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Case Number 04908

Buy The Circus at Amazon

The Circus

Warner Bros. // 1928 // 69 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // August 2nd, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Treadway's irrational fear of bearded ladies was overridden by his desire to watch The Little Tramp under the big top.

The Charge

This is comedy without a net!

Opening Statement

The Circus has the dubious distinction of being one of Chaplin's most overlooked silent comedies. The troubled production and subsequent scandals did not help the film's reputation.

Looking at the film 76 years later, however, one discovers that The Circus is among Chaplin's finest achievements. After several mediocre VHS and DVD releases, Warner Bros. and MK2 Editions have teamed up to issue the definitive release.

Facts of the Case

The Little Tramp (Charles Chaplin) is wandering around the circus grounds when he is mistaken for a pickpocket. Running at top speed to elude the police, he finds himself the star attraction when he accidentally carries the chase into the circus tents. With visions of dollar signs in his head, the circus owner offers the Little Tramp an audition.

The audition goes badly, as the Tramp simply isn't funny when he tries to be. When the circus owner discovers that the Tramp garnered all his laughs by accident, he decides to retain the Tramp as a janitor and make him an unwitting laughingstock and attraction.

While working for the circus, the Little Tramp falls for Merna, an acrobat who happens to be the owner's daughter. When tightrope walker Rex joins the circus, the Tramp finds himself in competition for Merna's heart.

The Evidence

The Circus was the most troubled production of Charles Chaplin's career. When he began production in 1926, Chaplin had no idea of the trouble that would ensue. Accidents kept occurring: The main circus tent set burned down. The film lab ruined the first two weeks' footage. Just when the trouble seemed to begin to pass, Chaplin's wife, Lita Grey, decided to file for divorce. Urged on by her lawyer uncle, Grey and her lawyers attempted to seize control of the existing negative of The Circus. Luckily Chaplin hid the negative and, after settling the case, finished the film in late 1927. It is the only one of his early films not to be mentioned in his autobiography. Nevertheless, despite its poor reputation, The Circus is well worth seeing. There are set pieces here that rival the best of Chaplin's work.

All of the Chaplin films have been issued on DVD before in prints of varying quality. For their definitive release, Warner Bros. and MK2 Editions have gone back to the original master prints from the Chaplin estate vaults. With a careful, frame-by-frame restoration, they have done magnificent work here. This is the best The Circus has ever looked. There are the usual signs of age, such as scratches and specks, but never has The Circus looked this clean and silky. The gorgeous black-and-white photography has a gloss unseen since the 1928 premiere.

If there is one area I have criticized again and again in these recent Chaplin DVDs, it is the audio. I simply do not like the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo tracks. The mix sounds shallow and empty when compared to the breathtaking, vivid 2.0 mono track. Chaplin's films were made with monaural sound and should be presented this way. The stereo rips a lot of the liveliness of Chaplin's score right out from under it.

Warner Bros. has given The Circus some worthwhile extras:

• Introduction by David Robinson, author of Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius. This is a bit brief at five minutes, but it nicely sets up the film by providing general biographical information.
• "Chaplin Today: The Circus." This latest installment of the multipart documentary series made for British television features director Emir Kursturica giving his unique perspective on Chaplin's classic silent. This is well worth seeing, especially if you have seen the other parts of the series.
• Deleted reel. Chaplin deleted an entire reel that showed a messy dinner date between the Tramp, Merna, and Rex. This is a hilarious set piece, but it would have slowed the movie down far too much.
• Outtakes from the week of October 7-13. These are in poor shape visually but are interesting to see.
• Mountbatten Home Movies. These are home movies shot by Chaplin for Lord Mountbatten. You'll see Chaplin working on the set of The Circus. There is also footage of Chaplin and his good friend Douglas Fairbanks on the set of The Gaucho and an uncompleted Chaplin short, The Sacrifice.
• Silent film footage from the Hollywood premiere, back in the days before they became three-ring circuses in their own right.
• Test footage. A split screen shows Chaplin's two-camera shooting system. There is also some rare 3-D footage shot by Roland Totheroh when Chaplin flirted with the idea of making The Circus in 3-D.
• Excerpt from Circus Day. This is a silent feature film starring Jackie Coogan, costar of Chaplin's 1921 masterpiece The Kid. Except that it features Coogan and a circus theme, I have no idea why it is offered here.
• Photo gallery, film posters, theatrical trailers, and clips from other discs in The Chaplin Collection

Closing Statement

The Circus is a Chaplin disc everyone should make the effort to check out. 'Nuff said.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 97
Audio: 84
Extras: 90
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 98

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• English
• Chinese
• French
• Korean
• Portuguese
• Spanish
• Thai
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 1928
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Classic
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Introduction by David Robinson
• "Chaplin Today: The Circus" Documentary
• Deleted Reel
• Outtakes
• Mountbatten Home Movies
• Hollywood Premiere Footage
• Test Footage
• Excerpt from Circus Day
• Photo Gallery
• Film Posters
• Theatrical Trailers


• IMDb

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