At a svelte 71 minutes and with most of the action occurring in and around the same big top, The Circus doesn't match a few other Chaplin movies such as Modern Times or The Great Dictator in ambition, but it's this relative simplicity which makes it so charming.

In The Circus, Chaplin's tramp quite accidentally finds himself signed up as a clown in the local circus. This follows the climax of a real-life police chase in which the tramp stumbles into the ring and inadvertently entertains the audience with his comically incompetent evasions of the law. The formidable ringmaster, the kind that makes his clowns cry, now must pin down the secret of that night's success – but, as he finds out, you can't easily forge the spontaneous calamitous comedy of the little tramp.

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Meanwhile, the tramp finds himself quite at home in the circus. He forms a friendship with the ringmaster's daughter, a fellow performer in the big top. And the tramp is put to work helping with the animals and mopping floors, giving him a sense of purpose. The face he is the hit of the show is, at least at first, unbeknown to him.

Like a lot of Chaplin's feature films, it's amazing the pace of the movie is so smooth. The film is a multi-decked sandwich of comic set piece, plot, comic set piece, plot. But almost every set piece adds a depth or a warmth to the characters, sheds a light on a central tension or relationship or is almost immeasurably touching. Chaplin hides his piecemeal structure well with a faultless comic timing tied to a snappy pace.

And, like his very best movies, this film is streaked with an aching, but affecting, sentimentality. The tramp's perpetual innocent stare and affability can't help but endear you to his exploits.

So, even before his bonafide masterpieces of the Thirties and early Forties, this is proof that Chaplin's filmography is studded with gems. This simple but precise comedy perfectly showcases the polymath Chaplin – writing, directing, producing, composing the music and doing his own stunts. It's remarkable. It'll make you fall in love with Chaplin, and with cinema, all over again.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2011
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The Little Tramp takes a job as a clown and falls for the ringmaster's daughter.
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Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia

Year: 1928

Runtime: 71 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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