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CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS(director: Harry Lachman; screenwriters: Robert Ellis/Helen Logan; cinematographer: Daniel Clark; editor: Alex Troffey; cast: Warner Oland (Charlie Chan), Keye Luke (Lee), J. Carrol Naish (Holt), Shia Jung (Su Toy), Olive Brasno (Tiny), George Brasno (Tim), Maxine Reiner (Marie Norman), Shirley Deane (Lil Norman), John McGuire (Hal Blake), Francis Ford (Gaines), Paul Stanton (Joe Kinney), Drue Leyton (Nellie Farrell), Boothe Howard (Dan Farrell), Wade Boteler (Lieutenant Macy); Runtime: 72; 20th Century Fox; 1936)
“A very entertaining Charlie Chan episode…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very entertaining Charlie Chan episode, though the way Charlie gets the killer seems far-fetched. When Charlie shows up with his family of 14 at the circus, it was a funny sight. He’s a guest of the co-owner of the circus, Joe Kinney (Stanton). Kinney is worried because he’s been receiving threatening letters and wants to ask Charlie about them. They plan to meet sometime during the show.

Charlie’s 12 kids are awed by the dancing act of Tiny (Olive Brasno) and Tim (George Brasno), they are the tiniest people in the world (in real-life they are brother-and-sister midget performers). Number One Son, Lee (Luke), is romantically interested in the show’s contortionist, Su Toy (Shia Jung), but she’s giving him the runaround.

When Charlie goes to meet Kinney at his wagon, he finds it locked. The co-owner Gaines (Ford) can’t open the door with his key since it’s bolted from the inside, but when they enter through the vent they find the dead body of the strangled Kinney. All the evidence points to the dangerous ape who someone let out of the cage with a lost key, as the killer.

Kinney made many enemies, therefore there are many suspects. Gaines, even though everyone in the circus likes him, is the prime suspect because he may not be able to pay the notes he owes Kinney at the end of the season and will therefore lose the circus he loves. Hal Blake (McGuire), the animal trainer, is a suspect because he hates Kinney when he sees him whip the ape. Blake wants to quit and asks Louise Norman (Shirley Deane) to leave the circus with him. Lou’s sister Marie Norman (Maxine Reiner), a trapeze artist, wants to marry Kinney, while Nellie Farrell (Drew Leyton), the circus dresser, looks to her scam artist brother Dan Farrell (Boothe Howard) for help about handling her problem with Kinney. She has a marriage certificate saying she was married to him 5 months ago and will use that to claim a partnership in the circus. Holt (J. Carrol Naish-portrayed Charlie Chan on a late-1950s TV series) is the surly snake-tamer, who says someone’s trying to pin the blame on him when a deadly snake is found in Charlie’s train compartment. The circus is on its way by train to perform in the next town, as the police are also aboard to wrap up the case.

The small-town cop, Lieutenant Macy (Wade Boteler), is handling the case, but receiving limited help from Charlie’s son Lee who foolishly thinks he’s a chip off the old block.

Charlie’s best quote: “Mind like parachute – only function when open.”

This film had a good circus atmosphere, lots of charm, and all the suspects did a good job of looking guilty.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”