Program Notes: The Circus (1928)

During the 1920s Charlie Chaplin was the most famous person in the world.

His mischievous Little Tramp character was recognized in major cities and tiny African villages. Anywhere a movie projector could be set up and films screened, Chaplin became an instantly recognized figure.

Though he's known for such classic films as The Gold Rush, The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator, one of his most successful films often slips through the cracks.

The Circus (1928), which finds the Tramp signing on as a clown at a rundown traveling show, was one the biggest moneymakers of the silent era. It will be screened on Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., as part of the free Movies That Matter series.

As usual, the Library's Robert W. Butler (for 40 years the film reviewer for the Kansas City Star) will provide opening and closing remarks. Walter Bryant, who did such a magnificent job of accompanying Keaton's The General last fall, will be on hand to tinkle the ivories, providing live music to go with Chaplin's hysterically funny images. It will be a genuine, old-timey silent movie experience.

Perhaps one reason The Circus doesn't enjoy the reputation of Chaplin's other films is that he was ambivalent about it.

Not about the movie itself, but about the harrowing experience of making it. Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

A studio fire destroyed the sets. Chaplin was going through a divorce so bitter and lurid that salacious court documents filed by his teenage wife were reprinted and sold in drugstores. Women's groups announced a boycott of his films.

His mother, long plagued with mental problems, died. And the IRS took the wildly popular movie star to court over back taxes.

The production was shut down for eight months after Chaplin packed up footage of The Circus and fled to New York. He didn't want the unfinished film to become part of a divorce settlement.

And while in New York the comedian suffered a mental breakdown. His hair turned gray overnight.

Yet from all this misery came a masterpiece that sums up all that is great about Chaplin: Amazing acrobatics, side-splitting comedy, bittersweet romance.

Result: The Circus became the seventh highest-grossing silent film of all time, earning more than $3.8 million. But we celebrate it today because of the pleasure it continues to deliver.

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About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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