Charlie Chaplin's The Circus: Importance of Cinematic Endings

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Table of contents

  1. Charlie Chaplin
  2. Plot
  3. Cinematography

Charlie Chaplin broke boundaries with not just one of his films, but all of them. The Circus, released on January 6th, 1928, follows a tramp as he accidentally stumbles into a big top while avoiding the police and ends up distracting and simultaneously entertaining the crowd. By doing so, he ends up getting a job offer to join their show and that is where the antics truly begin. This was the work of Charlie’s that won him his first Academy Award. Chaplin does a fabulous job directing this film and portraying the character that we have seen before, but love. His witty yet constructive persona that he has created for himself shines like no other. He created the most organic and impactful comedic traits in this film and it is as easy as breathing to watch him be in this film as well. [1]Even though this film immensely boosted his career, it was not mentioned in his extensive autobiography. Simply put, this was a film he wanted to forget, but why?

It turns out that the real reason Chaplin was prepared to put the filming of The Circus behind me had nothing to do with the actual film. It had to do with the fact that his agonizing divorce lined up with the making of the film. On top of being one the most discreditable divorces of the Hollywood decade, she was also going after all he had and had a vendetta to ruin his reputation. The battle was so difficult on him that at the height of filming him and the crew took an eight-month hiatus. There were other struggles that Chaplin dealt with during the filming of The Circus. Before they began shooting, the tent that they used for most of the film was destroyed by a bad storm. [2]Another set back occurred four weeks after they began when Charlie found something in the footage that he already had that made all of it unusable. Then a fire broke put during the ninth month of shooting and it demolished a lot of props and sets. It is very apparent that even though the film is light to watch it was extensive to put together.

Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin was born on April 16th, 1889, in London, England, and is the epitome of a rags-to-riches story. Charlie grew up in a broken home when his alcoholic father decided to leave him, his half-brother, Sydney, and his mother not long after he was born. His mother, being a music hall singer and having the stage name of Lily Harley, was assigned to a mental asylum only a few years after Chaplin’s father left. As unfortunate as that sounds, his mother being a music hall singer exposed Charlie to what will change his life forever. [3] On a random occasion, Lily started to lose her voice in the middle of her performance leaving Chaplin as the surprise understudy. He charmed the crowd with his stellar presence and amusing impressions. He is notorious for his bowler hat, mustache, cane, and penguin-like walk. Some people even consider him to be the originator of comedy. He was able to bring color and life to a black and white and soundless movie so naturally. It is not a surprise to me that he was so successful.


When you start to think about the people behind the characters in most circuses, there is almost this sort of cloud that is put over them that rains the word freak. There is a scene in the movie after the first performance that specifically shows them all backstage, and they all appear sad or defeated. Chaplin did a great job foreshadowing their troubles here because this was before he arrived and livened up the show.

In the beginning of the film, there is a scene where the ringmaster confronts his stepdaughter about missing a hoop in one of the routines. You can visually interpret that he is not thrilled about it and continues to get closer to her, ending up in hitting her. On top of hitting her, he said that she would have to go to bed without dinner that night. This aggression is a representation of child abuse, which was one of the many invisible crimes that were starting to cause issues in that period.

About a century before the more recent fights for woman’s rights, women were participating in the same fight but linked the idea of child welfare along with it. Because of this, Linda Gordon found that it [4]“opened the family to scrutiny of its inner power relations”. The ongoing fight for woman’s rights worked with the fight for children’s rights and welfare to create a larger audience. Chaplin was wise to include small scenes like this one because it opened the eyes of the movie watchers to the realness of the world around them without a filter. It shows us that people of that time were involved in some of the same struggles that go on today. He made it appear almost as normal behavior. People’s lives, whether it was real or character, were never so widely broadcasted before and projected on a screen for everyone to observe and criticize.

Then the movie jumps from the circus to the tramp. We were introduced to him in a levelheaded way, not knowing too much. All of a sudden a slick pickpocket frames him of a crime that he did. The police assume that the tramp was the one that stole the money and begin to chase him for a crime that he does not know anything about. They were in an amusement park and the tramp led them to a building that was full of rooms of mirrors. Not properly being able to see who was who in the room, the tramp was able to get away, but not for long.

