When his personal life deteriorated into a chaotic, public “three ring circus,” Chaplin attempted to regain his creative momentum and to cope with his profound sense of humiliation by filming The Circus (1928). The plot of that movie addressed his artistic anxiety over the pressures on him to be funny; while the film’s visual imagery explored and expressed his anxiety as a celebrity whose personal life was being exposed to glaringly negative publicity. The centerpiece gag in The Circus consists of a brilliant nightmare sequence in which Chaplin—a circus clown--unwittingly makes a monkey out of himself in public by getting caught with his pants down.
Dressed up in lion comique evening clothes for his tightrope act, Charlie, the would-be leading man, great lover and star of the show, is attacked by a pack of monkeys (photos above). They tear his trousers off while the public looks on in shock and horror as he teeters and hovers on the brink of disaster while still attempting to perform this complex balancing act with his pants around his ankles (and no safety net to protect him).
To help set the stage for this centerpiece gag sequence, Chaplin cleverly bracketed the film with an opening shot of a pretty bareback rider who tries but fails to jump through the hoop of stardom, and ends the film with a very disillusioned Charlie crestfallenly contemplating his own crumpled and devalued star-image before waddling off on the open road—lonely and isolated—in a classic Chaplinesque closing shot.
During this scandal-ridden “three ring circus” period in his life (1924-1928), the great Chaplin—the most universally revered and renowned clown in the world—in reality barely escaped plummeting from the heights of popularity to the depths of ignominy after being caught with his pants down. This brilliant verbal-visual film gag succinctly epitomized his real-life plight.
He narrowly avoided being deported or going to prison for the statutory rape and impregnation of a 15-year-old girl (Lita Grey) whom he was forced to marry. He barely dodged a bullet from a ferociously enraged William Randolph Hearst who was on the warpath after being provoked by a spiteful gossip columnist from a rival syndicate who gleefully published a juicy item suggesting that Chaplin was repeatedly cuckolding Hearst with his Nell Gwyn-like mistress, Marion Davies.
If Charlie did make a monkey out of Hearst, Grey, just three years after their marriage, certainly made a monkey out of him. Her team of no-holds-barred lawyers released juicy vignettes of Chaplin’s technically illegal sex practices in a widely circulated divorce complaint (and were also threatening to name publically Davies as an adultery correspondent if Charlie refused to pony up). As a result of that threat and Chaplin’s fear of Hearst’s ire, Gray walked away with $850,000 (approximately $10,000,000 in 2006 CPI equivalent dollars). At the same time, the IRS successfully nailed Chaplin for $1,000,000 in illegally undeclared back taxes and penalties (approximately $11,500,000 in 2006 CPI equivalent dollars).
The film Chaplin made to deal with his excruciating feelings of humiliation over all three of these mortally embarrassing experiences was considered artistically brilliant enough by his peers to be awarded an honorary Oscar “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing.” But Chaplin’s emotional experiences while making The Circus also were sufficiently painful to make this movie the only feature length film he studiously failed to mention in his late life autobiography. Not only did Charlie’s hair literally turn completely white while making The Circus, but he also was placed (briefly) on suicide watch and underwent psychiatric treatment for depression. Chaplin’s astounding ability to transform private adversity into brilliant comedy was not without a personal price. His understandably strong desire to forget completely this painful episode in his past probably contributed to his later neglect of The Circus, the most vastly underrated and overlooked feature length comedy in his entire canon. It was packed with wonderful gags, the creation of which—as the plot of The Circus suggests--must have felt like pulling teeth without anesthesia.