also aware that the acclaim that had followed The Gold Rush was unlikely to be repeated—perhaps critics were ready for Chaplin to fail? In the event, he need not have worried. Billed by Chaplin as ‘a low-brow comedy for high brows’, he claimed that The Circus makes ‘no attempt at great drama but [is] intended purely and simply as a laugh provoker.’ This over cautious defensive stance was not necessary as The Circus was largely met with positive reviews.
The New York Times said that The Circus was ‘likely to please intensely those who found something slightly wanting in The Gold Rush, but at the same time it will prove a little disappointing to those who revelled in the poetry and fine humour of his previous adventure.’ The Nation said that The Circus saw Chaplin giving a ‘solo performance’ with the supporting cast ‘not more than competent’ (a sideswipe at Kennedy and Crocker, no doubt). Variety labelled The Circus ‘a corker’ and claimed it was his best picture to that point.
In the first year of their existence, Charlie Chaplin found himself unexpectedly nominated in a quartet of awards in the new Academy Awards (soon to become known as the Oscars). The Circus was nominated as Outstanding Picture (today’s Best Film category), and Chaplin himself was nominated as Best Director, Comedy Picture; as Best Actor; and for Best Writing (Original Story). As it was, Chaplin would not face the horror of a ‘popularity contest’, as he saw it.
Instead, Chaplin found himself withdrawn from the competition and awarded a special Academy Award for 1927-28. The citation accompanying the award read: ‘For his versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus.’ The celebratory banquet for the Oscar ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on 16 May 1929 was the first ever held by the Academy. Feeling that competitive awards for filmmaking was an inherently silly idea, Chaplin declined to attend. He did, however, treasure the special Oscar he was awarded despite this.
Career and personal analogies abound in The Circus. Produced during one of Chaplin’s most troubled times, the film can be read as reflecting (consciously or unconsciously) what was going on in his world during its creation. He returns the Tramp figure to his roots, on the street but becoming intrigued by the circus that has come to town. Some comic business with a pick-pocket sees the innocent Tramp and the guilty thief alike on the run from the police. This flight brings him into the circus’s hall of mirrors, where he confronts several distorted versions of himself.
Spanish writer Fernando Vela wrote (in 1928) of The Circus, referring specifically to the hall of mirrors scene: ‘Chaplin is a tramp who has lost his way in the world. He lived in a different world, but one day, without realising it, he half-opened a door and fell, making a famous clown’s entrance, into a world with fewer dimensions, where the mirrors cannot be stepped through, where every step is a stumble.’
Cleverly shot (it had to be to keep Totheroh’s camera out of sight), the hall of mirrors sequence tips off the viewer that this film is holding up a mirror to Chaplin’s life. Hired as a clown, he finds it difficult to be funny ‘on demand’ and doesn’t understand the basic slapstick elements of comedy. That both routines—William Tell and the Barbershop Bit—are old vaudeville efforts suggests that Chaplin is dissecting his own past and perhaps passing comment on his earliest films, primarily those made at Keystone and Essanay, when he was finding his feet in a new medium.
Later, walking on the tightrope, the Tramp is assailed by monkeys that proceed to steal his trousers. Supposedly drawn from a dream or a nightmare Chaplin had (according to Henry Bergman), this could be seen as reflecting his battle with Lita Grey, the fear that she’d have the shirt off his back (or his trousers) by attaching his film to her divorce complaint and so upset his ability to make a living. Or, alternatively, it could just be a bit of comedy business with some monkeys…
Vela’s comment that Chaplin had become a clown without realising it is also reflected in the overall storyline of the Tramp not realising (at first) that he is the comic hit of the circus and is being taken advantage of by his employer (this was Chaplin’s view of some of his earlier studio employers, like Keystone and Essanay). This also alludes to Chaplin’s own working methods as they had developed over the past 15 years of his career. He could not just ‘be funny’ on demand, but had to work at, developing bits of business into longer scenes. All this took time, hence the increasing gaps between movie releases. It is possible to see much in The Circus, but at its heart it was a further exploration of the character of Chaplin’s Tramp, who continued to make his way through life no matter the obstacles. At the film’s conclusion, the Tramp tosses away the paper star from the circus perhaps symbolic of Chaplin finally outgrowing Hollywood’s own star system.
Trivia: This is perhaps the oddest trivia item yet in the history of Chaplin: Film by Film. Is there a time traveller from the future hiding in a promotional film covering the premiere of The Circus? In 2017 an avid viewer pointed out what they believed to be a mobile phone user in the background of a scene from the premiere. Clearly, that couldn’t be the case as such technology simply didn’t exist in 1926-28 when the film was in production. The woman in question, who appears to be in the position of holding a phone to her ear while walking along, could be listening to a radio—although in the clip in question (which is on the DVD of The Circus) seems to show the woman talking at the same time. Obviously, this is a visual/psychological trick where a modern interpretation had been put on old footage, but it makes for great speculation, and anything that highlights Chaplin’s work is worthwhile…
Chaplin’s personal life throughout the period of the making of The Circus has also been seen as the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita (note the similarity to the name of Chaplin’s wife: Lillita MacMurray/Lita Grey).
Version Control: In 1971, Chaplin revisited The Circus and re-cut it for re-issue. The changes were not as drastic as those made to The Gold Rush, but did include the addition of a new song ‘Swing, Little Girl’ over the opening credits, composed and sung by Chaplin himself (then in his late-70s). Beyond that, the film is substantially the same as that released in 1928. Current releases on DVD and Blu-ray include a deleted scene shot during downtime when the studio sets were being rebuilt following the fire. Chaplin took his two leads, Merna Kennedy and Henry Crocker, to Sunset Boulevard to shoot a sequence in which the Tramp, thinking he’s on a date ends up having to include Rex in the party. Some business with twin prizefighters (actually played by a single actor through camera trickery) fills out the scene. Some other material from the making of The Circus can be seen in the indispensable Unknown Chaplin documentary series.
Charlie Says: ‘Hearst could be extremely naïve. When we were going to a premiere of one of Marion’s pictures, he would invite me to drive with them, and before arriving at the entrance of the theatre he would get out so as not to be seen arriving with Marion…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964
Verdict: Often overlooked, The Circus contains some of Chaplin’s best stuff. The opening 20 minutes or so function as a standalone two-reeler, while the chaos in The Circus is entertaining. Perhaps not top notch Chaplin, but worth watching.
—Brian J. Robb
Next: City Lights (30 January 1931)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
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