In the vast body of brilliant comic work created by Charlie Chaplin, "The Circus" holds a somewhat uncertain place, coming as it does between two his towering masterworks ("The Gold Rush" and "City Lights"), and being viewed by some as a trifle, lacking the big, epic themes and emotional punch of his best work.
Rather than seeing these as flaws, I would instead place "The Circus" among Chaplin's funniest films, though not necessarily one of his best. Watching the film again, it does have several major flaws that, while hardly detracting from the humor, do keep it from reaching the heights of his best work.
To begin with what works, it should be noted upfront that "The Circus" opens with what is arguably Chaplin's most clever and funny opening scene with the exception of the assembly-line sequence in "Modern Times". We first see the Tramp, "hungry and broke", hanging around the midway. After an altercation with a pickpocket, during which Charlie temporarily ends up with a newfound wallet and pocket-watch, police give chase, and everyone finds themselves in a fun house, with its amazing mirror maze sequence (which clearly inspired the finale of Orson Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai").
This sequence is so much fun that it's almost a disappointment when it ends. Thankfully, the rest of the films maintains the fast pace of the gags.
The film works quite well up until the point where Chaplin introduces a rival for the affection of the girl. Rex, the tightrope walker (Harry Crocker, Chaplin's assistant director) is a bland and lifeless character, which I suppose is part of the point, except that the audience is asked to cheer when he ends up with the girl at the end of the film! What's worse is the way Chaplin milks totally unnecessary sympathy for his character at the end, by turning him, quite pointlessly, into a martyr. It makes for a powerful ending shot (the Tramp wistfully kicks away the tattered remains of the circus hoop and walks off into the dawn sunrise), but it's a rather cheap emotion that feels as forced as any happy ending. For a really thorough discussion of this aspect of the film, see Lloyd Fonvielle's essay on it, "The Circus".
There's also a rather odd plot point-which others have pointed out-that is never satisfactorily resolved in the scene when Rex fails to report for work and Charlie has to take his place on the tightrope-where was his character that evening, and why does it not seem to cause any repercussions for him when he returns the next night? Again, it's a forced incident to move the plot along, but hurts the sense of consistency in the characters and narrative.
I suppose if I seem like I'm dwelling on the film's flaws, it's only because I've been so vocal in my praise for what works in the film in the past. It is a very, very funny comedy, with some wonderful recurring gags (the donkey that chases Charlie hither and yon through the circus grounds, the botched magician's routine, and my personal favorite, the audition scene, in which Charlie is instructed to "go ahead and be funny").
The film can also be seen as Chaplin's exploring some theories of comedy; problem is, they're all so wildly inconsistent that trying to extract some idea as to his actual theories on comedy from the film are impossible. He suggests, on the one hand, that good comedy is "accidental" and can't be worked at, which is total nonsense given his working methods. Then, it's suggested (once he finds himself dejected over the rivalry for the girl's attention), that you can't be funny if you're feeling depressed, which certainly doesn't hold up considering that Chaplin produced this, one of his sheer funniest films, during what was undoubtedly the most stressful and upsetting period of his life. So unfortunately, one can't really take away from the film any of Chaplin's actual thoughts on the art of comedy.
Seeing the film in 35mm (a sparkling new print, thankfully) at Film Forum was a great way to gauge how the film plays with an audience. Unfortunately, the audience I saw the film with didn't quite seem to know how to behave at a silent film, with a quiet chatter running for much of the film's duration, almost as if certain viewers were mistaken in thinking that a silent film needs some kind of running commentary. Chaplin's scores for both films work quite effectively. In fact, I marveled at his ability to write full orchestral scores that manage to stay completely in the "background" and never really call attention to themselves (the vocal title tune of "The Circus" notwithstanding).
This was even more distracting in the short that preceded the film, "The Idle Class". I'm not a big fan of the Chaplin First Nationals, but this film contains some delightful sight gags, especially the moment when Chaplin, as the wealthy idler, walks into the hotel lobby without his pants, and is forced to seek refuge in a phone booth. One of the stronger First Nationals, this one was marred by the stretch-printing that Chaplin employed for the 1971 re-release. Unfortunately, the Film Forum is running the "daddy" versions. For those unfamiliar, those are the versions of the films Chaplin prepared in the 1970s for re-release, and which are viewed by his estate as his "final word" on how these films should be seen. Some of the films suffer worse from others ("The Kid" loses a full reel). "The Circus" is fully intact; the major change being the title song that Chaplin composed and sings himself. It's a pleasant song, but it can be difficult to reconcile some of the decisions that Chaplin made in altering his work to make it more palatable to 1970s audiences.
All in all, "The Circus" demands attention within the body of work created by Chaplin, even if it doesn't necessarily hold up as one of his finest achievements. It's one of his most frustrating works, in some ways, because it is so clever, so funny, that one wishes the narrative elements could have come together stronger to make it one of his masterworks.