Charlie Chaplin’s last fully silent film had its grand première 6 January 1928, by NYC’s Strand Theatre, and opened 27 January by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. While it’s quieter and less sweeping in scope than a masterpiece like City Lights or Limelight, it’s a very solid, enjoyable film nonetheless.
A struggling circus has come to town, headed by a cruel ringmaster who mistreats all his performers, including his stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy). Into this scene steps the dear Little Tramp, who’s so hungry he has to take bites from a baby’s doughnut.
His situation worsens when he’s framed him for pickpocketing a wallet. At first he’s assumed to be the victim, but then the true victim alerts the cops, and the Tramp escapes into the circus funhouse.
The Tramp next tries to evade capture by posing as a dummy outside the funhouse, but when the ruse is up, he runs back into the hall of mirrors. He then ends up under the big top, with the cop unwittingly becoming part of the entertainment.
The Tramp is such an audience hit, he’s asked to audition in the morning. Being starving and poor, he jumps at the opportunity for any job.
As destitute as he is, he kind-heartedly share some of his meagre food with Merna in the morning. Her abusive stepfather forced her to go without food yesterday.
Every act the Tramp auditions for goes hilariously wrong, and the ringmaster orders him out. He’s leaving the fairgrounds when he runs across Merna, who helps him to clean up, and expresses sorrow for how he won’t be joining the act after all. She also thanks him for giving her the egg.
The Tramp’s fortune changes when the property men quit on account on not getting their rightful back pay. The ringmaster orders the head property man (veteran character actor Tiny Sandford) to get anybody to fill the role, and of course the Tramp is roped in.
Once again, the Tramp unwittingly stumbles into a circus act and becomes a huge hit. The ringmaster agrees to keep him on as a pretended property man, without the pay he’s owed.
The Tramp is kept in the dark about how he’s the hit of the show, and given a lot of gruntwork when the circus isn’t performing, such as cleaning equipment and giving horses pills.
The Tramp accidentally runs into a lion’s cage after running away from the head property man’s wrath, and then accidentally locks himself inside as well.
After Merna saves him, the Tramp shimmies all the way up to the top of a pole. Once he comes down, Merna reveals he’s the hit of the show. Her stepfather is quite displeased to overhear this, and tries to whip her.
The Tramp threatens to quit if he strikes her, and the ringmaster finally agrees to pay him. The Tramp haggles his weekly pay up to $100.
This newfound windfall not only increases his quality of life, but also Merna’s.
The Tramp is thrilled to overhear a fortuneteller predicting Merna will find love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who’s close to her now. Who else but himself could that be referring to?
In steps Rex, the new tightrope-walker. Naturally, he and Merna fall in instalove.
The Tramp, still believing he’s the one, gives a clown $5 for a fancy ring. His hopes are sadly dashed when he overhears Merna telling the fortunerteller she’s just fallen in love with a new tightrope-walker.
The Tramp barely makes anyone laugh during the next show, too depressed about his unrequited love. As the season passes with a similar lack of laughs, he becomes determined to become a tightrope-walker himself, so he might impress Merna more than Rex.
The Tramp is given one more chance to make the audience laugh, on a day Rex is nowhere to be found. He’s compelled into taking Rex’s place, in spite of having zero experience and Merna begging him not to do it.
Will the Tramp be able to save the show and help Merna get away from her abusive stepfather once and for all?