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The film proceeds to a scene where the tramp has to act like part of the mechanical show in the amusement park and becomes a robot in order to hide from the other policeman guarding at the only way out. The pickpocket eventually finds the tramp, but must act like a robot along with him because he has to hide as well. This is an outstanding, and quite hilarious, illustration of the mechanical and economic boom in the 1920s’. Having access to electricity in the 1920s’ gave Americans the opportunity to expand and grow as a society. They could now supply themselves with jobs that didn’t involve so much manual labor. [5]Electricity brought Americans new and exciting equipment such as radios, electric razors and irons, refrigerators, washing machines and vacuums. Along with the advancements in factories, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford popularized the assembly line. This made it possible for American factories to produce products quicker and at mass quantities. It made manufacturing cheaper, which simultaneously made it cheaper for consumers. Assembly lines and mass production led to the production of cars. Production costs reduced so much that by 1924 you could purchase a new Ford Model T for just $26.

Through all the things that Charlie went through in his personal life, like an alcoholic father, his mother getting ill, and his son passing away, for example, he never let it hold him back on screen. He still maintained that lighthearted, amusing sense of friendliness. During the scene in the living areas of the performers, the tramp is making his breakfast before his tryout and the stepdaughter comes out of her room. After a long night of not having dinner she is, of course, extremely hungry. Without knowing she is his soon to be boss’s stepdaughter, the tramp is reluctant to share his meal with her and shoos her away. He continues to explain to her that all she had to do was ask, and he splits what he has in half and shares it with her. This is an example of pure consideration and compassion of the tramp. It shows that even though he doesn’t have much, he is eager to share it with those who have none. Charlie came from a poorer, less fortunate family and has an understanding of what that feels like. He always makes people on the lower end of the spectrum feel included and important and that derives from who he used to be. In each film he has made he has done a splendid job making us view people that are less fortunate as happy, optimistic people and not just sad and dirty.The ringmaster is not too pleased with the commotion that the tramp is causing in his big top at first. When he finally calms down and observes what he is doing to the crowd he offers him a tryout. The ringmaster is not expecting anything professional or outstanding because he literally tells the tramps to, “go ahead and be funny”. The tramp does a few amateur dance impressions, but essentially does not make the cut. The other clowns that already are part of the show begin to show the tramp a few routines and when it is the tramp’s turn again he does not do it the right way once again. The tramp quickly proves that he is not particularly good at being a clown, taking direction or being part of a routine. However, he is great at his own style and does well with improve. This is a direct reflection of Charlie’s comedic skills in real life. He has in own unique style that people enjoy and he is not part of a group, category or routine.

After getting kicked out again because the ring master is unaware of his potential, the tramp stands his ground and simply puts his hat back on. Not without peeping back inside the tent after his departure though. He gathers that all the unpaid backstage staff members quit. Because of this, the tramp is hired back. Being back under the big top meant that in no time the tramp could think of a way to be introduced back to the arena once again, but probably not the way that he eventually was. Instead of a grand reentrance, the circus mule abruptly chased him into the arena and the crowd thought this was absolutely hilarious. He ran back to the backstage area and then was quickly redirected to bring a table out of the area for the next act. The only thing that the ringmaster instructed him to do was not to touch a specific button. When he brought the table out doves, rabbits, ducks and balloons all came pouring out of the hats that were clearly prepared for a magic show. Still, the crowd just thought it was funny and kept applauding. Of course this stunt made the ringmaster completely loose it. The whole show was ruined and all that the ringmaster had to say about it was “he’s a sensation but he doesn’t know it, keep him on as a property man”. The whole point of a show was to entertain people and he was succeeding. It might not have been in the conventional or planned way, but he was. That’s what was so special about Chaplin. He entertained crowds in an unexpectable or unpredictable way. Which is the ongoing theme in the movie is spontaneous humor rather then planned.

After the overwhelming success of a different movie that he made called The Gold Rush, Chaplin saw the reaction of this style of comedy; he decided to literally create a film about being funny. He does a fascinating job or presenting the failure and success in comedy. His comedy in this film, and most of his others, is a perfect metaphor for never making mistakes, just happy accidents. Humor must be natural and not forced and by the crowd continuously asking, “where is the funny man” it is almost like a self-awareness that Chaplin has for himself. The tramp, just like Chaplin real life, is at a constant search for a solid foundation of identity.

The movie leads to a scene where Merna and Rex are having, what seems to be, a flirty conversation. The tramp does not seem delighted by the sight, but does not do anything about it. He ends up sitting with her during his tightrope performance and is giving shady applause when he begins. Merna on the other hand seems to enjoying the show until he starts to slip. The tramp is truly applauding at this point because he is selfishly happy to see him failing. He ends up finishing with grace and ease. Merna was cheering for Rex and the tramp looked disappointed and defeated. The scene is interesting because it shows a different side to the tramp and it makes it able for us to connect or relate to him.

