The Circus (1928 film)

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The Circus
Original US poster by Alvan "Hap" Hadley
Directed byCharlie Chaplin
Written byCharlie Chaplin
Produced byCharlie Chaplin
StarringCharlie Chaplin
Al Ernest Garcia
Merna Kennedy
Henry Bergman
CinematographyRoland Totheroh
Music byArthur Kay
(1928 version)
Charlie Chaplin
(1967 version)
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • January 6, 1928 (1928-01-06) (New York)
  • January 27, 1928 (1928-01-27) (Los Angeles)
Running time
70 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesSilent film
English intertitles
Box office$3.8 million (worldwide rentals)[1]

The Circus is a 1928 silent romantic comedy film written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin. The film stars Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker, George Davis and Henry Bergman. The ringmaster of an impoverished circus hires Chaplin's Little Tramp as a clown, but discovers that he can only be funny unintentionally.

The production of the film was the most difficult experience in Chaplin's career. Numerous problems and delays occurred, including a studio fire, the death of Chaplin's mother, as well as Chaplin's bitter divorce from his second wife Lita Grey, and the Internal Revenue Service's claims of Chaplin's owing back taxes, all of which culminated in filming being stalled for eight months.[2] The Circus was the seventh-highest grossing silent film in cinema history taking in more than $3.8 million in 1928.[1] The film continues to receive high praise. The film's copyright was renewed, so it entered the public domain on January 1, 2024.[3]


The Circus (1928) by Charlie Chaplin

At a circus midway, the penniless and hungry Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket and chased by both the police and the real crook (the latter having stashed a stolen wallet and watch in the Tramp's pocket to avoid detection). Running away, the Tramp stumbles into the middle of a performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show.

The ringmaster/proprietor of the struggling circus gives him a tryout the next day, but the Tramp fails miserably. However, when the property men quit because they have not been paid, he gets hired on the spot to take their place. Once again, he inadvertently creates comic mayhem during a show. The ringmaster craftily hires him as a poorly paid property man who is always stationed in the performance area of the big top tent so he can unknowingly improvise comic material.

The Tramp befriends Merna, a horse rider who is treated badly by her ringmaster stepfather. She later informs the Tramp that he is the star of the show, forcing the ringmaster to pay him accordingly. With the circus thriving because of him, the Tramp also is able to secure better treatment for Merna.

After overhearing a fortune teller inform Merna that she sees "love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who is near you now", the overjoyed Tramp buys a ring from another clown. Alas for him, she meets Rex, the newly hired tightrope walker. The Tramp eavesdrops as she rushes to tell the fortune teller that she has fallen in love with the new man. With his heart broken, the Tramp is unable to entertain the crowds. After several poor performances, the ringmaster warns him he has only one more chance.

When Rex cannot be found for a performance, the ringmaster (knowing that the Tramp has been practicing the tightrope act in hopes of supplanting his rival) sends the Tramp out in his place. Despite a few mishaps, including several mischievous escaped monkeys, he manages to survive the experience and receives much applause from the audience. However, when he sees the ringmaster slapping Merna around afterward, he beats the man and is fired.

Merna runs away to join him. The Tramp finds and brings Rex back with him to marry Merna. The trio go back to the circus. The ringmaster starts berating his stepdaughter, but stops when Rex informs him that she is his wife. When the traveling circus leaves, the Tramp remains behind. He picks himself up and starts walking jauntily away.


Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy



Chaplin first began discussing his ideas for a film about a circus as early as 1920.[4] In late 1925, he returned from New York to California and began working on developing the film at Charlie Chaplin Studios. Set designer Danny Hall sketched out Chaplin's early ideas for the film, with Chaplin returning to one of his older films, The Vagabond (1916), and drawing upon similar story ideas and themes for The Circus.[5][6] Chaplin was a long time admirer of French comedian Max Linder, who had died in October 1925, and often borrowed gags and plot devices from Linder's films. Some critics have pointed out the similarities between The Circus and Linder's last completed film The King of the Circus.[7]


Filming began on January 11, 1926 and the majority was completed by November.[8][9] After the first month of filming, it was discovered that the film negative had been scratched; restoration work was able to eventually adjust the negative.[10] A major fire broke out at Chaplin's studios in September, delaying production for a month.[10][11] Chaplin was served with divorce papers by Lita Grey in December, and litigation delayed the release of the film for another year.


