Charlie Chaplin always puts his Tramp in very simple situations that also happen to reap marvelous results both in the realms of humor and heartfelt drama. He follows up The Kid and The Gold Rush with the next iteration in the Little Man’s adventures which find him unwittingly joining the circus.
Initially, he gets caught up with a pickpocket and policemen which provides him an opportunity to go flying through funhouses with halls of mirrors and the like, the perfect fodder for a string of his best gags. Most notably giving an impeccable imitation of a mechanical man to fool the police. But his last sprint to get away from the clutches of the law takes him to the center stage where he becomes a welcomed bit of life to a rather droll piece of entertainment after he bursts onto the scene as a fugitive from justice, crashing into the stands. An unenthused audience is instantly crippled with laughter by every one of his accidental foibles. If only they had seen what he had been up to previously.
His accidental knack as a real-life clown gets him a gig in the main ring of the circus under the tyrannical showrunner (Al Ernest Garcia) who’s constantly bossing around his workers and abusing his meek daughter Merna who is also a part of the act as a tutu-wearing barebacked rider. This is where the film comes to its main storyline with Chaplin looking to do a few unassuming deeds for this girl in her horrible predicament while he himself begins to train as a show clown. But he proves to be terribly unfunny when he tries to be and it looks like he’ll back out on the street.
The major discovery is that he’s only funny unconsciously and so the opportunistic Ring Master looks to channel his innate comedy by hiring him on as a mere stagehand who nevertheless becomes the show’s main attraction. When the Tramp finally figures out what a sensation he is things are better–life is bright and cheery. But when a new man comes into the picture, a handsome tightrope walker, the vagabond’s demeanor begins to sour. Still, he willingly gives up his own little bit of happiness for the girl whom he still truthfully adores.
Though the ending has a touch of the bittersweet, Chaplin does a masterful job of drawing up a straightforward yet rivetingly poetic tale involving his greatest incarnation. The Tramp has us fully involved in his story because he really is a marvel. Even when we’re not in stitches, it’s difficult not to smile at his very image.
In front of the camera, in many ways, it feels like business as usual. The story has euphoric moments of energy and charm underlined by dips into the dejectedness of lost love and destitution. This was always the rhythm of Chaplin’s work, But outside of his on-camera perfectionism, Chaplin’s world was thrown into turmoil to put it lightly.
He had a recent run-in with the IRS, acrimonious divorce proceedings from his co-star in The Gold Rush Lita Grey, along with the death of his mother, and a vicious fire throwing yet another wrench into the film’s production schedule. All told, it was delayed about 8 months in production purgatory, his hair grayed even more and he suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown.
Still, the final product perfectly personifies the humor that Chaplin always tried to capture rather like lightning in a jar. It’s those moments of organic, unconscious humor that can be found in a simple action. What makes The Tramp such a hilarious character is the very fact that he never for an instant seems to actually be trying to be funny.
Certainly, he’s light-hearted and mischievous but there’s a general import to his demeanor. He takes himself seriously, tips his hat, and tries to hold himself to a certain respectability. But despite his best efforts he can’t help but let out little hiccups and belches of chaos. He gives someone who deserves it a swift kick in the behind, scrambles every which way to evade a bucking donkey or gets trapped in a cage with lions and tigers, oh my! He vies for the affection of a girl the best way he knows how topping the competition on the tightrope and simultaneously tries to please each boss he has to the best of his abilities. They are very human responses even if he does it in a way uniquely attributed to him.
It’s the serious being made silly — the tragedy that is imbued with a silver lining — that is what The Circus gets to the heart and soul of. Because this hardly feels like a happy ending but the Tramp has done his good deed and walks away from center stage ready for a new adventure. As it turned out, we’d find him in the big city a few years later and he proved to never lose his sensibility for helping the burdened and downtrodden–namely a blind girl.
That is yet another reason to love that little man. His heart is large. Others give out of their abundance, but he gives out of his poverty, often offering everything he has–all he has to live on–and he does it happily so. Especially if it’s a pretty girl.