The circus is in town, and so is the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) but he hasn't eaten for a while and is out of cash. It doesn't stop him enjoying the sideshows, however, and as he watches he doesn't notice there is a pickpocket operating in the area; the thief is caught redhanded, but slyly slips the aggrieved party's wallet into the Tramp's pocket. He wanders off oblivious as a policeman accuses the thief but has no proof, so must let him go, but the miscreant follows the Tramp hoping to get the spoils of his crime...
Thus is set in motion the plot that saw a famous comic character get muddled up in the circus, an idea that was fairly hackneyed even then, which may be the reason why Chaplin's efforts in this film are oft-neglected and certainly not as well known as his other classics. But if the storyline sounded like the kind of thing you'd seen all before, it was what the master comedian did with such notions that made for one of his most unjustly overlooked works, which should by all rights have taken its place among those other, better regarded efforts like The Gold Rush or City Lights. Those who have seen it are often surprised at how well made it was.
What made that even more surprising was if you knew the background to the film, which was one of the toughest Chaplin ever created, beset with problems and not helped by the writer-director-star's tumultuous personal life leading him straight into a nervous breakdown. Yet you'd never know it to see him here, blithely throwing himself into the slapstick as if nothing was wrong, and garnering as big a laugh through those antics as he ever did. Once the Tramp has joined the circus thanks to blundering into the clown's act when trying to run away from the cops (that pilfered wallet was to blame), the story can begin properly.
Our hero falls for the acrobat (Merna Kennedy) who is routinely beaten and bullied by the cruel ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia), who also happens to be her father. The Tramp, who is never named though lipreaders can note Merna calls him "Charlie" throughout, wishes to stand up to the tyrant, but doesn't want to lose his job there, little realising it is he who is the star of the show when he thinks he's just helping with the props. There are plenty of laughs here for those who mistakenly think Chaplin was all about the mawkishness to the detriment of the chuckles, and his character was no saint to offer the story a slight edge, but the love story is actually very sweet, even moving, in its simplicity.
Merna really loves the new tightrope walker, which might have had a parallel in real life as the Tramp finds he can no longer be funny when he's depressed and lovelorn. This results in a finale of great self-sacrifice for the character, but as we can see he's doing the right thing by both Merna and himself, it's enough to raise The Circus to the level of forgotten classic, as if the gags were not enough to do that already. Well, almost forgotten: in 2010 a clip of a woman walking by a cinema showing this film in 1928 became a news story because to many it looked as if she was talking on a mobile phone; it should be noted this didn't appear in the film itself, but gave Chaplin's movie a push of publicity around eighty years after its premiere. Those who investigated it would find light, sweet, amusing and poignant evidence that the great star's reputation back in his heyday was entirely deserved: The Circus was a lovely film.