Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Circus (1928)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Circus (1928)

In writer/director/actor Charlie Chaplin's bittersweet romantic comedy - an underrated, overlooked and captivating award-winning silent film; The Circus was Chaplin's last truly silent film; it came between two other Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931); the classic film premiered at an inopportune time - Chaplin had experienced a series of film production disasters, and was enduring a highly publicized scandalous divorce (in late August 1927) from his very young, twice-pregnant, second wife Lita Grey, with accusations against Chaplin of adultery and non-payment of back taxes; it also premiered at the time of the demise of silents, with the contemporary release of Warners' talkie The Jazz Singer (1927); however, it deservedly won a "special" Academy Award for "Versatility And Genius In Writing, Acting, Directing, And Producing":

  • during the opening title credits of the film's 1969 re-release, 79 year-old Chaplin wrote and sang a defiant theme-song anthem titled "Swing Little Girl" - referring to one of the female circus performers, who was high up in a circus tent and swinging back and forth

Circus Equestrienne Merna (Merna Kennedy)

Circus Proprietor/Ringmaster (Al Garcia) - Merna's Stepfather
  • in the film's iris-shaped opening scene set in the center of a circus ring, costumed bareback rider Merna (Merna Kennedy) burst through a large paper hoop-ring with a black star; her ringmaster stepfather (Al Garcia), the mustached proprietor of the failing circus, became unusually enraged when she missed a paper-starred hoop on her second attempt riding around the ring; backstage, the despotic circus owner punished her with a verbal thrashing and violently pushed her into another paper star; she ripped through it, and then despairingly sat inside the hoop looking miserable and humiliated; he added that she would be deprived of food: ("So you missed the hoop again!...For that you don't eat tonight!”)
  • the next act in the pathetic and desperate circus consisted of five overweight, unfunny and elderly clowns led by a sad-looking 'Old Clown' (Henry Bergman), who were chastized by the Ringmaster when they left the spotlight ("And you're supposed to be funny! Look at that house; empty!")
  • the down-on-his-luck, "hungry and broke," destitute TRAMP (Charlie Chaplin) hobo character was introduced outside the circus tent in the midway area with side-shows; within the gathered crowd, the police were watching a pickpocket-crook (Steve Murphy); in the brilliantly-choreographed slapstick scene, the about-to-be-apprehended thief, who had been working the crowd, knew he was going to be caught with purloined goods; the pickpocket transferred a stolen wallet and pocketwatch into Charlie's back pocket; the cops searched the pickpocket, but he was found to be clean
  • as the pickpocket-sharper attempted to retrieve his stolen items (wallet and pocketwatch) from the Tramp, he followed him to a hotdog stand where the Tramp took bites from a hotdog from the extended hand of a toddler reaching backward over his father's shoulder, and also helped by wiping the infant's mouth
  • a cop apprehended the pickpocket as he reached into the Tramp's back pocket to retrieve the two items; assuming that the items were the possessions of the Tramp, the cop handed them over to the Tramp and ordered "Count it. Is it all there?"; the Tramp was so surprised by his newfound wealth that he ordered a dozen hot dogs; his order was interrupted when the real victimized, pickpocketed mark spotted his stolen pocket watch and wallet in the Tramp's possession and attempted to get them back
  • a chase ensued involving the Tramp, the pickpocket and the cops into a hall of mirrors (Mirror Maze); (the scene was later copied in Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai (1948)); the pickpocket entered and was confounded by the multiple images as he tried to confront the Tramp; in one instance, the two ran away from each other, but in fact bumped into each other
Hall of Mirrors (Mirror Maze) Sequence
  • in an attempt to escape and elude the cops and the pickpocket, the Tramp pretended to be one of the automated, robotic mechanical mannequins on the outside of the funhouse attraction; the pickpocket joined him and they both masqueraded as mannequins

