Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie: <em> The Circus:</em> An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin

Life in the ring

When he made The Gold Rush (1925), Charlie Chaplin climbed to the top of the mountain. But when you’re at the top of the mountain, no matter how you turn, your next step always takes you down. Chaplin’s next film, The Circus (1928), though it contains some of Chaplin’s funniest scenes, was inevitably a step down from The Gold Rush.

Coming down from a mountain isn’t easy. Sid Grauman threw a monster bash for the LA premiere of The Gold Rush, with performing seals on an artificial ice floe and Eskimo dancing girls,1  but when Chaplin prepared to travel east to the Big Apple for the New York premiere, he started to get the heebie-jeebies. Among other things, he’d just become a father, and the birth of Charles Chaplin Junior, born six months after Dad had married Mom, who had been all of fifteen, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Poor Lita Grey, who had originally been slated to star in The Gold Rush, was hidden away with her newborn son to avoid compromising the release of Chaplin’s masterpiece.

Charlie sent Mack Swain ahead to New York as sort of an advance party for the premiere, while he pulled himself together, and Big Mack triggered a bit of a media uproar himself, first by making an unannounced stop to visit relatives (“Swain Disappears!”) and then, when he resurfaced, by telling reporters that Charlie was already planning his next “laughfest,” to be called The Suicide Club, a gag that went way over the heads of the assembled reporters, none of whom, apparently, had read their Robert Lewis Stevenson.2

When Charlie finally hit New York, he wasn’t quite ready for suicide, though he did threaten it on occasion, but he was definitely interested in forgetting about the fact that he had the classic burdens of a wife and child. At one party he put the make on an actress, Blyth Daly, who responded, either in lust or irritation, by biting Charlie so hard he started to bleed.3  Charlie, obviously irritated, ran around the room shouting about blood poisoning.4

Blyth clearly was not Charlie’s type, but he found someone who was, eighteen-year-old Louise Brooks.5 Louise hadn’t really turned herself into Berlin-bobbed Ewig-Weibliche6  of G. W. Pabst’s über-classic, Pandora’s Box, but she was hardly to be missed, and Charlie didn’t.

Louise was paying the rent — some of it, at least — by working as a Follies girl, strutting down the runway in six-inch heels while balancing a four-foot crown of ostrich plumes on her head. She roomed with fellow Follies babe Peggy Fears, and enjoyed encouraging rumors that they were more than friends, in the manner of a Jazz Age Tila Tequila. Charlie hooked with Louise, Peggy, and a dude named A. C. Blumenthal7  for an all-nude weekend romp at A. C.’s penthouse. Charlie, always the clown, painted his penis with iodine (supposedly a syphilis preventative). Chasing the girls around the place with his bright red bone, he was the laugh of the party, and deservedly so.

But while Charlie was partying, storm clouds were gathering. From Hollywood, word came that he had somehow managed to get Lita (right, with Lita’s mother and Charlie) pregnant a second time. Their eventual divorce, which was undoubtedly at the back of his mind, would not be easy. Meanwhile, in New York, some busybodies at the Daily Mirror sorted through the U.S. Treasury Department’s tax files to reveal that while Douglas Fairbanks paid over $130,000 in income tax in 1924, and Gloria Swanson paid close to $90,000, Charlie was only good for $345.81. No such thing as bad publicity? Maybe not.

According to Joyce Milton’s biography of Chaplin, while Charlie was in New York he got hold of a book called Clowns and Pantomimes, by Maurice Disher, which dished the familiar trope that behind the mask of comedy lies the face of despair. Disher’s book, according to Milton, prompted Charlie to drop whatever plans he had for turning The Suicide Club into a laughfest and turn his focus on himself, the “funny man” in The Circus.

But Chaplin needed no book to remind him of the skull that resides beneath the skin, or of the strange duality of art, which, born out of an airy nothingness, swiftly grows to transcend all earthly reality before vanishing into that nothingness once more, giving us first a limitless joy and then a limitless burden from the loss of that joy. In his autobiography he recalls an episode from his boyhood — locked out of the family flat he spends the entire day staring helplessly at food in shop windows. At last he returns home, but the flat is still deserted and he can’t get in:

It was approaching midnight and Kennington Cross was deserted but for one or two stragglers. All the lights in the shops began going out except those of the chemist and the public houses. I felt wretched.

