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Charlie Chan takes his wife and twelve children to the circus owned by kindly John Gaines and his unscrupulous partner, Joe Kinney. Kinney tells Chan that he has been receiving death threats, after which Kinney and Gaines quarrel over money. Kinney then tries to discipline Caesar, the circus' ape, but the handler, Hal Blake, warns Kinney that he treats Caesar too roughly. Hal seeks solace from his girl friend, Louise Norman, whose sister, aerialist Marie, is Kinney's fiancée. As the show goes on, Chan leaves his family to meet Kinney and discuss his problems. When he arrives at Kinney's wagon, however, Chan, Gaines, and dancing midgets Tim and Tiny discover that Kinney has been murdered. Because the wagon was locked from the inside, and because of the hairs found on the window sill, the others suspect that Caesar climbed through the window and killed Kinney. Chan, however, withholds judgement and turns the case over to Lieutenant Macy, then leaves with his family to continue their vacation. Later that night, however, Tiny appears at their hotel and pleads with Chan to continue the investigation to clear Tim and Gaines, who are being held for questioning. Chan convinces Macy to release Tim and Gaines and to allow the circus to travel on, in hopes that the killer will reveal himself as time passes. Chan, his son Lee and Macy travel with the circus and, despite an attempt on Chan's life that night, reach their destination the next day. They discover that the business wagon's safe has been broken into, and in the safe they find Kinney's insurance policy, naming Marie as the beneficiary, and a marriage certificate stating that Kinney and wardrobe mistress Nellie Farrell were married in Juarez, Mexico on 30 May. The trio later confronts Nellie and her brother Dan, and Nellie asserts that, as Kinney's widow, she is entitled to his half of the circus. Marie retorts that Nellie's claim is false, as Kinney could not have been in Juarez on that date, but before she can offer proof, she has to perform her act. While Marie is in the air, someone shoots her rigging and she falls to the ground. She is seriously injured and the doctor Chan summons states that she must be operated on immediately. While the doctor is tending to Marie, Chan looks through her scrapbook and discovers that on 30 May, Kinney was being held as a witness to a murder in El Paso. While Lee telephones the El Paso police for more information, Caesar is released from his cage. Caesar attempts to kill Marie during the operation but is caught, after which Chan reveals that it is not the true Caeser who was apprehended, but snake handler Tom Holt, disguised as the ape. The police confirm that Holt was the killer in El Paso, and Chan deduces that Kinney covered up for Holt but was later murdered by Holt when they quarreled over money. Holt then attempted to murder Marie, who is safely recovering at a hospital, because she could reveal the El Paso incident. Holt is arrested, along with Nellie and Dan, who forged the marriage certificate after Kinney's death. Gaines promises Chan lifetime passes to the circus as a reward for his help, and Lee romances Su Toy, a pretty Asian contortionist whom he had been pursuing throughout the investigation.
J. Carrol Naish
Charlie Chan at the Circus
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 ). 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
Charlie Chan at the Circus
Mind like parachute - only function when open.- Charlie Chan
According to Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts, June Lang and John Dilson were to be in the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was shot "on location at the Al G. Barnes winter quarters," and a Motion Picture Herald pre-release article states that "the Barnes Circus [was] used as a background for production settings." For additional information about the series, please consult the Series Index and see the entry below for Charlie Chan Carries On.