The Tramp Pretending to be a Mannequin on the Outside of the Hall of Mirrors

The Tramp and Pickpocket Masquerading as Robotic, Mechanized Mannequins
  • a cop also confronted the Tramp in the Mirror Maze, and then chased him out of the Maze into the circus's main show-tent; there, the Tramp inadvertently became part of the big-top circus entertainment show, upstaging the boring, elderly clowns who were being ignored, booed and assaulted with cat-calls; on a revolving, spinning turntable platform with the cop, the Tramp became an enormous hit with the awakened audience that wildly cheered and applauded
  • while hiding in a prop table platform during another center-ring performance, the disruptive Tramp found himself caught in the middle of a Magician's (George Davis) act involving a Vanishing Lady (Betty Morrissey); he unwittingly exposed the trick by repeatedly and unexpectedly taking the place of the Magician’s assistant; the pursuing cop mistakenly apprehended the Vanishing Lady rather than the Tramp who had run off
  • the forlorn, exhausted and rejected Tramp was able to return the stolen items to the cop, and then chose a chariot--wheelbarrow to rest in, but as he sat down, the wheelbarrow collapsed and sent him tumbling onto the ground
  • when the clowns were restored to their horribly unfunny act, the circus audience reacted negatively: "Rotten! Get off! Where's the funny man? Bring on the Funny Man!"; the ringmaster realized the appeal of the Tramp, but he had already disappeared
  • during meal-time after the show, the Old Clown (Henry Bergman) offered Merna his plate of food, but the Ringmaster took it away from her; he happened to recognize the resting Tramp in the chariot as his "Funny Man," and immediately offered the Tramp the possibility of a job and requested that he audition the next morning
The Tramp with the Hungry and Starving Merna
  • early the next morning, the Tramp was heating up water in a tin can over a makeshift fire to prepare his morning meal, and gave chase after a chicken for one egg; meanwhile while he gathered more wood for his fire, the hungry and outcast Merna snuck up and stole the Trump's unguarded slice of bread; when the Tramp caught her in the act of theft and biting into his slice, he reprimanded her, but then relented and gave her the partially-eaten piece of bread that she devoured; when he asked if she was the circus' sword-swallower, she corrected him and told him she was a ring-circling equestrienne; before leaving with the Ringmaster, the Tramp handed Merna his boiled egg to eat
  • the Tramp struggled during an audition-tryout with the other elderly clowns, when he was commanded: "Go ahead and be funny"; in a solo act, he managed to perform an uninspiring little dance, and the Ringmaster denounced his performance: ("That's awful!") - he failed his formal audition
  • during their tryout, the clowns performed a William Tell routine that failed when the target clown kept removing the apple from atop his head to take a bite; the clowns also performed in a barbershop routine in which two competing barbers fought with messy shaving cream
  • the Tramp was only entertainingly funny when not trying to be, in situations where he was called upon to improvise or act spontaneously; after he was instructed to take the place of one of the clowns in the routines, he put a banana on his head instead of a worm-infested apple, and humorously failed to follow directions in the barbershop routine, including painting the Ringmaster's face with shaving cream; the incensed ringmaster tossed the Tramp out: "Get out and stay out!"
  • a work dispute led the unpaid circus property men behind the scenes to go on strike during a show and walk off the job; the Ringmaster ordered: "Get anybody!", and the Tramp was promptly hired as a prop man; the Tramp became the hit of the circus show during comically-improvised moments; while carrying a towering stack of dishes, the Tramp was chased into the circus ring-arena by a normally-docile donkey that charged and brayed at him; he also disrupted and sabotaged Professor Bosco's magic act and was assaulted by an assortment of animals - ducks, white doves, rabbits, and piglets
  • the Ringmaster finally noticed that the Tramp was the hit of the circus: "He's a sensation but he doesn't know it, keep him on as a property man"; a title card described dire circumstances for the Tramp and Merna: "The circus prospered, but not the property man; and the girl led the same hard life"; the Tramp continued to secretly pass food to Merna until the crafty Ringmaster reprimanded him, and exploited his talent: "Keep him busy and don't let him know he's the hit of the show"
  • the Tramp failed to use a tube to blow a medical pill down the throat of an ailing circus horse; and accidentally ingested the horse pill: "The horse blew first -- "
  • after another chase to get away from the donkey, the Tramp accidentally sought refuge in a cage with a sleeping lion (in addition to an annoying barking dog outside who threatened to awaken the beast) - he found himself locked inside, and an escape route through an open door led unfortunately to an adjacent cage with a growling tiger; the Tramp pretended to be brave to impress Merna, who fainted but then regained consciousness and released him from the cage
  • circus equestrienne Merna, the Tramp's love interest, told him - to his surprise - that he was "the hit of the show...All the crowds, all the applause is just for you" the Tramp agreed: "I knew it!"; however, the Ringmaster was listening to their conversation, and the Tramp watched as he slapped Merna for exposing his deceit; the Tramp threatened: "If you strike that girl, I'll quit!" - and then negotiated for higher pay: "And what's more I want what I'm worth" - and acquired a deal for $100 dollars a week
  • just before the next sold-out show, "the success of the Tramp made life easier for the girl and himself" - when a circus gypsy foretold Merna's fortune that a "dark, handsome man" - with love and marriage in his sights - was near her, she was excited; as the Tramp listened in, he became overjoyed to think it was him; he purchased an engagement ring from the Old Clown for $5 dollars in anticipation; however, he then learned, while again overhearing Merna's conversation with the gypsy woman, that she was "in love" with the man of her dreams that she had just met -- the circus' new "added attraction," high-wire tight-rope walker-performer Rex (Harry Crocker) - King of the Air - wearing a top hat and tails
  • the rejected Tramp's mood changed, and his center-ring act was not well received; the Ringmaster noticed: "What's the matter? You hardly got a laugh"; envious and jealous of Rex, in a brief double-exposed vignette, the Tramp's shadowy self stood up and both kicked and then knocked Rex out, and then returned into his body
The Tramp's Shadow Self in a Double-Exposed Vignette
Who Jealously Assaulted Rex
  • a nervous Merna pressured the jealous Tramp into watching Rex's impressive high-wire act; he gave away his distaste for Rex by wildly applauding when he temporarily stumbled; to one-up Rex, the Tramp practiced tight-rope walking on a low-rope, but was caught by the Ringmaster who reprimanded him: "You'd better try and be funny again or you'll go!"; the dejected Tramp's performances were not improving, unfortunately, and he was again warned: "You get one more chance"
  • the Tramp was called upon to substitute as Rex's replacement when he was a no-show; the Ringmaster was unconcerned that he might "kill himself," but Merna was reluctant: "You'll get killed"; the Tramp tried to hide the fact from Merna that he had a safety wire strapped to his waist; on the tightrope, with the aid of the safety wire, the Tramp was able to out-perform Rex with miraculous, daredevil feats of balance, but then the strap around his waist broke free - and he no longer was protected from a fall
With Monkeys on His Head and Biting His Nose
  • as he crossed the tightrope, his act became even more challenging when escaped wild monkeys climbed up onto his head and bit his nose, pulled on his pants to remove them, and put their tail into his mouth; fortunately, he was able to extricate himself and safely return to ground level
  • afterwards, when the Tramp again saw the Ringmaster slapping and beating up Merna, he defended her by assaulting the Ringmaster - and was promptly fired ("You're through!"); that night, he retreated to the nearby woods to cook up another hobo meal under a moon-lit sky; Merna showed up to join him and explained: "I’ve run away from the circus. I'll never go back. Could you take me with you?"
  • to protect Merna from his lonely and vagrant life-style, the Tramp - in a noble gesture - briefly returned to the circus and negotiated for Rex to marry Merna: ("She's run away. I can do nothing for her. Now, there's one way out"); he presented Rex with his engagement ring, and impulsively kissed Rex when he agreed to a wedding
  • after their ceremony the next morning, the Tramp tossed rice into the air and onto the happy couple as they kissed, to celebrate their marriage; the circus was ready to leave town after the show ended its run; the newlyweds Merna and Rex returned to the circus and confronted the Ringmaster, and he agreed to take them back together as a performing couple, but only reluctantly allowed the Tramp to rejoin - "The end wagon for you"
  • in the film's melancholy conclusion, as the horse-drawn circus caravan wagons packed up and moved out, the heartbroken and rejected Tramp deliberately remained behind in a cloud of dust; he sat on a box in the center of an abandoned circle (drawn where the circus tent had been hours earlier); he glanced at a large torn piece of the paper ring with a star on it on the ground in front of him, crumped it up, and kicked it with his heel behind his back
Sad Ending With Iris Fade-Out
  • in the classic memorable bleak ending with an iris fade-out ending in blackness, the solitary Tramp shrugged and then walked in the opposite direction, shuffling away with his trademark jaunt into the distance while spinning his cane with his left hand