Suddenly there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square. The tune was The Honeysuckle and the Bee, played with radiant virtuosity on a harmonium and clarinet. I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were. The harmonium-player was blind, with scarred sockets where eyes had been; and a besotted, embittered face played the clarinet.8

While still a young man, Chaplin had the experience of seeing the careers of several of his idols come to nothing. In his autobiography he describes an elaborate show at the London Hippodrome, starring a famous French clown, Marceline:

The floor of the ring sank and flooded with water and elaborate ballets were contrived. Row after row of pretty girls in shining armor would march in and disappear completely under water. As the last line submerged, Marceline, the great French clown, dressed in sloppy evening dress and opera hat, would enter with a fishing rod, sit on a camp stool, open a large jewel-case, bait his hook with a diamond necklace, and then cast it in the water.

Chaplin appeared onstage with Marceline, in a cat costume: “Marceline would back away from a dog and fall over my back while I drank milk. He always complained that I did not arch my back enough to break his fall.” In 1918, Marceline came to Los Angeles with the Ringling Brothers circus: “I expected that he would be featured, but I was shocked to find him just one of many clowns that ran around the enormous ring — a great artist lost in the vulgar extravaganza of a three-ring circus.”

Chaplin went backstage, “reminding him that I had played Cat at the London Hippodrome, but he reacted apathetically. Even under his clown make-up he looked sullen and seemed in a melancholy torpor.” A year later Marceline committed suicide. He was found “lying on the floor with a pistol in his hand and a record still turning, playing Moonlight and Roses.9

Chaplin adds that “many famous English comedians committed suicide,”10  but doesn’t mention the death that must have weighed most heavily on him, the suicide of Max Linder, “Max the Master,” the first great film comedian, in 1925. Linder, French despite his German-sounding name,11  started making films in 1905 and was the first film comedian to develop a continuing character. Chaplin didn’t meet Linder until 1920, when Linder’s career was already in eclipse, thanks to injuries he suffered in World War I, but he kept a silver basket of artificial roses that Linder gave him as a treasured keepsake. Chaplin also wore hand-made patent leather shoes with gray velvet “uppers” — the kind that Linder wore in his early films — for a decade after Linder’s death.12

The darkness and despair that are the flip side of the artificial glamour and gaiety of the circus have been a potent symbol in art at least as far back as the haunted pierrots of Watteau.13  The classic film version is the classic of classics, The Children of Paradise. The fifties brought more treatises on three-ring existential despair, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel and Fellini’s La Strada.

The silent version14)  of The Circus begins with a striking image, an iris shot that opens to reveal a close-up of a large star. Almost immediately, a bareback rider, Myrna Kennedy,15  bursts through it. A wide shot lets us see that we’re in a circus. Myrna rides around the ring a second time but doesn’t leap through the hoop again. We cut to furious ringmaster Al Garcia (right). When Myrna comes off he upbraids her furiously: “You missed the ring again! No supper for you tonight!” She begs with him — “But father!” — to no avail.16  He shoves her violently and she crashes into another paper star, ripping through it. Instead of getting up, she crouches inside the hoop, humiliated and miserable, her glamorous costume and even her beauty itself a mockery of her helplessness and despair.

With Myrna offstage, a gang of clowns races into the ring. They’re old, fat, and pathetic, and Al lets them have it as they come off. Everybody in the cast better get thin, and get funny, fast! Or else!

Chaplin focuses his camera on head clown Henry Bergman, his sad, fat, white, waxy face an emblem of the butt end of show business. You bust your gut for twenty years making them laugh, and this is what you turn into.

With his imperious moustache, ringmaster Garcia bears a striking resemblance to Adolphe Menjou, who played Pierre Revel, Edna Purviance’s millionaire lover in A Woman of Paris. But while Pierre Revel was an elegant man of the world whose every second was devoted to pleasure, Garcia is a tightfisted petty despot, squeezing every penny in a desperate attempt to keep his head above water.

