The circus has always been a favorite topic of books and films. There’s something dynamic and fascinating about reading or watching a story take place within the crucible of the circus. There’s so much mystery and intrigue surrounding the circus that it makes a great setting for a mystery (which is one reason why Book 5 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is set in the circus).
But when it comes to accuracy, we know films and books don’t always make the grade (though I would argue books do better with this since authors tend to love researching and we like to “get it right”). This is natural since films are more concerned with providing a good story and entertaining an audience than they are with getting the details straight.
Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Circus (1928) is no exception. Although Chaplin films weren’t exactly known for their realism, the setting matters in some of his films (like The Gold Rush from 1925 which takes place during the infamous gold rush in the Klondikes of the late 19th century). Chaplin’s The Circus makes us feel the energy and chaos the circus held for audiences in the 1920s. That’s not an easy thing to do when we’re talking about a silent film since the sounds of the circus are as important as its sights (the 1956 film Trapeze is a good illustration of this).
There are some things about the circus Chaplin’s film does admirably well. For one, the film shows how being a circus performer required extreme discipline. The opening of the film shows the manager’s daughter Merna (played by Merna Kennedy) listlessly swinging on a bar trying to practice her act (she’s an equestrian performer). Later on, we see her in her act where she misses jumping through a hoop from a horse. Her manager’s father (played by Al Ernest Garcia) gets on her case backstage and even hits her and throws her to the ground.
Circuses also depended on audience reaction (just like vaudeville) for the success or failure of an act. In The Circus, the clown act is not up to par and the audience shows it. One boy yawns while a man opens a newspaper while the act is going on. Later, when Chaplin as The Little Tramp stumbles into the ring trying to escape the police (and gets into all sorts of funny scrapes, of course), the audience roars with laughter and applauds like crazy. Then, when the clown act comes on again, the audience boos it off, shouting for “the funny man” instead.
The film also shows how not all circus acts were treated equally and there was a hierarchy of respect among circus performers. As you might imagine, the more daring the act, the more honor the performer received (because of the more money he or she brought in). The storyline in the film shows this. Chaplin’s tramp falls in love with Merna, who returns his affection. Then, a tightrope walker named Rex (played by Henry Bergman) comes onto the scene and Merna immediately falls in love with him. Why? Because his act is daring and dangerous while Chaplin’s clown act has less prestige.
Also, the performers that were the most successful could make the highest demands. In the film, the innocent tramp Chaplin plays has, at first, no idea he’s the star of the circus and, in fact, keeping the circus from going bankrupt. When Merna tells him, he realizes his worth and begins to make demands of the manager, including a huge raise in salary. This was something many circus performers did in real life.
In true Chaplinesque humor, though, there are some elements in the film added more because they make a better story than the fact that they portray the circus in a realistic light and they don’t do the image of the circus any favors. For example, Chaplin makes the manager of the circus an abusive tyrant. He constantly slaps his daughter around and even punishes her for not going through the hoop during her act by starving her. He yells at his performers and makes fun of them and orders them around. While circus managers were known to be tough taskmasters, the portrayal of them as abusive and bullying is a little extreme (though Barnum and the Ringling Brothers didn’t exactly have a reputation for being nice guys.)
In addition, the film brings in one of the stereotypes we see a lot in circus films: crime. When we first meet The Little Tramp, he’s watching a sideshow with a large crowd while a man beside him picks the pocket of a wealthy spectator, then tries to throw the blame on Chaplin by quickly moving the wallet he stole into the tramp’s pocket when the police aren’t looking. Many films show the circus as being dishonest and even collaborating with pickpockets and thieves (like Nightmare Alley and The Unholy Three). In reality, early circuses were diligent about their reputation and keeping their performers out of trouble. Big circuses like Barnum & Bailey and The Ringling Brothers had strict rules about the conduct of their performers and many circus people kept close to the circus grounds rather than mingled with the crowds or the towns in which they stayed.
Still, The Circus is a fun film to watch and very Chaplinesque in its tropes (the sentimental Little Tramp, the situational gags, the triumph of love). Interestingly, many film critics consider it one of Chaplin’s underrated films because Chaplin himself underrated it. It was a difficult film for him to make, taking two years to complete and fraught with tragedy (including Chaplin’s own messy divorce at the time and a fire that burned down all the sets which had to be rebuilt). Though it did well on its release, Chaplin chose to shelve it for years and didn’t bring it out again until the 1960s, when it received the credit it deserved as both a great Chaplin comedy and a fun circus film.
If you want to see more fun (and mayhem and murder) in the circus, check out Murder Under a Twilight Roof, coming out next month. It’s on preorder now at a special price so take a peek at it here.
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