The Circus (1928), considered one of the funniest and delightful silent movies created by Charles Chaplin, the production of which was perhaps the most difficult experience of his life. Although the filming began on 11 January 1926 and the majority was completed by November, the production was stalled for eight months due to numerous problems, which include, the death of Chaplin's mother, the claims of his back taxes and the bitter divorce from his second wife Lita Grey, in which Lita’s lawyers sought every means to ruin his career by smearing his reputation. Apart from that, the huge circus tent, created as the principal setting for the film, was destroyed by fire, even before shooting began and after four weeks of filming, it was discovered that bad laboratory work had made everything already shot unusable. In addition to that, during the ninth month of shooting, a devastating fire raged through the studio, destroying the sets and props.
Attracted to young girls by nature, Charlie fell for 16-year-old Mildred Harris, whom he married quietly on 23 October1918, based on a false alarm by the girl that she was pregnant, but actually, she was not. Following the birth of their son on 7 July 1919, who survived only three days, the couple divorced on 13 November 1920, just before the release of the Kid in early February 1921. After a well-publicized affair with Pola Negri, a famous Polish stage and film actress and singer and Marion Davies, the biggest female movie star of the early 1920s, he fell for Lillita Louise McMurray, whom he selected for the role of the leading lady of The Gold Rush, to replace Edna Purviance and gave her the new stage name Lita Grey.
However, as the young girl, said to be16-year-old, but may have been 15, was impregnated by the then-thirty-five-year-old Chaplin during the location shooting in Truckee, she was replaced by Georgia Hale and Charlie had to marry her secretly on 26 November 1924, to avoid scandal and imprisonment for having sexual relations with a minor. However, their rocky marriage ended in divorce on 22 August 1927 and the judge awarded Grey the world’s then-largest divorce settlement of $600,000 and at the same time, Internal Revenue Service simultaneously demanded $1 million from him in back taxes.By that time, Chaplin had hired Merna Kennedy, a friend of Lita, as his lead in The Circus.Later, Lita charged that during that time Charlie was already involved in an affair with Merna and apart from that he was also in close touch with the great silent star Louise Brooks.
In The Circus, the Tramp, played by Chaplin, mistaken for a condemnable pickpocket and chased by both the police and the real crook, stumbles into the circus arena in the middle of a performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show with his hilarious efforts to elude the police. Although the struggling circus owner immediately hires him, assuming his natural capability of entertaining the public as a clown, the next day he fails miserably in the show, as he cannot be funny on purpose. But since the property men of the circus quit as they were not paid, the tramp gets hired to take their place, who just happens to always be in the Big top at showtime.
However, when he inadvertently creates comic mayhem during a show to the entire satisfaction of the crowd, the ringmaster tactfully hires him as a poorly paid property man and thus, without having any idea about the intention of the circus owner, he unknowingly becomes the comedy star of the show.
Soon the tramp befriends Merna, a beautiful bareback rider, the mistreated stepdaughter of the circus owner, who explained to him about his exploitation and forced the ringmaster to pay him accordingly. Gradually, he falls for Merna and as she loves the tightrope walker, the Tramp also attempts to walk the tightrope in an unsuccessful attempt to win her heart. The romance in his heart prospers, despite his encounters with a lion and other hazards of the circus. Even, he also buys a ring for Merna from another clown, but becomes heartbroken when he learns that she loves the handsome new tightrope artist, Rex. The heartbroken tramp fails to entertain the crowds and after several poor performances, the ringmaster warns him of the obvious consequences.
However, despite a few mishaps, which include the attack of several mischievous escaped monkeys, while has taken the place of the tightrope walker and suspended high over the circus ring, he manages to survive and receives profuse applause from the audience in return. But one day, when the ringmaster slaps Merna, he fails his cool and beats her stepfather, the ringmaster and is fired. To his surprise, Merna runs away from the circus tent to join him. The Tramp finds and brings Rex back to marry Merna and after that, the trio goes back to the circus, when Rex informs the scolding stepfather that she is his wife. Finally, when the travelling circus leaves the place, the Tramp prefers to remain behind, perhaps prefers to remain behind, oddly motivated to allow the newly married couple to be happy.
Although The Circus contains some of the best comic inventions by Charlie Chaplin, subtly balanced with a sentiment that is kept tightly in control, it is the only film from his mature feature productions which Chaplin never mentioned in his extensive autobiography. Probably, he wanted to sidestep the entire turbulent period of its making, but it is a delightful movie that emerged from the turmoil. For the film, Chaplin took the risk involving the tightrope and spent weeks together mastering the skills of rope-walking. Apart from that, he was in the lion’s cage for some 200 takes and editing the scene, coordinating the lion and the Tramp, must have been a daunting task.
Premiered in New York City on 6 January and in Los Angeles on 27 January 1928, The Circus was the seventh-highest grossing silent film in cinema history totalling to more than $3.8 million in 1928. For its re-release, Chaplin composed a new score for the film in 1967, along with a theme song, Swing Little Girl, to be sung over the titles by a professional vocalist. Although a vocalist was engaged for the purpose, Eric James, the musical director, found to his utter surprise that Chaplin is capable to render the song superbly. After much persuasion, Charles Chaplin recorded the song, at the age of 79.