The Circus finally premiered in New York City on January 6, 1928, at the Strand Theatre,[12] and in Los Angeles on January 27 at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre.[13] It came right at the beginning of the sound film era,[14] with the very first feature sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), having been released just months earlier.

Chaplin composed a new score for the film in 1967, and this new version of the film (see below) was copyrighted in 1968 to "The Roy Export Company Establishment" and released in 1969.


Advertisement from 1927 Motion Picture News

The Circus was well received by audiences and critics, and while its performance at the box office was good, it earned less than The Gold Rush (1925).[15] Some critics consider it and The Gold Rush to be Chaplin's two best comedies.[16]

In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall reported that it 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 reveled in the poetry, the pathos and fine humor of his previous adventure." Hall went on to write that there were passages "that are undoubtedly too long and others that are too extravagant for even this blend of humor. But Chaplin's unfailing imagination helps even when the sequence is obviously slipping from grace."[17]

Variety ran a very positive review, stating that "For the picture patrons, all of them, and for broad, laughable fun - Chaplin's best. It's Charlie Chaplin's best fun maker for other reasons: because it is the best straightaway story he has employed for broad film making, and because here his fun stuff is nearly all entirely creative or original in the major point."[18]

Commenting on the long wait for the film's release, Film Daily wrote that "it was worth it, for, if you are prone to favor superlatives here is an opportunity to coin several fresh ones" and that Chaplin was "as inimitable today as he was in the days of his two-reelers."[19]

In The New Yorker, Oliver Claxton wrote that the film was "a little disappointing. There are one or two moments when it is very funny, but there are long stretches when it is either mild or dull."[20]


Film historian Jeffrey Vance views The Circus as an autobiographical metaphor:

He joins the circus and revolutionizes the cheap little knockabout comedy among the circus clowns, and becomes an enormous star. But by the end of the movie, the circus is packing up and moving on without him. Chaplin's left alone in the empty circus ring... It reminds me of Chaplin and his place in the world of the cinema. The show is moving on without him. He filmed that sequence four days after the release of The Jazz Singer (the first successful talkie) in New York. When he put a score to The Circus in 1928, Chaplin scored that sequence with "Blue Skies", the song Jolson had made famous, only Chaplin played it slowly and sorrowfully, like a funeral dirge.[21]

In his commentary track for the Criterion Collection home video release of the film, Vance notes:

Chaplin—a great cinema auteur—revealed his innermost feelings through his films. In The Circus, he fashioned a scenario that places The Tramp within the confines of a circus and, in so doing, documents, celebrates, and memorializes his own position as the greatest clown of his time. And, that accomplishment—beyond the wonderful comedy—ranks The Circus a major Chaplin film of considerable importance.[22]

Musical rescoring[edit]

In 1947, Hanns Eisler worked on music for the film. Eisler then used the music he composed for his Septet No. 2 ("Circus") for flute and piccolo, clarinet in B flat, bassoon, and string quartet. Eisler's sketch of scene sequences and rhythms is in the Hans Eisler Archive in Berlin.[23]

In 1967, Chaplin composed a new musical score for the film and a recording of him singing "Swing Little Girl" playing over the opening credits.[24] A new version of the film opened in New York on December 15, 1969, with the new score.[25] It was released in London in December 1970.[26]


Charlie Chaplin was originally nominated for three Academy Awards, but the Academy took Chaplin out of the running by giving him a Special Award "for writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus."[26][27] The Academy no longer lists Chaplin's nominations in their official list of nominees, although most unofficial lists include him.[28]

Academy Award Nominee
Best Director, Comedy Picture Charlie Chaplin
Best Actor Charlie Chaplin
Best Writing (Original Story) Charlie Chaplin


The Academy Film Archive preserved The Circus in 2002.[29]

Home media[edit]

The Circus was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2019, which include trailers of the film, archival footage from the production, and an audio commentary track by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.[22]


The iconic image of the Tramp walking alone but jauntily into the distance that concluded several of Chaplin's earlier shorts, appears here for the first and only time in any of his feature-length film. (Modern Times had the Tramp with a companion.)

