Charlie, running from the cops, finds himself in the middle of a circus performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. He falls for Merna, the equestrienne, but she only has eyes for Rex, the tightrope walker.
The fact that this film (originally titled The Clown) was ever completed is a feat in itself. It was fraught with complications and problems from the very beginning--the circus tent was damaged from high winds, a studio fire destroyed sets and props, and the circus wagons used in the final scene were stolen by college students for a bonfire (they were later retrieved). However, the biggest problem was Charlie’s divorce from his then-wife, Lita Grey, which delayed release of the film for nearly a year.
|Chaplin ponders the fire-ravaged set of The Circus.|
Nevertheless, watching the movie, you would never know there were so many problems behind the scenes. Charlie considered doing a movie with a circus theme as early as 1920. Apparently, the idea for the tightrope scene with the monkeys came to him in a dream. Henry Bergman, Chaplin’s longtime co-star and friend, credits himself for teaching Charlie and Harry Crocker how to “walk the rope." In many of the behind-the-scenes stills of the tightrope scene, Charlie is actually on the rope, suspended a few feet above a board that is out of camera range.
Charlie’s leading lady, Merna Kennedy, was a childhood friend of Chaplin’s wife Lita Grey, who suggested her for the role. To her surprise (& I’m sure to Merna’s as well), Charlie gave her the part. Merna was evidently one of the “five prominent moving picture women” mentioned in Lita’s divorce complaint, that Chaplin gloated about having affairs with during their marriage.
Charlie spent the next 40 years trying to forget The Circus and it only gets a brief mention in his autobiography. In 1968, Charlie finally decided to go back to the film and re-release it with his own musical score. He even wrote a theme song: “Swing Little Girl”. Even though a singer had already been engaged to sing the song, Eric James, Chaplin’s musical collaborator, decided that no one sang it better than 79-year-old Charlie.
At at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Chaplin was presented with a special award for "Versatility and Genius in Writing, Acting, Directing and Producing" The Circus.