Often referred to as a minor work, The Circus has a reputation among Chaplinphiles suggesting it’s the neglected middle child between two canonized films (The Gold Rush and City Lights). Yet from the moment the Little Tramp (Chaplin) unashamedly scarfs down a hot dog held by a cute infant, it’s clear that we’re watching a performer at the peak of his powers. Everything is pared down to hilarious and pointed essentials: Charlie sees. Charlie takes. Charlie runs...right into a run-down big top operated by a cruel ringmaster (Garcia) with a gorgeous stepdaughter (Kennedy). The Tramp’s intrusion proves to be an unexpected boon, since the audience takes him for a funny-bone--tickling clown. But he can only make ’em laugh when he isn’t trying to do so.
It’s a beautiful summation of the comedian’s crisis—how hard does one push to get guffaws? Chaplin isn’t straining at all here, though this was a notoriously troubled production (scratched rushes, set-destroying fires, the star’s own divorce). The famous lion-cage scene, in which the Tramp moves from paralyzed fear to haughty courage, plays like an onscreen purge—as do the final images of Chaplin alone, shrugging and shuffling off as if nothing can touch him. There’s an edge to The Circus that suggests a man gazing deep into the void, laughing at the darkness and urging us to do the same.—Keith Uhlich