The closing scene from The Circus is shown as the ending in both the 1992 biopic Chaplin and a 2021 documentary, The Real Charlie Chaplin.


  1. ^ a b "Biggest Money Pictures". Variety. June 21, 1932. p. 62. His 'The Circus' did a total of $3,800,000.
  2. ^ Bourne, Mark (2004). "The Circus: The Chaplin Collection". Reviews. The DVD Journal. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  3. ^ "Catalog of copyright entries. Ser.3 pt.12-13 v.9-12 1955-1958 Motion Pictures".
  4. ^ Milton, Joyce (1998). Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. Da Capo Press. p. 256. ISBN 0-306-80831-5.
  5. ^ Ede, François (director); Kusturica, Emir; Chaplin, Charlie (2003). Chaplin Today: The Circus (DVD). France: Association Chaplin, France 5, MK2TV, Warner Bros.
  6. ^ "Charlie Chaplin : The Vagabond". Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  7. ^ Wakeman, John. World Film Directors, Volume 1. The H. W. Wilson Company. 1987. p. 675.
  8. ^ Lynn 1997, p. 308.
  9. ^ Mitchell 1997, p. 58.
  10. ^ a b Mitchell 1997, p. 57.
  11. ^ Flom, Eric L. (1997). Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies. McFarland. p. 34. ISBN 0-7864-0325-X.
  12. ^ Vance, Jeffrey (2003). Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. Harry N. Abram. pp. 182–183. ISBN 0-8109-4532-0.
  13. ^ Lynn 1997, p. 313.
  14. ^ Crafton, Donald (1999). "The Uncertainty of Sound". The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. Vol. 4. University of California Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-520-22128-1.
  15. ^ Maland, Charles J. (1991). Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02860-5.
  16. ^ "Charles Spencer Chaplin". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 3 (2nd ed.). Gale. 2004. pp. 438–440.
  17. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (January 9, 1928). "Movie Review". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved November 16, 2014.
  18. ^ "The Circus". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc.: 16 January 11, 1928.
  19. ^ "The Circus". The Film Daily: 1. January 9, 1928.
  20. ^ Claxton, Oliver (January 14, 1928). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Company. p. 65.
  21. ^ Weddle, David (April 28, 2003). "Nothing Obvious or Easy: Chaplin's Feature Films". Variety. Vol. 390, no. 11. p. 6. ISSN 0042-2738.
  22. ^ a b "The Circus". Criterion.
  23. ^ Niklew, Christiane; Reinhold, Daniela; Rienäcker, Helgard (1998) [1984]. "Inventar der Musikautographe im Hanns-Eisler-Archiv" [Inventory of the autographs in the Hanns-Eisler-Archive]. In Maren Köster (ed.). Hanns Eisler - 's müßt dem Himmel Höllenangst werden (in German). Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Künste. pp. 201–295. ISBN 3923997833.
  24. ^ King, Susan (October 16, 2002). "Chaplin's big-top tension, on and off the screen". Los Angeles Times. p. E.3. Robinson, David (2004). "The Circus". Archived from the original on October 30, 2010. "Swing Little Girl".
  25. ^ Ede 2003. See also: American Film Institute (1997). Krafsur, Richard P. (ed.). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1961-1970, Part 2. University of California Press. p. 179. ISBN 0-520-20970-2. Elliott, David (December 1, 1994). "'Circus' is pure sound of 'silents'". The San Diego Union. p. 16. Greenspun, Roger (December 16, 1969). "Little Tramp:'Circus,' '28 Film With Chaplin, Is Revived". The New York Times. Raabe, Nancy (September 30, 1994). "A familiar tune: Chaplin's 'Circus' to be shown with original score". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  26. ^ a b Mitchell 1997, p. 59.
  27. ^ "The Circus". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 3, 2014.
  28. ^ Dirks, Tim. "1927–28 Academy Awards Winners and History". Filmsite. Rainbow Media. Archived from the original on July 24, 2010. Retrieved October 30, 2020.
  29. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.


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