Chaplin liked to fantasize about being an imperturbable homme du monde in the manner of Adolphe/Pierre,17  but he was surely aware that his paranoid manic-depressive lifestyle was scarcely sans souci, and it’s not hard to imagine that Garcia’s character is a shrewd, bitter self-portrait — Charlie as a tiny, willful king, reigning over a pathetic kingdom of overweight leading ladies18  and fat, old, unfunny clowns.

After this blast of tinsel and sawdust, Chaplin cuts to the crowd outside, and we luxuriate in ten minutes of the best slapstick Chaplin ever put on the screen. A pickpocket, working the crowd, is about to be caught, so he transfers a stolen wallet and watch into Charlie’s unsuspecting pockets. The mark summons a cop but the sharper is clean, and Charlie wanders away, following his nose to a hotdog stand where, in a classic scene, he eats a baby’s hotdog while pretending to amuse the little tyke. When he’s done, the sharper returns to recover the goods, but the cop catches him and hands Charlie “his” wallet and watch. “Count it,” the cop tells Charlie. Charlie, barely concealing his surprise at his new affluence, orders up a dozen dogs, but doesn’t get to enjoy them when the watch’s real owner spots it. The chase is on, one ultimately involving Charlie, the mark, the sharper, a couple of cops, and a hall of mirrors.19

Charlie escapes from the hall of mirrors and crashes the big top, where Bergman’s clowns are catching more boos and catcalls. Charlie crashes their act as well, and turns the boos to laughs. Eventually, he escapes the cops entirely and curls up in a convenient chariot to sleep. When the show’s over, ringmaster Al spots him and grabs him. Do you want a job? Be here tomorrow morning for an audition!

In one of the few times on film, the Tramp responds affirmatively to an offer of employment. The next morning we see him preparing a classic hobo meal, cooked in a tin can placed over an open fire. When Charlie steps away to gather more firewood, Myrna, still hungry, seizes a crust of bread he’s left unguarded. He catches her in the act, but he’s more offended by her manners than her morals. He wittily pantomimes her gluttony and raises an elegant finger in elegant reproof.20  But before they can get much further, Big Al interrupts. Charlie’s on!

Charlie gets a tryout with Bergman and other clowns, under Garcia’s cold, impatient eye. The idea of making an old, unfunny gag funny by screwing it up is itself old and, very often, unfunny.21  Chaplin struggles here, and in fact the biggest laughs come from the Tramp’s delighted reactions to the clowns’ lame, unfunny gags, and a running gag involving Charlie’s pulling Garcia’s chair out from under him.

Charlie’s gags don’t make the audience laugh, and they don’t make Al laugh either. “Get him off!” he demands. “But we haven’t come to terms,” says the Tramp, in a rare inside gag. Charlie shuffles off, but gets rehired as a propman when the others walk off the job. Naturally, he screws up the acts again,22  and this time Al gets it: “He’s only funny when he doesn’t know it. Keep him on as propman!”

Eventually, Charlie learns that he’s the star of the show and gets a bump up in both status and salary (somehow, he stays funny). Now that he’s a star, life is better. Perhaps even the divinely unapproachable Myrna might prove to be . . . approachable. When he overhears a gypsy tell Myrna that the dark, handsome man of her dreams is right under her nose, Charlie checks himself out in the mirror. Dark? You bet! Handsome? I’ll say! Right here? Right now? Check and double check!

In his delight, Charlie playfully pummels clown Henry Bergman, in a scene reminiscent of his lovestruck exuberance in The Gold Rush, but he’s quickly brought to earth by a second overheard conversation, this one an excited confession by Myrna that her dark, handsome lover is here — the new tightrope walker, Rex, King of the Air!

