The Circus has a melancholic tone it doesn’t need and one director Chaplin is never fully invested in. The first half of the film is a series of fantastic gags–well, except the stuff with ring master Al Ernest Garcia being abusive to his daughter, played by Merna Kennedy. But the rest of it is hilarious. Chaplin, as the tramp, bumbles his way into the circus and the audience’s heart (while all the regular acts flop).
Chaplin’s gags are careful and deliberate–there’s a great mirror maze one and the circus act stuff is hilarious. It seems the tramp can’t figure out how to make the audience laugh when he’s trying to do so, only when he’s a bumbler. And he’s unaware of it.
Until around halfway, when Kennedy lets him in on the secret and he gets some bravado. That bravado leads to a decent sequence when he’s full of himself, but he immediately loses it because Harry Crocker shows up (in the late second act) to make a love triangle with Kennedy.
Now, Kennedy never has much of a character, but her friendship with Chaplin’s much better than her romantic interest in Crocker. Chaplin, as director and writer, is invested in the former. The latter is just for melodramatic purposes. Even if the first half does feel like a series of vignettes, they’re fabulous vignettes. The rest of the film is just Chaplin working for that melancholy.
It’s a shame the energy doesn’t maintain throughout the entire film.
Written, edited, directed and produced by Charles Chaplin; director of photography, Roland Totheroh; released by United Artists.
Starring Al Ernest Garcia (The Circus Proprietor and Ring Master), Merna Kennedy (His Step-Daughter – A Circus Rider), Harry Crocker (Rex – A Tight Rope Walker), George Davis (A Magician), Henry Bergman (An Old Clown), Tiny Sandford (The Head Property Man), John Rand (An Assistant Property Man), Steve Murphy (A Pickpocket) and Charles Chaplin (A Tramp).