Chaplin’s “The Circus” is the perfect encapsulation of what The Little Tramp is and why he’s so special. He’s an underdog hero that always seems to keep the good faith, despite the fact that he’s in constant pain, and almost never gets a happy ending. There’s something so insightful and poetic about the truth of “The Little Tramp” character. We root for him, and we cheer for him, and at the end of the day he doesn’t really get the women, or the fortune, or even much fulfillment. And that’s why the character is so mesmerizing and engaging.
Falsely accused of pick pocketing, the Tramp runs from the police and hides in a traveling circus. While a persistent cop chases him around, he disrupts a number of different acts and impresses the audience. The circus owner immediately recognizes his talent and offers him a job. Now known as the Funny Man, the circus owner’s beautiful stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy) encourages her father pay him fairly. The Tramp falls in love with her and convinced they’re meant to be together thanks a fortune teller. The Tramp is disappointed, though, when she falls for a handsome new tight-rope walker (Harry Crocket). So saddened is he that the Tramp loses his ability to be funny and risks losing his job.
“The Circus” is a very melancholy production. It mixes drama, comedy, slapstick and music in to this pitch perfect film that helps exemplify Chaplin’s inherent talent for creating such interesting and complex protagonists. The Tramp is a character that falls in to his circumstances, and can never seem to find a way to come out ahead. Chaplin’s comedy is flawless and he manages to evoke a lot of emotion out of his relationship with the beautiful show rider is relatable, especially in his unrequited love for her and his sense of sacrifice that emotionally hits home, in the end.
Chaplin, who wrote/directed and starred “The Circus” creates a film that feels thematically like Lon Chaney’s “Laugh Clown Laugh.” Instead it bears less a tragic bent and more a melancholy comedy about love, and the Tramp accepting what he simply can not change. There are some great laughs and classic Chaplin bits, including his hiding in plain sight as a carnival attraction. This is a film famous for Chaplin’s notorious hatred of it; Chaplin endured endless obstacles while filming it and revisited it in the sixties to re-invent in a way. In either from, “The Circus” is a wonderful and hilarious drama comedy with classic Chaplin bits, and some genuinely human storytelling.
Criterion includes an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson as well as technical credits for the movie. The release from Criterion features six minutes of the Rerelease trailers with English narration and music. In the new fifteen minutes video program “Eugene Chaplin,” Eugene Chaplin, the filth child of Charlie and Oona O’Neil Chaplin, remembers his parents and what it was like growing up in Switzerland. Produced by Criterion and recorded at Chaplin’s World in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, in 2019. In the Service of the Story is a twenty one minutes new video program with film scholar Craig Barron who discusses the various visual effects and gags that were created for The Circus.
There’s also brand new footage from the Chaplin Studios where many of Chaplin’s other famous films were put together; created exclusively for Criterion in 2019. Chaplin Today: The Circus is an informative twenty seven minutes documentary focusing on Charlie Chaplin’s career and legacy featuring filmmaker Emir Kusturica. Stepping Out is a ten minutes deleted sequence presented and edited (as Chaplin may have) by Brownlow and Gill as Chaplin, and with a score by Timothy Brock. It’s a part of the British television series “Unknown Chaplin” along with a thirty minutes series of outtakes from the sequence, and narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamlin. The score and the narration were recorded for Criterion in 2019.
A Ring for Merna is eight minutes of outtakes that Charlie Chaplin filmed working on the scene where the Tramp expresses his love for Merna. Also included are alternate takes showing the Tramp feeling rejected after learning that Merna has fallen for the tightrope walker. The program was produced by Criterion in 2019. There are ten minutes of audio excerpts from an interview with Charlie Chaplin’s musical collaborator Eric James, which was recorded by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance in 1998. “Swing Little Girl” is the six minute excerpts from Chaplin recording the new music for his re-release of “The Circus” in 1968. Although the song was recorded by singer Ken Barrie, Chaplin used his sung version for the new version of his movie.
There are six minutes of silent archival footage from the Hollywood premiere of The Circus at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on January 27, 1928. “Charlie Chaplin in 1969” is footage from an archival interview with Charlie Chaplin which was conducted by several international journalists at his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. It was recorded for Swiss television in 1969, as The Circus was being rereleased. Finally, there’s a brand new audio commentary that was recorded by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance for Criterion’s release of The Circus in 2019.