If The Circus is one of Charlie Chaplin's lesser-known films, it's only because of bad timing. Made right after The Gold Rush and just before City Lights, this unjustly underrated silent tends to get neglected out of deference to the two other films. While it may not be a cinematic masterpiece, nevertheless, it's a beautiful film and perhaps more personal that anyone might have suspected at the time and is one of the funniest, most purely entertaining of Chaplin's features.
The film opens on a circus where the ringmaster is an abusive bully, the clowns are desperately unfunny, and the audiences are growing smaller and smaller. As act after act bombs inside, the Little Tramp is outside, blithely enjoying the boardwalk until a cop mistakes him for a pickpocket and gives chase. When the Little Tramp runs into the circus' center ring, he quickly has the audience in stitches with his efforts to ditch the cop. Knowing a good thing when he sees one, the ringmaster offers the Tramp a job, only to discover that he's only funny when he isn't trying.
This is merely the film's setup, encompassing the first 20 minutes or so, and already it includes some moments of Chaplin genius: a chase through the fun house, the Tramp's first moments in front of an audience, the absolutely hilarious audition sequence where the Tramp reinterprets some classic clown routines. Still to come is the romance with the ringmaster's daughter, and the rivalry between the tightrope walker and the monkeys in the scene above.
The trick comes when the ringmaster (Allan Garcia) decides to keep Charlie on as a prop master, but without letting him know that he's actually the star of the show. Eventually he discovers his stardom and must appear "funny" on purpose. But when a new tightrope walker (Harry Crocker) joins the show and the girl falls in love with him, a heartbroken Charlie finds that he can't make the audience laugh anymore.
These three stages may represent for Chaplin some kind of comedy evolution. At first he makes the audience laugh without trying, then he must try, then he turns serious. Certainly every film he made after The Circus had some kind of serious element to it, even if he never again made an all-out drama like A Woman of Paris (1923).
Chaplin's film shoots were never easy, but The Circus was particularly plagued by problems. The first 19 days of shooting were destroyed in a lab accident; it rained incessantly; the main set burned to the ground; Rudolph Valentino died; and Chaplin's 18-year-old wife sued him for divorce, forcing the entire film to be put on hold for eight months.
While waiting for the set to be reconstructed after the fire, Chaplin kept working, quickly devising a sequence when the Little Tramp goes out for dinner. Although he shot hundreds of takes, Chaplin would never bother to edit them into a scene for the final movie. Presented on the recent DVD reissue as a collection of unedited takes, "The Unused Footage" gives us a rare opportunity to watch Chaplin at work. Banging his cane on the floor instead of yelling "cut," Chaplin does take after take, slowly exploring the comic possibilities and making things up as he goes along. It's surprising to realize how much of Chaplin's humor was created on-set and the fact he hates to leave the center of the screen.
For hard-core Chaplin fans, the production lasted 637 days and they only actually shot film on 170 of those.
Largely free of the pathos and overwrought melodramatics that contemporary audiences have a hard time accepting, The Circus is simply about being funny. Of course, since it's Charlie Chaplin, it's brilliantly funny. At the first Academy Awards in 1928, Chaplin received a special Oscar for "versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus." That may be one of the best decisions the Academy has ever made.
Edited from D.R. Jones review found on reelmovie.com and Jeffrey M. Anderson's on combustiblecelluloid.com