Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp, who, while running away from the police (who mistook him for a pickpocket) runs into a circus big top and is an (unintentional) comedy hit. The circus owner finds that Charlie can't be funny when they want him to be, so he gets a job as a janitor who "accidentally" winds up as part of the act every night.
Charlie falls in love with the owner's daughter, Merna the circus rider, and determines to save her from her abusive father. She however only considers him a friend, and instead falls in love with Rex, the circus' tightrope walker. Charlie tries to impress her by also learning to walk the tightrope, but almost gets killed in the process.
Eventually, Merna runs away from the Circus, so the Tramp convinces Rex to marry her to keep her safe. They then return to the circus, but Charlie stays behind, going back to being a tramp.
Less well remembered than his previous effort, The Gold Rush, or his next features City Lights and Modern Times. Plagued with production difficulties both internal (a fire destroyed much of the set) and external (production took place during Chaplin's ugly, public divorce battle with Lita Grey, causing Chaplin to smuggle portions of the film out of Hollywood to prevent Grey's attorneys from seizing it.)
Chaplin was awarded a special Academy Award, at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, for "versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". He received this award explicitly in lieu of the film being eligible for any competitive awards. The film can be seen here.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Merna's father is quite cruel to her.
- All Part of the Show: The Tramp gets chased by the cops through the circus, to the delight of the crowd.
- Bad "Bad Acting": The Tramp can't be funny on command.
- Bad Boss: The circus owner.
- Banana Peel: Taken Up to Eleven. The Tramp slips on a banana peel on a tightrope, placed there by a monkey.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Tramp frees the girl from her father, but loses her, and is left alone, leading him back to tramping again, but he gets over his funk with his usual aplomb and is on his way with his usual hopeful spirit intact.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The Tramp. The Circus Proprietor doesn't like him and considers him incompetent, but thanks to the crowd who love the Tramp, he is getting hired as The Funny Man.
- Captain Morgan Pose: Rex does this in his outfit in front of Merna. Later, the tramp does the same pose for Merna right before his Emergency Impersonation.
- Chekhov's Skill: The proprietor sees the Tramp practicing tightrope walking. This becomes plot-relevant later when Rex is gone missing and a replacement is needed.
- Circus Episode: For Chaplin's films. This story has the Tramp run away to a circus.
- Denied Food as Punishment: Merna, by her father.
- Did Not Get the Girl
- Dish Dash: One of the jokes involve the Tramp balancing a stack of plates.
- "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: "Swing, Little Girl", sung by Chaplin
- Emergency Impersonation: When Rex is missing, the director remembers the Tramp doing some tightrope walking and hires him for the act.
- Exact Eavesdropping: First the Tramps overhears the Gypsy woman tell Merna her future. Then later he is back at the right time to overhear Merna telling the Gypsy woman about her Love at First Sight.
- Fainting: Instead of helping the Tramp out of the lion cage, Merna faints and could only be revived with a Water Wake-up.
- Fortune Teller: A Gypsy fortune teller from the side show tells Merna her future.
- Give Me Back My Wallet: The pickpocketing in the opening scene.
- Green-Eyed Monster: The Tramp, watching Merna and Rex flirting. Leads to his Indulgent Fantasy Segue.
- Hall of Mirrors: Possibly the Trope Maker.
- Happy Dance: The Tramp does this after hearing the fortune teller talk about Merna ending up with a dark, handsome man.
- Hastily Hidden MacGuffin: A pickpocketer steals a wallet and a watch from a man in the crowd. Suddenly the victim turns around and charges the thief who then shoves the valuables unnoticed into the pocket of the Tramp behind him. Hilarity Ensues when the thief later goes after the Tramp to get his loot back.
- Hot Pursuit: By a cop, through a Hall of Mirrors and into a circus tent.
- I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: This is why Charlie decides to convince Rex to marry Merna, even after she was willing to run away to join him in being homeless.
- Indulgent Fantasy Segue: The Tramp imagines himself knocking his romantic rival on his butt. This is done with a then-innovative special effect showing the Tramp stepping out of his own body.
- Iris Out: The movie ends with this effect as the Tramp walks away from the camera.
- Just Friends: Merna cares a lot for the Tramp but only as a friend, and never realizes what he feels for her.
- Lap Pillow: After running away from the circus Merna cries into the Tramp's lap at the campfire.
- Look Behind You: The Tramp uses this trick to distract the Circus Proprietor and the Property Man, so he could throw a pie up to Merna on the trapeze.
- Love at First Sight: Merna and Rex.
- Mischief Making Monkey: Chaplin is plagued by monkeys while performing a high-wire routine.
- Nice Kitty...: Charlie in the lion cage.
- Nobody Here but Us Statues: Chaplin and the other crook miming mechanically animated puppets on the boat.
- No Name Given: Except for Merna and her boyfriend Rex, no one has names.
- Non-Ironic Clown
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The film ends with the Tramp, who Did Not Get the Girl and is then left behind by the circus, walking away from a static camera after the last circus truck pulls away. The shot is accompanied by an Iris Out.
- Out of the Frying Pan: The Tramp tries to escape the lion cage only to find himself faced by a tiger in the next cage.
- The Place
- Plot-Induced Stupidity: Charlie was hilarious when he stumbled into the big top show, but he can't be funny on command. The circus master's solution is to have Charlie "accidentally" stumble into the act over and over again. Somehow Charlie does not figure out he is star of the show.
- Prophetic Fallacy: The Tramp overhears the fortune teller talk about a dark, handsome man and believes that to be him. Enter the tightrope walker Rex.
- Romantic False Lead: The Tramp for Merna and Rex.
- The Runaway: Merna runs away from the circus.
- Running Gag: The Berserk Button donkey going after the Tramp whenever he is in sight.
- Schmuck Bait: The Tramp is told not to touch the button on the magician's trick table. Guess what happens in the arena.
- Tap on the Head: In the Tramp's Indulgent Fantasy Segue, Rex goes out after a punch from the Tramp.
- Tempting Fate:Merna: You'll get killed.The Tramp: Oh no, I have a charmed life.Cue a sandbag plummeting onto his head.
- Tightrope Walking: Charlie is pressed into service as the tightrope walker after Rex the tightrope walker is MIA during a show.
- Water Wake-up: Merna faints when seeing the Tramp stuck in a cage with a lion. He is able to revive her by pouring the lion's drinking water on her face.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Rex's absence on the day Charlie had to replace him was never explained.
- Wicked Stepfather: The Circus Proprietor denies his step daughter meals for punishment and is shown hitting her several time.
- Would Hit a Girl: The evil stepfather does this to Merna more than once.