Saturday, November 12, 2016

Charlie Chaplin and the Flea Circus -- November 12, 2016

This post is part of  the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by at Crítica Retrô and Summer from Serendipitous Anachronisms.  Because this has been such a rough week, they have extended the time of the blogathon. 

Film Fun, August, 1915
By the late 1910s and early 1920s, Charlie Chaplin was the world's most popular film actor and his character, the Little Tramp, was the most loved film character.  In 1914, Chaplin earned $150 a week from Keystone while appearing in 36 movies, including one feature.  In 1915, Chaplin earned $1,250 a week with a $10,000 signing bonus from Essanay.  He appeared in 14 movies.  In 1916 and 1917, Chaplin earned $10,000 a week with a $150,000 signing bonus from Mutual.  He made 12 movies.

In 1918, Chaplin signed with First National, agreeing to produce 8 movies for $1,000,000.  Some time between 1919 and 1923 or 1924, Chaplin was tired of playing the Tramp.  He created a new character, Professor Bosco, proprietor of Bosco's Flea Circus, and began shooting a movie we now know as "The Professor."  He completed one scene and then stopped.

Your first question might be, why did he stop?  I don't know.  Your second question might be, what is a flea circus?  That I know.

New York Clipper, 05-October-1912
Flea circuses were popular attractions in dime museums and circus sideshows in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.  Later they became a popular subject for jokes.  There were two primary types of flea circuses, those which used living fleas and those which used mechanical devices.

To create a flea circus with living creatures, a "trainer" would collect fleas, which was easier when standards of cleanliness were lower than they are now, and observe them.  Some fleas tend to jump and others tend to walk.  The "trainer" divides the fleas by type.  Each selected flea of either type gets a harness of gold wire around its neck.  A jumper is presented with a lightweight ball.  The flea tries to jump away, but is restrained by the harness, so it kicks the ball.  The walkers pull carts or other vehicles.  Fleas are very strong for their size, so they can move relatively large objects.  Mechanical flea circuses might be salted with a few live fleas to make it seem as if they used living fleas as performers. 

Here is example of a flea circus using live fleas.

Moving Picture World, 29-April-1911
 The flea circus became a popular subject to demonstrate microscopic movie photography. 

Chaplin's "The Professor" begins with a shot of the Professor limping wearily down an alley.  He climbs down a stairway and enters an open doorway.  A box under his arm is labelled "BOSCOS FLEA CIRCUS."    An old man holds out his hand, requesting payment.  The Professor finds a coin and hands it to him.  The old man inspects the coin and gestures for the Professor to enter.  We see a large, dirty room full of beds.   Flophouses offered beds to transients or otherwise homeless people.  The blankets and pillows were rarely changed, so flophouses were know for bedbugs, fleas, pillow pigeons and other tiny livestock.

The Professor selects a bed and sits down.  He soon starts to feel bites.  He finds a flea up his sleeve and teaches it to jump from hand to hand.  He has it jump through a hoop formed by his fingers into the box to join the circus.

The Professor sees his neighbor scratching his beard.  The Professor checks the box to make sure all the performers are present.  He pulls a flea out of his neighbor's beard, inspects it and puts it back.  The Professor lies down to sleep and kicks the box to the floor.  Everyone starts scratching.  The Professor pulls out a lion tamer's whip and drives all the fleas back into the box.  They perform various tricks like a high dive and hopping between his feet.

The Professor puts the box on the floor and goes to sleep.  A dog comes along and sniffs inside the box, opening the lid.  The dog starts biting and scratching.   The Professor awakens with an itch.  The dog walks out of the flophouse and  the Professor chases him with the whip.  The last shot shows them running away down the alley.

Even though Chaplin abandoned "The Professor," he didn't forget the flea circus.  In 1952, he released Limelight, which many people think was Chaplin's last great film.  He played Calvero, a washed-up music hall performer.  One of Calvero's routines involves "Phyllis and Henry, Performing Fleas."  He repeated some of the gags from "The Professor,"  especially the fleas jumping from hand to hand and the whip. 

Flea Circuses were a popular source of jokes in animated cartoons.  Here is "The Flea Circus" (1953) by Tex Avery.  It features a French flea circus, Le Cirque Des Fleas.  I like the shots of the audience watching the show through their magnifying glasses.  Watch what happens when a dog appears.  This was a popular gag. 

A flea circus later turned up on Sesame Street.

Washington DC Evening Star, 02-August-1913
And finally, this story of a dog running off with Herman Koenig's performers, reminds me of the conclusion of "The Professor."

This post is part of  the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by at Crítica Retrô and Summer from Serendipitous Anachronisms.  Thank you to Lê and Summer for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can.  Bloggers love comments.  

This post is my fifth blogathon post of 2016 and my 45th since 2007.  This is my 27th blogathon.    This page has a list of all my blogathon posts. 


  1. Hey Joe, thank you for your post I look forward to reading it this weekend!

    1. Hi Summer: You're welcome. Thank you for organizing the blogathon.

  2. Good reading! After seeing Chaplin's version in "Limelight," I thought all flea circuses were made-up comedy acts. I didn't know there were actual fleas involved. Thanks for the interesting history!

    1. Hi Steve. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I have never seen a flea circus live. I think they must be just about gone. I found a reference to one mechanical circus still in business. I should have included it. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What a clever idea for the blogathon. I've been familiar with flea circus gags since infancy and have always marveled at what some accept as entertainment and what others are willing to do. Now my mind will wonder what further plans Charlie might have had for the Professor. You sure keep me thinking.

    1. Thank you, Caftan Woman. I just happened to be reading about "The Professor" when Lê announced the blogathon and I thought it would be a good fit. People sure did have some different ideas of entertainment. Side shows and dime museums had all sorts of interesting attractions.

  4. Wow I didn't know flea circus really existed! O_o Weird thing ahah!
    Anyway, I most enjoyed your post and it made me discover a Chaplin's film I didn't know about! I had heard about The Circus of course, but not this one. Very original idea for the blogathon!

  5. Hi Virginie. I'm glad you learned a little bit about flea circuses. I thought lots of people would write about Chaplin's The Circus, but not so many would think of Chaplin and the flea circus.

  6. How cool, Joe! As a Chaplin connoisseur, you aced once again in a blog post. I think you'll also like my take on the Mexican remake of Chaplin's The Circus.
    I have the impression that Professor Bosco may not be as likable as the Tramp, but this we'll unfortunately never know.
    Thanks for joining us, Joe, it was great to have you among our guests!

  7. Hi Lê. I just finished reading your post on Chaplin and Cantinflas and enjoyed it very much. I'm glad you like my post. I had fun doing the research, even though it made me itch at times. Thank you for co-hosting the blogathon. It is a lot of work, but people have produced many good essays.

  8. I love this post so very much! Chaplin never threw an idea away, did he?

    1. Hi FlickChick. Recycling is always the right thing to do ;0). I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


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