The climax is approached when Rex is not on time for the show and the ringmaster threatens the tramp to take his place or be fired. Chaplin displays pure irony when he says “Oh no, I live a charmed life” when Merna warns him that he’ll die. Directly after he gets hit in the head and falls straight on his face. The tramp had full intentions of saving the show, but in one of Chaplin’s most iconic scenes when the monkeys harass the tramp, it once again ends up not going as he planned. He connects himself to the rope and is reluctant to start the performance, but he knows that he must. The tramp gets lifted all the way up to the tightrope and is about to start walking across just as one of the monkeys drops something is his hat and he throws it down towards the crowd landing on a man’s head and he gets enraged. The tramp goes on with the routine and with the help of the man backstage, he is able to blow the crowd away. Meanwhile the man is controlling him with the rope he is connected to. Just as the show is going well, the man looses grip of the rope and the tramp gets disconnected. He now actually has to balance on the tightrope. The pesky monkeys come back and crawl onto him while he is trying to balance. While they are tugging and biting on him, they begin to undress him. He slips and falls under the rope, hanging on for dear life. He stretched his way to the end and rolls down the tightrope with the bike and finishes his part of the show. The ringmaster, furious form the fiasco out in the arena, unleashes his anger on his stepdaughter and starts pushing and hitting her around. Probably from the adrenaline, the tramp enters as the ringmaster is throwing her around and takes his own at him and finally sticks up for her. Black eye and all, the ringmaster kicks the tramp out of the big top for good. The tramp comes full circle by beating up the ringmaster. He became emotionally relieved and financially relieved.

Merna eventually runs away from the circus, finds the tramp, and tells his she will never go back. The tramp rushes back to the circus and gives Rex a ring to give to her. They marry the next morning and show her stepfather the papers just as the circus is about to leave. They agree to still go on with the circus, but only if the tramp can go as well. The ringmaster sends him to the back of the wagon while Merna and Rex offer him to stay with them. He tells them that he’ll stay where he was put and as the circus takes off, the tramp stays behind in the dust sitting in the middle of an open field where the big top used to be constructed. Chaplin deciding to not have the stereotypical happy ending and instead have the tramp stay was unexpected but magical. It is like the tramp has come to terms with who he is and where he belongs and he finally found that strong foundation of identity.


Some would be led to believe that when Chaplin created his films, there was poor camera work and sloppier assembling. In the scene when the policeman was chasing the tramp because he thought he was pick pocketing and he led him to a room full of mirrors, Chaplin set up the camera so thoughtfully that you got a clear sense of the characters and theme of the film. He was able to angle the camera impeccably so that the viewer could see a never-ending series of reflections at once. The scene is also a metaphor of a crushed feeling of self and a fractured identity. Chaplin, after going through a rough childhood and growing up in poverty, may have been facing some of these things and the scene is a perfect example of being caught between society, the cop, and a rougher outcome of life, the pickpocket. The mirrors are a metaphor of Charlie having to choose who he wants to become. All the reflections are a representation of who he knows he is, who he appears to be to others, and who he will never be.

Chaplin, once again, was way ahead on this time when it came to cinematic creations and conceptual visuals. There is a scene when the tramp sees Merna with Rex, a more handsome, put together guy and he feels down because he thinks he cannot compare the slightest. While he is sitting there watching her interact with this man, he has an out of body experience and he literally steps out of his body and begins to kick the man she is talking to. This is clearly something he would never do in real life and not something that he actually did, but was wishing he could. Chaplin was able to capture it so strongly and it certainly was a cinematic sensation for that time.

Chaplin did an outstanding job by choosing to end the film the way he did. By not doing what you expected – having a happy ending – he has followed the theme of surprise that is found throughout the rest of the movie and crafted a foolproof example of his comedy style. The Circus by Charlie Chaplin was a very successful and hilarious movie that brought joy to people and still continues to do so. With his endless amusing impressions and whimsical entertaining abilities, those who continue to share it will forever treasure Charlie Chaplin’s work. There were a lot of ground breaking cinematic moments in this film, and through some troublesome setbacks, Chaplin was able represent that period of time with all its glory. From the mechanic scene with the pickpocket, to the room full of mirrors, and sharing his food with Merna, The Circus is clearly a classic and is a monumental movie of the decade.

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