The filming of The Circus was plagued with problems—Chaplin’s messy divorce from second wife Lita Grey, the death of his mother Hannah, the scratching of the film negative, a studio fire, a windstorm, real estate development drastically changing the scenery, the theft of the circus train, and the IRS going after Chaplin for alleged unpaid back taxes.
Filming started 11 January 1926, and had largely wrapped by November. This included the restoration of the abovementioned film negative, which was discovered to be scratched one month in. Then in September, the fire broke out, and delayed production for a month.
Lita Grey filed for divorce in December, which pushed release back for over a year. They’d been mismatched from the jump, and barely spent any time together. It’s no secret theirs was a shotgun marriage to avoid scandal and trouble with the law (as she was a minor).
Chaplin had to smuggle the film to safety when Lita’s lawyers tried to seize his studio assets.
The divorce was finalized 22 August 1927, and in the largest divorce settlement of the time, Chaplin was ordered to pay over $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each of their sons ($8,452,874 and $1,408,812 today).
The Circus was the seventh-highest-grossing film to date, earning over $3.8 million in 1928 ($54,444,774.57 today). The film largely received positive reviews, though a few reviewers pointed out spots where they felt the funny business stretched on too long, or felt it wasn’t as poetic and emotional as previous Chaplin films.
It was nominated for four Academy Awards—Outstanding Picture; Best Writing (Original Story); Best Director, Comedy Picture; and Best Actor. However, the newly-founded Academy removed Chaplin from the running by giving him a Special Award “for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus” and “Versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing.” It was meant to honor his overall contributions to film.
Officially, the Academy no longer lists Chaplin’s nominations in their list of nominees through the decades.
Chaplin had plans for a circus film as early as 1920, and began developing his ideas in late 1925. He started with a comedically thrilling scene of himself taking the place of the tightrope-walker and being attacked by monkeys, who tear off his pants. He then wrote a story about everything leading up to it, and the resulting finale.
Aspects of The Circus were drawn from his earlier two-reeler The Vagabond (1916), which featured a mistreated “Gypsy Drudge” (his longtime leading lady Edna Purviance). Another influence was The King of the Circus (1925), the last completed film of comedy legend Max Linder.
The scene where the Tramp is locked into a lion’s cage also parallels a scene from Linder’s feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). Chaplin often borrowed plot points and gags from Linder.
The scene with the lion took 200 takes, many of which truly did take place in the cage. Chaplin’s fearful expressions and body language weren’t all acting! He and co-star Harry Crocker (Rex) also spent weeks learning tightrope-walking.
Crocker also plays a clown and disgruntled property man.
A scene of the Tramp’s confusion with identical twin prize-fighters, using double-exposure to depict the twins (played by Doc Stone), was deleted out of concern for the film having too much comedy.
In 1947, prominent Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (who went into exile after the Nazis came to power) created a soundtrack for flute, piccolo, bassoon, string quarter, and clarinet in B flat.
In 1967, Chaplin created his own new musical score, and a theme song, “Swing Little Girl,” to be sung over the opening titles. He was 79 years old when he recorded it. This updated version premièred in NYC on 15 December 1969, and in London in December 1970.