Charlie has to sit with Myrna and listen to her gush over Rex (Harry Crocker23) and then he doesn’t even get to nurse his broken heart in solitude. He’s up next! Get out there and make ’em laugh! We see Charlie rushing into a routine we’ve seen him do before, trying to project an effortless ease and spontaneity while inside, well, you know. Naturally, he’s a flop and instantly Big Al is on his case. Get laughs or get out!

Charlie doesn’t make ’em laugh, but he doesn’t quit, either. Chicks dig tightrope walkers, huh? Well, it’s not so hard! Charlie sets out to replicate Rex’s act.24  Al catches him at it and isn’t amused. Quit clowning and get funny!

But Al changes his tune when Rex pulls a no-show at the next performance. Hell, the show must go on, after all, and if, god forbid, Charlie should die, hey, we’re insured!25

Charlie’s more than dubious at first, but if it will get him Myrna, well, why not? Life isn’t living without her, so if he dies, he dies. And, with a hidden wire and harness, the whole thing might just come together. Naturally, Charlie loses the wire (and, ultimately, his pants) while being attacked by some cute little monkeys.26  Apparently, it was the idea for this bit that got Chaplin thinking about doing a circus film. It’s funny, but it’s basically a one-note gag that doesn’t “breathe” the way the great gags in The Gold Rush do. Perhaps more importantly, Charlie’s personality isn’t involved in the laughs.

When Charlie’s act falls apart, but doesn’t kill him, Big Al is naturally furious. He kicks Charlie out of the circus and gives Myrna a fierce beating when she tries to defend him. We see Charlie alone in the woods, the moon rising in the sky, cooking another hobo meal, when Myrna joins him. “I’ve run away from the circus,” she explains.

She wants to go with him, but Charlie realizes that life on the road is no life for a sweet young girl. He seeks out Rex, and in the rather awkward role of the androgynous go-between, delightedly kisses Rex when he agrees to marry Myrna. The next day we see their wedding, Charlie the only celebrant, furiously tossing confetti in order to rejoice in another’s joy.

Married to Myrna and allied with Charlie, Rex has some bargaining power. The three return to the circus and confront Big Al.27  It works! Al’s acceptance is notably ungracious — OK, you’re her husband and you’re young enough and strong enough to kick my ass. So, deal! He even has to accept Charlie as well!

We think we’re set. In a dramatic shot, unusual in Chaplin, the circus departs, the great caravan of life streaming off into the future and a new day. But as the wagons roar off, we see a single, solitary figure left behind — Charlie!

No, he didn’t make the trip. What is life without Myrna? Alone and miserable, he picks up a large scrap of paper. It’s a star, identical to the one we saw at the very start of the film. Stardom! Fame! What is it worth? Nothing!

In a bitter gesture, he crumples the paper into a ball. He rises to his feet, tosses the ball away and kicks it with his heel. Then, in a long shot, he kicks up his heels in the classic Chaplin manner, and heads off alone into the distance, more alone now than ever before.28  In a final touch, a closing iris shot mirrors the opening.

Chaplin set himself an impossible dilemma when he made The Circus. He wasn’t going to make an “honest” film about the tragic fate of a clown who’s lost the funny. But what was he going to do? A “half-tragic” film is inherently unresolved. Charlie probably should have taken a leaf from Cyrano de Bergerac, putting the Tramp in the noble role of helping Rex win the woman Charlie loved. Instead, the resolution of the film is a bit too mechanical to be satisfying.29

Chaplin had a lot on his mind when he was making The Circus, none of it pleasant. His wife’s relatives were determined to take Charlie for some “real” money, and they got their way. Lita filed for divorce, charging, among other things, that Charlie badgered Lita to perform “unnatural sex acts,” that he wanted her to get her sons aborted,30  that he bragged about having forced other women to get abortions, and that he bragged about committing adultery. Enterprising journalists reprinted “Lita’s Complaint” and it became a bestseller. Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic priests started talking about a boycott of Chaplin’s films.

But apparently it was William Randolph Hearst, rather than the priests and ministers, who brought Chaplin to heel. Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was rumored to be one of Chaplin’s lovers, and the thought of Marion being brought front and center in one of Hollywood’s most sensational divorce cases was more than the Boss could bear. Charlie got the word and wrote Lita a check for more than $600,000. But his bank account was due for an even larger beating — more than $1 million in back taxes as the U.S. Treasury finally caught up with him. The image of the “Little Tramp” was never quite the same.


