Now the Tramp is introduced. He first appears in a crowd outside a funhouse, near the circus tent. The facade of the funhouse resembles a giant cuckoo-clock, with several large automata built into it, Thorough a series of complicated events, the Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket, flees the police by hiding in the funhouse’s hall of mirrors, and finally, poses as an automaton to evade capture. All three gags are part of one chase sequence, each forces the Tramp to pose as something he is not, and each involves repetitive behaviour.
The chase goes on; Chaplin’s character is driven into the big top itself, where he crashes the main-event performance and generates far more laughs than anyone performing on purpose. The Ringmaster eventually hires him, but only as a property man (labourer) and part-time performer. The Tramp is unaware of how big a star he is, so he’s easily low-balled.
As expected, the Tramp falls for Merna, who's as pretty as she is vulnerable. What Merna feels in return is less clear. She’s responsive to the Tramp's charms, though not in an obviously romantic way. We can believe her feelings are developing in that direction, at least for a while. However, what we do know is that Merna loves the Tramp as her benefactor.
His first good deed in the film is to share his breakfast with Merna; in addition to beating her, the Ringmaster also denied her food. She’s starving, so the Tramp splits his only egg.
Merna returns the favour a little later, by telling the Tramp that indeed, he’s the star of the show. The Ringmaster overhears this, breaks up their conversation and attacks Merna again. And now the Tramp protects her once more, telling the Ringmaster that if he lays a hand on her, he’ll quit the show. Oh, and he wants to be paid what he’s worth.
In both of these episodes, the Tramp helps someone who ought to be helping him. He has no job, but gives her food; he is poor and powerless, but employs brinkmanship both to save her body and advance his position. The Tramp, it seems, is on the rise.
Soon, our hero is making big money as a performer. His act mostly recreates, night after night, the chaos he originally caused when he was chased into the big top months before. We’re cheering him on, of course. We watch him, with confident (though not arrogant) airs about him, preparing for a show. On the other side of the tent flap, Merna and some of her girlfriends are seated with a fortune teller. The fortune teller predicts that Merna will marry a “dark, handsome man who is near you now”; overhearing this, the well-placed Tramp decides it must be him. He immediately buys a ring from one of the clowns—for five dollars—and prepares to propose.
Chaplin doesn’t let us bask in this for long. The next scene introduces Rex (Harry Crocker), the handsome new tightrope walker, and Merna is instantly lost to him. She tells a friend that she’s in love, and the Tramp overhears this too. His joy is obliterated. To Chaplin’s credit, though, Rex isn’t played as a jerk. The Tramp doesn’t like him, but how could he? Rex captures Merna’s heart just by showing up, truly putting the Tramp in his place—fame and wealth be damned.
The Tramp also takes Rex’s place, at least once. When Rex disappears before a performance, the panicking Ringmaster orders the Tramp to do his tightrope act. The ensuing scene is classic Chaplin, mixing high and low comedy in equal measure.
The Tramp is almost killed, of course; after a succession of near falls, he completes the act and speeds out of the big top on a runaway bicycle. The Ringmaster, angered by this, again vents his frustrations on Merna. The Tramp then re-emerges and beats the Ringmaster with his fists. He saves Merna, but is fired.
One more time, the Tramp has been forced to adopt another’s role. When Rex is absent, he replicates his performance; when Rex’s girlfriend is threatened, the Tramp, a much smaller man, defends her in a manner Rex could have done more easily. We see his reward in the next scene, when he is sitting alone by a campfire, probably a few miles from the circus. Merna appears; she tells him she’s run away, and asks the Tramp to take her with him.
This should be victory. Merna, the woman he loves, wants to be with him, even when he has nothing. The man she supposedly loves has been left behind. Yet the Tramp’s next move is not a joyful one. He asks Merna to wait at the campsite, then returns to the circus and finds Rex. He gives Rex the engagement ring, telling him, “I can do nothing for her.” Rex and Merna are married the next day, with the Tramp throwing rice over their heads.
The Tramp concludes that he’ll always be a tramp. This isn’t an upbeat way to end The Circus, but Chaplin does give us a little more. In the closing scene, the three performers return to the circus and Merna demands that the Ringmaster restore the Tramp’s job, which he does. Merna invites the Tramp to ride with her and Rex to the next town. He declines, saying he’ll be satisfied with the ‘end wagon.’ As the wagon train pulls away, he stands still, and finally alone, in an earthen circle—the impression left behind by the big top. The Tramp is back where he began. He sits down, depressed, then notices a scrap of paper on the ground: It bears the same design as the paper hoop in the opening scene. The Tramp rolls the paper into a ball, stands, and kicks it behind him. He may have nothing, but it’s all his.
The Circus has such interesting images that I didn’t have room to describe its slapstick comedy scenes, which are multiple and brilliant. If you’re in the mood for a funny film, don’t let this review dissuade you from The Circus.
Where to find The Circus:
French distributor MK2 owns the rights to most of Charlie Chaplin’s later works, distributed in North America by Warner Brothers. My copy of The Circus is among them. This version includes a second disk with substantial archival materials, deleted scenes and a documentary about The Circus’ rather troubled production. Look for it here.