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With: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Allan Garcia, Harry Crocker
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 69
Date: 06/01/1928

The Circus (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Big Top Chaplin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Coming between The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin's The Circus has never earned the same kind of critical adoration. Some might claim that it doesn't really contain any prize set-pieces like The Gold Rush's chicken transformation, dance-of-the-dinner-rolls or cabin-on-a-cliff, or City Lights's boxing match or its heartbreaker of an ending. No, the real reason is that The Circus runs a scant 69 minutes and may not "count" for many critics as a full feature.

Nevertheless, it's a beautiful film and perhaps more personal that anyone might have suspected at the time.

Accused of theft, Chaplin's Tramp is chased into a circus and unintentionally becomes the show's biggest hit. He also falls for the ringmaster's stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy), an equestrienne.

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).

And as for comedy set-pieces, it's hard to top Chaplin's high-wire act, done in a fit of jealousy to make the girl notice him again. Get Chaplin, a bunch of monkeys and a banana peel on top of a high wire, and you've got something special.

The Circus is available on a double-disc DVD set from Warner Home Video, including a 26-minute documentary in which filmmaker Emir Kusturica discusses his love for the film. In 2019, the Criterion Collection released a new Blu-ray edition, gloriously restored and including the opening song sung by Chaplin as well as the score composed for the 1968 re-release. This essential disc comes packed with tons of extras, including outtakes, an archival interview with Chaplin, a new interview with Chaplin's youngest son Eugene, footage from the premiere, trailers, a commentary track by biographer Jeffrey Vance, and much more.

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