Chaplin’s Tramp stumbles into the circus arena as a lonely thief and exits transformed. As he walks a tightrope of love and loneliness, he dodges lions, mules, and a despicable ringmaster, who has only hired him because his mess-ups are much funnier than his deliberate attempts at humour.
In many ways, the film is a love-letter to the community of performers and an allegory for Chaplin’s own showbiz journey, from struggling at the lowest levels of vaudeville to becoming the most famous person in the world. As a filmmaker, he relishes the details of his pocket world: the rickety caravans, the fortune teller’s table, the magician’s wardrobe. Chaplin’s master cinematographer Roland Totheroh is at the height of his powers: shadows loom over the circus grounds; foggy greys comfort our lonely protagonist; the spotlight transforms tatty props and dusty ground into a magical realm.
This enchanting film rose from the ashes of Chaplin’s scandalous-at-the-time divorce from Hollywood starlet Lita Grey. Grey’s lawyers halted the release, but this was not the most dramatic obstacle Chaplin faced. Gales, fire and theft ravaged the sets and props before and during shooting. His beloved mother died. And then the Internal Revenue Service came knocking. Despite challenges that made the arduous shoot of The Gold Rush look like a walk in the park, Chaplin persevered, and The Circus became an instant success upon its delayed release.