The production of the film was the most difficult experience in Chaplin's career. Numerous problems and delays occurred, including a studio fire, the death of Chaplin's mother, as well as Chaplin's bitter divorce from his second wife Lita Grey, and the Internal Revenue Service's claims of Chaplin's owed back taxes, all of which culminated in filming being stalled for eight months. The Circus was the seventh highest grossing silent film in cinema history taking in more than $3.8 million in 1928. The film continues to receive high praise.
At a circus midway, the penniless and hungry Tramp (Chaplin) is mistaken for a condemnable pickpocket and chased by both the police and the real crook (the latter having stashed a stolen wallet and watch in the Tramp's pocket to avoid detection). Running away, the Tramp stumbles into the middle of a performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show.
The ringmaster/proprietor of the struggling circus gives him a tryout the next day, but the Tramp fails miserably. However, when the property men quit because they have not been paid, he gets hired on the spot to take their place. Once again, he inadvertently creates comic mayhem during a show. The ringmaster craftily hires him as a poorly paid property man.
The Tramp befriends Merna (Kennedy), a horse rider who is treated badly by her ringmaster stepfather. She later informs the Tramp that he is the star of the show, forcing the ringmaster to pay him accordingly. With the circus thriving because of him, the Tramp also is able to secure better treatment for Merna.
After overhearing a fortune teller inform Merna that she sees "love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who is near you now", the overjoyed Tramp buys a ring from another clown. Alas for him, she meets Rex (Crocker), the newly hired tightrope walker. The Tramp eavesdrops as she rushes to tell the fortune teller that she has fallen in love with the new man. With his heart broken, the Tramp is unable to entertain the crowds. After several poor performances, the ringmaster warns him he has only one more chance.
When Rex cannot be found for a performance, the ringmaster (knowing that the Tramp has been practicing the tightrope act in hopes of supplanting his rival) sends the Tramp out in his place. Despite a few mishaps, including several mischievous escaped monkeys, he manages to survive the experience. However, when he sees the ringmaster slapping Merna around afterward, he beats the man and is fired.
Merna runs away to join him. The Tramp finds and brings Rex back with him to marry Merna. The trio go back to the circus. The ringmaster starts berating his stepdaughter, but stops when Rex informs him that she is his wife. When the traveling circus leaves, the Tramp remains behind : he prefers to fade to allow them to be happy. Melancholic, he picks himself up and starts walking jauntily away.Charlie Chaplin as A Tramp
Al Ernest Garcia as The Circus Proprietor and Ringmaster
Merna Kennedy as His Step-daughter, A Circus Rider
Harry Crocker as Rex, A Tight Rope Walker (also a disgruntled property man and a clown)
George Davis as A Magician
Henry Bergman as An Old Clown
Tiny Sandford as The Head Property Man (as Stanley J. Sandford)
John Rand as An Assistant Property Man (also a clown)
Steve Murphy as A pickpocket
Chaplin first began discussing his ideas for a film about a circus as early as 1920. In late 1925, he returned from New York to California and began working on developing the film at Charlie Chaplin Studios. Set designer Danny Hall sketched out Chaplin's early ideas for the film, with Chaplin returning to one of his older films, The Vagabond (1916), and drawing upon similar story ideas and themes for The Circus. Chaplin was a long time admirer of French comedian Max Linder, who had died in October, 1925, and often borrowed gags and plot devices from Linder's films. Some critics have pointed out the similarities between The Circus and Linder's last completed film The King of the Circus
Filming began on January 11, 1926 and the majority was completed by November. After the first month of filming, it was discovered that the film negative had been scratched; restoration work was able to eventually adjust the negative. A major fire broke out at Chaplin's studios in September, delaying production for a month. Chaplin was served with divorce papers by Lita Grey in December, and litigation delayed the release of the film for another year.
The Circus finally premiered in New York City on January 6, 1928, at the Strand Theatre, and in Los Angeles on January 27 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It came right at the beginning of the sound film era, with the very first feature sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), having been released just months earlier.
Chaplin composed a new score for the film in 1967, and this new version of the film (see below) was copyrighted in 1968 (to "The Roy Export Company Establishment") and released in 1969/70.
The Circus was well received by audiences and critics, and while its performance at the box office was good, it earned less than The Gold Rush (1925). Some critics consider it and The Gold Rush to be Chaplin's two best comedies.
In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall reported that it was "likely to please intensely those who found something slightly wanting in The Gold Rush, but at the same time it will prove a little disappointing to those who revelled in the poetry, the pathos and fine humor of his previous adventure." Hall went on to write that there were passages "that are undoubtedly too long and others that are too extravagant for even this blend of humor. But Chaplin's unfailing imagination helps even when the sequence is obviously slipping from grace."
Variety ran a very positive review, stating that "For the picture patrons, all of them, and for broad, laughable fun - Chaplin's best. It's Charlie Chaplin's best fun maker for other reasons: because it is the best straightaway story he has employed for broad film making, and because here his fun stuff is nearly all entirely creative or original in the major point."
Commenting on the long wait for the film's release, Film Daily wrote that "it was worth it, for, if you are prone to favor superlatives here is an opportunity to coin several fresh ones" and that Chaplin was "as inimitable today as he was in the days of his two-reelers."
In The New Yorker, Oliver Claxton wrote that the film was "a little disappointing. There are one or two moments when it is very funny, but there are long stretches when it is either mild or dull."
Film historian Jeffrey Vance views The Circus as an autobiographical metaphor:
He joins the circus and revolutionizes the cheap little knockabout comedy among the circus clowns, and becomes an enormous star. But by the end of the movie, the circus is packing up and moving on without him. Chaplin's left alone in the empty circus ring... It reminds me of Chaplin and his place in the world of the cinema. The show is moving on without him. He filmed that sequence four days after the release of The Jazz Singer (the first successful talkie) in New York. When he put a score to The Circus in 1928, Chaplin scored that sequence with "Blue Skies", the song Jolson had made famous, only Chaplin played it slowly and sorrowfully, like a funeral dirge.
In 1947, Hanns Eisler worked on music for the film. Eisler then used the music he composed for his Septet No. 2 ("Circus") for flute and piccolo, clarinet in B flat, basson, and string quartet. Eisler's sketch of scene sequences and rhythms is in the Hans Eisler Archive in Berlin.
In 1967, Chaplin composed a new musical score for the film and a recording of him singing "Swing Little Girl" playing over the opening credits. A new version of the film opened in New York on December 15, 1969, with the new score. It was released in London in December 1970.
Charlie Chaplin was nominated for four Academy Awards, but the Academy took Chaplin out of the running by giving him a Special Award "for writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus." The Academy no longer lists Chaplin's nominations in their official list of nominees, although most unofficial lists include him.
The Academy Film Archive preserved The Circus in 2002.