Sunday, November 13, 2016

AT THE CIRCUS BLOGATHON: Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms are hosting the At the Circus Blogathon running from November 11 to 13. Click HERE for all the fun and excitement under the big top!

Lt. Macy:  "How did the snake get in here?"
Holt:  "How did the ape get out of the cage?"

Questions, questions, so many questions when Charlie Chan went to the circus in 1936. Warner Oland had been playing Chan since 1931 and had become more than a popular film star, he had become an international sensation. Oland and his wife Edith had visited China where he was greeted by friendly mobs of fans and addressed as "Mr. Chan". Acclaim indeed! For an adoring public, Warner Oland had become Charlie Chan.

A night out with the Chan Family
14 free passes to the circus!

One of the outstanding features of the character of Chan, as opposed to many other fictional crime-solvers, is the fact that he is a family man. A family man in a big way with 12 offspring. During the course of the series, he even becomes a grandfather (Charlie Chan in Honolulu). We don't generally see a lot of granddads going head to head with the criminal class.

The continuity of quality in the Chan series may be attributed to the prolific screenwriting team of Robert Ellis and Helen Logan. They are responsible for Charlie Chan in Egypt, Charlie Chan's Secret, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Charlie Chan on Broadway, Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, Charlie Chan at the Racetrack, City in Darkness and - ta-da! - Charlie Chan at the Circus. You may be familiar with some of these popular titles from the pair as well:  Hello Frisco, Hello, Tin Pan Alley, Sun Valley Serenade, Four Jills in a Jeep and Footlight Serenade.

Charlie Chan at the Circus was director Harry Lachman's first Chan picture and he would go on to direct four others later in the series.

Circus people vs. the police
Warner Oland, Olive Brasno, Francis Ford, George Brasno
Shirley Deane, Hal Blake, Maxine Reiner, Boothe Howard, J. Carroll Naish

In our film the entire Charlie Chan family is on vacation when an unexpected treat arrives in the form of free passes to the Kinney and Gaines Traveling Circus. The Kinney (Paul Stanton) half of the partnership has been receiving threatening letters and wishes to consult with our hero. The original owner of the circus, Mr. Gaines (Francis Ford) had used the infusion of cash from his new partner to keep the circus going. Mr. Gaines is behind in his payments and is in danger of losing the circus to his much-disliked partner.

Mr. Gaines does have one person in his corner in the form of lovely aerialist Marie Norman (Maxine Reiner). The couple is engaged and Marie does her best to see that others appreciate the good side of Gaines. She is not successful. Gaines is most proficient at hiding any good side. Marie's sister Louise (Shirley Deane) and her beau John (Hal Blake), who works with the animals, are only sticking with the poor working conditions under Kinney to support Marie.

Charlie gets a tour of the circus including the big cats.

Wardrobe mistress Nellie Farrell (Drue Leyton) has a past with Gaines which is none too pleasant. Her brother Dan (Boothe Howard) the head animal trainer has a bad attitude and a nasty scar from one of the circus' main attractions, a rambunctious ape. Tom Holt (J. Carroll Naish) does just about every job at the circus. He's a snake charmer, a porter on the train and helps out with the animals. He came to the circus with Gaines. What is their relationship?

The evening at the circus barely comes to an end before the body of the despised Kinney is discovered in the locked business wagon. The local police in the form of Lt. Massey (Wade Boteler) is determined to hold the circus in town until the case is solved. This will not bode well for the livelihood of the intrepid entertainers. Charlie Chan in convinced to take a hand in the investigation and in turn he convinces the police to let the circus continue on its route. The plan is to trap the murderer while he or she goes about their usual routine. This is usually a sure-fire trick of the renowned inspector, but will it work this time?

Shia Jung as Su Toy

Prominent among the guest players are the charming Shia Jung as Su Toy, a sideshow contortionist who catches the romantic eye of number one son Lee played by Keye Luke. Shia Jung was born in Hong Kong and in the 1940s returned there and was featured in a Tarzan series. Luke joined the series in 1935s Charlie Chan in Paris and this was his third entry in the series. Keye Luke added a lot to the Chan pictures in humanizing his detective Pop, and was a draw for the young ladies in the audience.

On the job - incognito!
George Brasno, Keye Luke

George and Olive Brasno were a successful brother and sister Vaudevillian team. The singing and dancing Little People were featured in this and other movie roles including The Mighty Barnum, Little Miss Broadway and Carnival. In Charlie Chan at the Circus, they play a married couple, Colonel Tim and Lady Tiny and perform a marvelous dance routine. Lady Tiny is instrumental in persuading Inspector Chan to take up their cause. Colonel Tim becomes a willing cohort to Lee Chan's detecting efforts.

One of the thrilling aspects of the movie is that it was filmed on the winter location of The Barnes Circus and utilized the sights, sounds, people and animals from day-to-day circus life. The entertaining clowns, the giant man, the sideshow exhibits and the myriad of exotic animals bring a colourful atmosphere to the murder mystery core of Charlie Chan at the Circus.


  1. This sounds like fun! Believe it or not I've never seen a Charlie Chan movie, though we have a few sets (my husband loves them). They're on my list to try after I wrap up Boston Blackie and the Saint. Looking forward to them even more after your post. :)

    Best wishes,

  2. Got it, first wrap up Inspector Faraday and Inspector Fernack, and then Inspector Chan. I expect by the end of 2017 you will be a bona fide Chan fan, just like your obviously discerning hubby.

  3. How on earth did he find time to sire twelve kids in between all the mysteries he solved?

    1. "Accidents can happen, if planned that way."

      - Dark Alibi (1946)

  4. One of my favorite Charlie Chan movies. The circus is a great setting for a mystery. I honestly don't know why there aren't more circus mysteries!

    1. It is a great setting. I suppose Berserk counts, but it doesn't thrill me. The Circus Queen Murder with Adolphe Menjou was a dandy. It was the second movie where he played Police Commissioner Cole, but there were no more.

  5. Awesome article! I will have to look for these Charlie Chan movies, which I must admit I had not heard of before!

    1. The movies were based on popular novels written in the 1920s and the films continued well into the late 1940s. The best of them were produced by Twentieth Century Fox starring Warner Oland and then Sidney Toler. Many are available on YouTube and run about 70 to 80 minutes. I think you would enjoy them.

  6. Hi Caftan Woman. Great essay on a movie I haven't seen in years. I'm a circus fan and a Charlie Chan fan and I enjoyed it a lot. I always enjoy movies with Keye Luke. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Keye Luke is a joy wherever he shows up.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing the Chan love.

  7. Great review, as always! Your love for Charlie Chan movies is something to admire. I wonder how much more could have been done (like Charlie Chan against the Nazis) if Warner Oland hadn't died in 1958.
    Thanks for joining us, Patricia, it was great to have you among our guests!

    1. It was a special treat to participate in your blogathon.

      I was 12 when I saw my first Chan picture and in someways I'm still that 12 year old fan.

  8. Leave it to Charlie Chan to get embroiled in the behind-the-scene drama at a travelling circus! Come to think of it... there is always something going on behind the scene at those travelling circuses, isn't there? Very curious.....

    1. Yes indeedy. Circus folk are a world unto their own. A perfect setting for Chan. Glad you came to check out the big top.

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