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Charlie Chan at the Circus

Charlie Chan at the Circus(1936)


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teaser Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936) was the eleventh entry in Fox's long-running series starring Swedish actor Warner Oland as the wise Inspector Chan. To freshen the series at this point, the studio changed gears a bit the previous few movies had Chan in a variety of (studio-bound) exotic locales, such as Charlie Chan in London (1934), followed in quick succession by Charlie Chan in Paris, Charlie Chan in Egypt, and Charlie Chan in Shanghai (all 1935). Starting with Charlie Chan at the Circus, the series involved our hero in cases that sprang from unusual settings. The circus trip provides a good amount of visual fun and variety which, combined with the usual high production values that 20th Century Fox was able to provide, resulted in one of the most entertaining films of the Chan series.

The story set-up for Charlie Chan at the Circus could hardly have been more colorful. Chan (Warner Oland) takes his wife (Anna Mar) and their twelve (!) children to the circus. One of the co-owners of the attraction, Joe Kinney (Paul Stanton), had given Chan free passes to entice the detective to come he tells Chan that he had been receiving threatening letters. On the circus grounds, the younger Chan children are enchanted by the dancing midgets Colonel Tim and Lady Tiny (real-life brother and sister act George and Olive Brasno), while Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) is taken with the contortionist Su Toy (Shia Jung). Meanwhile, Kinney argues with his partner, the kindly John Gaines (Francis Ford) about the circus finances. The argument is interrupted when Caesar, the circus ape, begins to act up in his cage. Kinney takes a whip from handler Hal Blake (John McGuire) and begins to beat the animal. Hal expresses his concerns about Kinney to his girlfriend Louise Norman (Shirley Deane), whose sister Marie (Maxine Reiner), a trapeze artist with the circus, is engaged to marry Kinney. During a performance under the Big Top, Chan leaves his family to meet with Kinney in his circus wagon. There, he discovers that Kinney has been killed. Since the wagon was locked from the inside and animal hairs are found on the window sill, Caesar the ape is the prime suspect but who has let the gorilla out of his cage to commit the crime?

Fans of the Chan series regularly expected a string of wise sayings from their hero during the course of each investigation, and they were probably not disappointed with this film. A few examples include these pearls:
Good tools shorten labor
Better to slip with foot than with tongue
No use to hurry unless sure of catching right train
Size of package does not indicate quality within
Guilty conscience only enemy to peaceful rest
Question without answer, like faraway water, no good for nearby fire
Facts like photographic film - must be exposed before developing
Magnifying female charms very ancient optical illusion
and one of the most widely quoted Chanisms:
Mind like parachute only function when open

A reviewer for Variety wrote that Charlie Chan at the Circus "carries some charm" and singled out the circus performer guest-stars: "Cute twist too in having vaudeville midgets, George and Olive Brasno, prominently participating in the story and also doing a hot rhumba. Girl gets considerable close-up footage and photographs as a pretty doll-baby. Folks will respond to this bit. An exceptional pair, the midgets are one of the film's chief merits. Plot while worked out logically is not too griping. It's the characterization that carries it. Comedy romance between Chan's son and a Chinese performer is developed for laughs."

Following Charlie Chan at the Circus, Fox continued to place the wise detective in unusual settings, resulting in such titles as Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Charlie Chan at the Opera (both 1936), Charlie Chan at the Olympics and Charlie Chan on Broadway (both 1937). Following Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), his 17th film as Chan, Oland began work on a follow up called Charlie Chan at the Ringside, but walked off the set after a dispute with the studio. (Fox cleverly salvaged much of the footage already shot by converting the property to its Mr. Moto series starring Peter Lorre. The eventual film was called Mr. Moto's Gamble [1938]). Oland contracted pneumonia while visiting his home country and died August 6, 1938 at the age of 57. The Chan series picked up again with Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) after Fox hired Sidney Toler for the role.

Director: Harry Lachman
Screenplay: Robert Ellis, Helen Logan
Cinematography: Daniel B. Clark
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Film Editing: Alex Troffey
Cast: Warner Oland (Charlie Chan), Keye Luke (Lee Chan), George Brasno (Colonel Tim), Olive Brasno (Lady Tiny), Francis Ford (John Gaines), Maxine Reiner (Marie Norman), John McGuire (Hal Blake), Shirley Deane (Louise Norman), Paul Stanton (Joe Kinney).

by John M. Miller

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