It took two years of pain, disaster and heartache for Chaplin to finish THE CIRCUS, with problems inside and outside the film escalating to the point where Chaplin himself suffered a nervous breakdown. Yet THE CIRCUS is an idyllic piece of work, filled with a lighthearted spirit of fun unlike any other Chaplin feature aside from the rambling, episodic MODERN TIMES. It often resembles some of his earlier improvised two-reelers rather than his more beloved films like such as THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH or the later CITY LIGHTS.
Despite the expansive and thoroughly convincing circus set, obviously built at some expense, THE CIRCUS is almost an offhand film - albeit an offhand film that took two years to make - telling the tale of what "The Little Tramp" did between more memorable adventures. Without much in the way of an emotionally compelling story, Chaplin fills the film with pure knockabout comedy. Chaplin being Chaplin, it is good, intelligent, perfectly executed knockabout comedy, and Chaplin's pantomime and facial expressions are delightful throughout. Outstanding sequences include a starving Charlie playing with a baby while simultaneously taking large bites of the child's hot dog, a chase that leads to a fun house complete with a hall of mirrors, and a sequence on the circus high wire, a scene which shows how naturally and without malice one comedy great such as Chaplin could "borrow" from another, in this case, Harold Lloyd and the thrill comedy of SAFETY LAST or the classic short Never Weaken. A quick but effective double-exposure dream scene shows Chaplin also freely borrowing from Keaton's SHERLOCK JR.
After releasing the film in 1928 to much acclaim and a special Academy Award, Chaplin kept THE CIRCUS out of circulation until 1969, sealing its fate as the "forgotten" Chaplin film. Always a tinkerer with his rereleases - he added his own narration to THE GOLD RUSH in 1942 - Chaplin wisely left THE CIRCUS pretty much alone, adding only a lovely self-penned musical score which included the 81-year-old master warbling a corny but heartfelt song, "Swing, Little Girl" during the opening credits. The print itself, now the official version of THE CIRCUS, is crisp and beautiful. Except for occasional fleeting defects, it looks as good as it probably did in 1928.
THE CIRCUS ends on perhaps that greatest of all Chaplin master shots - Charlie shuffling off down the road heading for whatever may come next. Though only found in a small handful of Chaplin films such as The Tramp and MODERN TIMES, it is to Chaplin what hanging from a clock is to Harold Lloyd . Naturally, it is the most fitting ending for what was really Chaplin's last pure silent film. ½ - JB