The original silent version seems to be available only on an out-of-print DVD from Image. Warner Home Video has a two-disc set, with the 1968 re-release only, plus lots of marginally interesting “extras.”

The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is available on DVD and is well worth buying or renting. This set includes a long, funny scene that Chaplin cut out of The Circus.

According to online “trivia” at the Internet Movie Database, the 1928 premiere of The Circus included a live stage prologue written by Joseph Plunkett, with the result that that the mysterious Mr. Plunkett is sometimes listed as co-author with Chaplin. I can find no record of anyone named Plunkett working with Chaplin, and the only writer named “Joseph Plunkett” I can find on the web was an Irish revolutionary poet executed by the Brits in 1916 for his part in the Easter Uprising.31  Plunkett’s poems have a throbbing, quasi-Schopenhauerian quality32  that might have appealed to Chaplin, but I haven’t been able to find anything that Plunkett wrote that deals with circus life.

Dan Schneider has an interesting online review of The Circus here.33

Chaplin’s My Early Years,out of print but available secondhand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price.

I’ve written previously about Charlie for Bright Lights here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Concluding unscientific postscript, aka mea culpa

In my review of The Gold Rush I said that the original silent version (1925) and the 1942 re-release were essentially the same. Well, I was wrong. Chaplin revised the long New Year’s Eve sequence to make Georgia less conflicted. In the 1942 version, she never tells Jack that she loves him and she’s never presented as “Jack’s girl.” Furthermore, in the “next day” scene, she writes a different note, to Charlie, not to Jack, saying that she wants to apologize. I don’t know if Chaplin originally shot both versions of the note during the original filming or if he had to shoot new footage for the different note. I’m pretty sure that the only difference between the 1968 version of The Circus and the original is the footage of Myrna swinging in the rings placed at the beginning of the film, which Chaplin pieced together from the original film.

