The Circus

A Funny Story

In the 1923 compilation score for A WOMAN OF PARIS, Louis F. Gottschalk worked in a brief quote of his love theme from the film THE GIRL I LOVED, which had opened a couple of months earlier. No doubt Gottschalk included the tune in the hopes of generating sheet music sales. When it came time for THE CIRCUS, compiler Arthur Kay went one step—actually, four steps—better, adding four of his own compositions to the compilation score. The most prominent, A Funny Story (1926), served as Charlie’s primary theme.

Arthur Kay’s “A Funny Story” (1926)

From the moment the Tramp enters “around the side shows,” Kay’s jaunty bassoon melody, pizzicato strings, and muted brass capture the character’s nonchalance. Throughout the film, Chaplin and Kay dissect, reformat, and tamper with the theme’s tempo to suit a scene’s comedic purposes. The grace notes and muted brass from the piece’s finale imitate braying and musical laughter.

The cue occurs a total of eight times throughout the compilation score. And it takes on even greater humor at a slower tempo, whether accompanying the cooking of an egg, as the coda to a fallen pie, or as a contrast to the manic Thunder and Blazes musical chaos in the ring. When sped up, the tune provides the perfect musical mustard to the Tramp stealing the hot dog from the baby. And whether it’s Charlie’s entrance or a number of well-timed, signature exits, the bumbling melody always helps the character come on or leave the screen with humor and feigned dignity.

During the research for my book, I reconstructed the compilation scores for A WOMAN OF PARIS, THE GOLD RUSH, and THE CIRCUS purely for my own benefit. I wanted to properly discuss them in the context of what audiences most likely heard at the films’ premieres, as well as compare them to Chaplin’s own later scores. THE CIRCUS was particularly problematic. The cue sheet has been lost (if it ever existed) and the conductor’s score and instrumental parts were a true cut and paste job. So discovering and finally identifying Arthur Kay’s compositions, as well as most of the other pieces in the CIRCUS compilation score, was truly a joy. For me, THE CIRCUS will always be “a funny story”—perhaps Chaplin’s funniest.

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