Pathetic-Looking Elderly Clowns

On Midway, Pickpocket Searched and Found to be Clean

Pickpocket Pursuing the Tramp to Retrieve His Planted, Stolen Goods

The Tramp Eating a Child's Hot-Dog

The Pickpocket Caught by a Cop Attempting to Retrieve His Stolen Items from the Tramp's Pocket

The Actual Victim Noticing His Wallet and Watch in the Tramp's Hands

The Cop and the Tramp in the CIrcus' Main Ring on a Revolving Platform - A New Attraction

The Tramp Caught In the Middle of a Magician's Act (with a Vanishing Lady) While Being Pursued by Cop

The Tramp Resting in a Broken-Down and Collapsed Chariot

The Tramp's Solo Tryout-Audition for a Job With the Circus

The Messy Barbershop Routine with Shaving Cream

The Tramp (Carrying a Stack of Plates) Chased into Ring by Donkey

The Tramp Disrupting Professor Bosco's Magic Act with Animals

In Circus Cage with Sleeping Lion

In an Adjacent Cage with a Growling Tiger

Merna - the Tramp's Love Interest

Merna with Tightrope Walker Rex (Harry Crocker)

Nervous Merna and the Jealous Tramp Watching Rex Perform on the High-Wire

The Tramp on the Tight-Rope - With Miraculous Balance (Using a Safety Wire)

Merna to the Tramp - Take Me With You

The Tramp Celebrating Rex's Marriage to Merna

The Tramp Left in the Middle of the Circus Ring - In the Dust of the Wagons


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