  1. In old Hollywood, it just wasn’t a party without Eskimo dancing girls. []
  2. “The Suicide Club,” a tale about young London decadents who assemble each month to drink champagne and draw cards to choose the month’s killer and killee, was part of Stevenson’s collection The New Arabian Nights. The titles are the best thing about both “The Suicide Club” and The New Arabian Nights. []
  3. No, I wasn’t there. I’m drawing on Joyce Milton’s excellent bio, Tramp. I don’t really know if Joyce is accurate, but she is entertaining, so I’m going to go with her. []
  4. This can definitely happen. I picked up this chick in a club once and when we went back to her place she practically chewed my lips off. I didn’t react as vehemently as Charlie, but it did hurt! []
  5. Eighteen! Oh, baby! []
  6. Ewig-Weibliche! The Eternal Feminine! Goethe, dude, Goethe! []
  7. A. C., clearly a gentleman, eventually married Peggy. []
  8. In the café scene in A Dog’s Life, there is a trio of musicians, and for a second or two it appears that one of them has an eye patch. In Chaplin’s late film Limelight (1952), he is a member of a music trio. []
  9. Did any of Chaplin’s film scores quote from Moonlight and Roses? Smells like a Ph.D. thesis to me! []
  10. He names three — T. E. Dunville, Mark Sheridan, and Frank Coyne — whose names today are surely known only by English music hall historians. []
  11. Linder’s real name was Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle. He was, perhaps not surprisingly, of Jewish descent. Chaplin was not Jewish, although people often assume that he was. []
  12. Chaplin’s character wears these shoes in both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. []
  13. Hey, and don’t forget about poor Yorick! We can’t forget about him! []
  14. Image released the silent version of The Circus on DVD a few years ago but it’s out of print now. Warner Home Video recently released Chaplin’s 1968 re-release, which begins with a shot of Kennedy moodily swinging high above the big top while a 78-year-old Chaplin sings/chants “Swing Little Girl,” a mournful song whose lyrics urge you to “look up if you want to see rainbows, but never, never look down.” In The Great Dictator Chaplin tries to rouse the spirit of his leading lady (Paulette Goddard) by crying “Look up, Hannah!” (Hannah was Chaplin’s mother’s name. []
  15. Myrna Kennedy was friends with Lita Grey. Chaplin hired Myrna as a favor to Lita, surely one of the few favors that he did for her, but rather took the edge off by having an affair with Myrna too. The Circus was Kennedy’s first film and surely her best role. Thereafter, she appeared sporadically in films until 1934. []
  16. In the opening credits, which do not look like the original, Garcia is identified as Myrna’s stepfather, but there’s nothing in the film to indicate that this is the case. []
  17. Menjou liked to claim that, during the shooting of A Woman of Paris, he taught Chaplin to live like a gentleman. []
  18. Chaplin bitterly resented Edna Purviance’s (right) casual attitude about her weight and was making cheap jokes about it in his memoirs fifty years later. []
  19. Funhouse mirrors, which usually aren’t very funny, were used in comedies long before The Circus, but Chaplin may have been the first to use the “hall of mirrors” gag. It’s been sampled many times since, most notably by Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai, but also by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, not to mention James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun. []
  20. Again, Chaplin is surely thinking of his frustrations with Edna. []
  21. Chaplin used very similar gags in his first film with Essanay, His New Job, in 1915, as well as A Night at the Show, which drew on material he’d done as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. []
  22. Again, some of the humor is forced, but there’s some funny stuff with piglets. In fact, the one thing The Circus needs is more piglets. []
  23. Crocker had been working with Chaplin since The Gold Rush, as assistant director, unit publicist (whatever that is), and bit player. His role as Rex was his only substantial one with Chaplin. []
  24. In an early film, Sunnyside, Charlie also sets out to win the girl by emulating an elegant rival. []
  25. Yeah, the suits don’t care if you live or die, just as long as they get their cash. In his self-pitying, self-congratulatory autobio-pic All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s alter ego does die, and the suits do cash in. “He’s worth more to us dead than alive!” they chuckle. []
  26. The shots of a 38-year-old Chaplin 40 feet off the ground with no net and no wire are not faked. Charlie cheated on his wives, but on his audience? Never! []
  27. I guess this has slight overtones of Charlie teaming with Doug and Mary to form United Artists. Charlie was, naturally, feuding with Mary (Doug, not so much) at this point, but there’s no extended satire. []
  28. The Circus is the only Chaplin feature that has an unhappy ending. []
  29. Whether because of the personal nature of its content or the messy state of Chaplin’s personal life during its filming, The Circus appears to have been a touchy subject for Charlie. He makes no mention of it in his autobiography, the only feature to be so ignored. []
  30. Charlie Chaplin, Jr., not too surprisingly, was overwhelmed by the weight of his father’s name. Younger brother Sidney, on the other hand, followed his uncle’s path, and carved out a long, successful career in musical comedies on Broadway, doing nothing that would remind people of his famous dad. Chaplin won a Tony for his performance in Bells Are Ringing and performed opposite Barbra Streisand in the stage version of Funny Girl. []
  31. Another Joseph Plunkett designed the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, California. []
  32. The Splender of God:

    The drunken stars stagger across the sky,
    The moon wavers and sways like a wind-blown bud,
    Beneath my feet the earth like drifting scud
    Lapses and slides, wallows and shoots on high;
    Immovable things start suddenly flying by,
    The city shakes and quavers, a city of mud
    And ooze — a brawling cataract is my blood
    Of molten metal and fire — like God am I.

    When God crushes his passion-fruit for our thirst
    And the universe totters — I have burst the grape
    Of the world, and let its powerful blood escape
    Untasted — crying whether my vision durst
    See God’s high glory in a girl’s soft shape —
    God! Is my worship blessed or accurst? []

  33. According to Dan, you can also read an “expurgated version” of his piece on “The Moderate Voice,” a website on current events that uses headlines like “Alea Jacta Est,” but I couldn’t find it. []