It may not be his masterpiece, but Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928) is a beautifully executed comedy that ranks with the very best works of silent cinema. Chaplin toned down the pathos a bit this time, relying instead on a meticulous style of slapstick that's reminiscent of his earlier short films. Some people viewed The Circus as a directorial step backward, coming, as it did, three years after the much more ambitious The Gold Rush (1925.) But Chaplin the performer was beyond reproach. He's arguably the greatest comedian in motion picture history, and his work here is up to his usual, dazzling standards. In The Circus, Charlie plays the Little Tramp, the character that made him the most famous man on the planet. As the story begins, the Tramp is mistakenly accused of stealing a wallet while watching a circus sideshow, which leads to a wild chase through a variety of attractions, including the house of mirrors. This ingenious sequence ends under the big top, where the crowd thinks the Tramp's escapades are all part of the act. When Charlie is cleared of the theft, the circus owner (Allan Garcia) offers him a job as a handyman. The circus setting alone promises enough material for three Chaplin movies. But there also has to be a love interest. Enter the owner's physically abused daughter (Merna Kennedy), a bareback rider. Eventually, Charlie will compete with a handsome tightrope walker (Harry Crocker) for the girl's affections. The movie's most astonishing sequence takes place on the rope, with Chaplin desperately negotiating the wire while three small monkeys crawl on him and yank at his pants. Chaplin actually learned to walk the wire for this scene. No trick photography was used to create the illusion of height, and, luckily, he never fell.
> The Circus was Charlie Chaplin's most troubled production and was made during a stressful time in the filmmaker's personal life. Shot intermittently between December 1926 and December 1927, due to various production problems and Chaplin's failing marriage to Lita Grey, the film was not one of Chaplin's favorites and he barely mentions it in his autobiography. Yet it was a popular commercial and critical success and, while it lacks the touching pathos of The Gold Rush, it is still a superb showcase for Chaplin's comedic skills and his artistry as a director. The famous sequence with Chaplin being tormented by three monkeys during his high wire act had to be reshot after the studio's lab scratched the film during processing. Three weeks of work were lost but Chaplin miraculously recreated the episode to his satisfaction.
> Other delays were caused by unseasonably hot weather as well as heavy winds and rain (which damaged the big top tent) and in one case, shooting was halted until a shipment of snakes arrived from Texas that was crucial for a scene. Chaplin was such a perfectionist that he would shoot endless takes of every scene; for one sequence involving lions, he filmed more than 200 takes. Often, after working on a scene for hours with the cast and crew, he would discard it in the editing process. Yet in the end, The Circus was enthusiastically received by an adoring public despite his well publicized marital troubles and scandals. The New York Daily News called the film "a screaming delight from fade-in to fade-out. It is a howling, hearty, happy, slightly slapstick cinema production wherein the inimitable Charlie gets you more often by a laugh than by a tear." The New York Herald Tribute stated, "There are certain ones who declare that Shoulder Arms  was a better picture than The Circus, but we find this newest picture at least as funny as anything Chaplin ever has done." The Academy must have agreed as well because they honored Chaplin with an Honorary Oscar "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus."
> Chaplin was not the only film comedian who found the setting of a carnival or circus an ideal place to inspire hilarious gags and comical situations.
> The Circus Clown (1934) features Joe E. Brown in a dual role as Chuckles Howard, a former circus clown, and his son Happy, who has been forbidden to have any contact with that lifestyle. When the circus comes to his town, Happy sees an opportunity to join the troupe with his tumbling act but his plans don't exactly go smoothly. > W.C. Fields is the star of Poppy (1936), a remake of the earlier D.W. Griffith silent film, Sally of the Sawdust (1925). As circus performer Professor Eustace McGargle, Fields tries to pass his daughter Poppy off as royalty to the mayor's interested young son while promoting gambling at his circus as well as promoting a phony cure-all tonic known as "Purple Frog Sarsaparilla."
> The Marx Brothers appeared in At the Circus (1939). It was their ninth film and followed them through a series of wild shenanigans as they tried to retrieve some stolen money and save a financially strapped circus owned by Kenny Baker, a popular singing star of his day. Among the supporting players are Nat Pendleton, Eve Arden, Florence Rice and of course the perennial, good-natured target of Groucho's quips - Margaret Dumont. One of the highlights is Groucho performing the unforgettable "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."
> 3 Ring Circus (1954) features Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as two discharged soldiers who end up joining a circus; Martin becomes the assistant to trapeze artist Zsa Zsa Gabor while Lewis gets a job as a lion tamer's assistant with predictably disastrous results. Highlights include the duo's performance of the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans tune, "Hey Punchinello," and Lewis's encounter with a bearded lady played by Elsa Lanchester.
> One of Danny Kaye's more entertaining comedies, Merry Andrew (1958) finds the actor playing a teacher who travels to Italy on an archaeological expedition but finds his true calling as a circus performer after he falls in love with beautiful acrobat Pier Angeli.
> In Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), a sequel to the box office hit Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), the title character (Paul Reubens) is a whimsical rural farmer who realizes his wildest dreams when a storm blows a circus into his town, complete with a ringmaster (Kris Kristofferson), his miniature wife (Susan Tyrrell) and a beautiful acrobat (Valeria Golino).
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