Cast & Crew
Roy William Neill
The Rainey Traveling Circus boasts the talents of Josie La Tour, a beautiful, famed aerialist, her crazed husband and fellow trapeze artist Flandrin, and her lover, performer Sebastian. The circus is visited by smooth New York police commissioner Thatcher Colt, who is on vacation with his secretary, Miss Kelly. While Colt and Kelly practice their latest fad, lipreading, they view the sideshows, which include a man repelling bullets with the aid of a hidden steel jacket, and a group of thirteen cannibals who play musical instruments that resemble blow pipes. Colt senses that the performers are anxious about something and learns that they dread the next day, Friday the Thirteenth. That night, Flandrin's bloody clothes are found in a wagon, but despite the blood and a bullet hole in the window, no body is found. Rather than thinking that Flandrin is the victim of murder or suicide, Colt believes that he is still alive and planning revenge on his wife and her lover. When the circus reaches the small town of Gideon the next day, there are fourteen cannibal sideshow artists instead of thirteen. Although Josie has received a note warning her not to go to Gideon, she bravely continues with the scheduled evening performance. While Sebastian performs on the trapeze, Flandrin peers down from the top of the tent and tries to unravel his rope. His murder plan is carried out when, during Josie's act, she suddenly collapses and is taken to her room, where she succumbs to the effects of a poisoned dart. Seeing a movement in the top of the tent, Kelly goes outside and is caught by the insane Flandrin, who is disguised as one of the cannibals. Armed with the deadly blow pipe, Flandrin captures Colt, then orders him to leave the tent and send in Sebastian. Kelly communicates a message to Colt via their silent lipreading, after which they leave. Flandrin blows a poisoned dart at Sebastian's shadow when he enters, but the figure rises again immediately. The figure is Colt in Sebastian's clothes, and he is wearing the reflective steel jacket that he and Kelly had seen previously in the sideshow. The jacket was Kelly's idea, which she had conveyed to Colt when he read her lips. Flandrin, realizing he is finished, then goes to the high wire and gives a magnificent performance before deliberately letting go and falling to his death.
Roy William Neill
The Circus Queen Murder
Born in Pittsburgh in 1890, Menjou had ditched his engineering studies at Cornell for Vaudeville and was working in films in New York as early as 1914. His film career interrupted by military service in France during the First World War, Menjou returned stateside after the war and followed the movie business west. In Hollywood, the actor was given a contract by Paramount and choice roles opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and as Louis XIII in The Three Musketeers (both 1921) for United Artists. Menjou's fortunes crashed with the stock market in 1929; dropped by Paramount and picked up by Metro at half-salary, Menjou distinguished himself opposite Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) and replaced Louis Wolheim in The Front Page (1931), for which he received an Academy Award® nomination for "Best Actor."
Taking his personal style of dress from many of the dandies and cads he played, Menjou was living the part when he was cast by Columbia as the debonair Thatcher Colt in The Nightclub Lady. Clearly enjoying his rare leading man status in the sequel, Menjou makes Colt a pip of a puzzle-solver, clear-minded and courageous but not above endearing juvenile churlishness at the expense of his devoted (and patently lovelorn) girl Friday (Ruthelma Stevens).
In adapting About the Murder of the Circus Queen (Oursler prefaced many of his titles with "About the..." to keep them near the top of alphabetized book lists), scenarist Jo Swerling switched out the Manhattan setting (specifically Madison Square Garden) for upstate New York, into which the circus rolls one especially ill-starred Friday the 13th. When headliner Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen) receives death threats prior to opening night, suspicion points to her estranged aerialist husband Flandrin (Dwight Frye)...until his rifled caravan is found splashed with blood. Suspecting that the killer has fed Flandrin's corpse to the tigers, Colt and Kelly split up to interview suspects. A subplot in the novel, in which Colt infiltrates a tribe of Ubangi cannibals retained by the circus, is abbreviated here; written out of the narrative entirely is the native chieftain who becomes an equal to Colt in running the murderer to ground. Despite obvious cost-cutting measures (circus footage from Frank Capra's Rain or Shine  is used for establishing shots), The Circus Queen Murder remains an invigorating caper, rife with elements (from Greta Nissen's barely concealed pulchritude to an onscreen suicide) that would not pass muster with the Breen Office only a year later. Director Roy William Neill would later helm the Sherlock Holmes films for Universal while Jo Swerling would contribute dialogue to Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939), Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Although both The Night Club Lady and The Circus Queen Murder were and remain thoroughly entertaining romps, no third adventure would follow for Thatcher Colt... at least not at Columbia. In 1942, Poverty Row's Producers Releasing Corporation revived the character for The Panther's Claw, based on the short story About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry, published in Cosmopolitan in October 1940. Sidney Blackmer filled Thatcher Colt's wingtips for this unprepossessing low budget entry, set in New York's opera demimonde. A stage and screen veteran, Blackmer was known at the time for his many film performances as "rough rider" turned US President Theodore Roosevelt but also had starred in Republic Pictures' The President's Mystery (1936), cowritten by then Commander and Chief Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In truth, FDR's contribution to the best seller and subsequent film adaptation was only the logline, on which various writers, including Fulton Oursler and S. S. Van Dine, labored to turn into a proper whodunit.) Yet despite an opening scene set in a cemetery, The Panther's Claw lacks the Gothic sentiment or the encroaching menace of The Circus Queen Murder, in which talk of cannibalism and voodoo is interspersed with florid supporting performances by Dwight Frye (a year out from his career-defining turn as the lunatic Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula, 1931) and George Rosener, as ringmaster John T. Rainey (so named to agree with shots of the circus marquee from Rain or Shine). A Broadway playwright, director and lyricist, Rosener had been hired to adapt the stage play Doctor X as a film for First National. His work rejected by the studio, Roesner settled for a role in the film as the last victim of the cannibalistic "The Moon Killer."
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Jo Swerling (screenplay); Anthony Abbot (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph August
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Thatcher Colt), Greta Nissen (Josie La Tour), Ruthelma Stevens (Miss Kelly), Dwight Frye (Flandrin), Donald Cook (The Great Sebastian), Harry Holman (Jim Dugan), George Rosener (John T. Rainey).
by Richard Harland Smith
Dwight Frye's Last Laugh by Gary J. Svehla, Susan Svehla and Jim Coughlin (Midnight Marquee Press, 1997)
Famous Movie Detectives II by Michael R. Pitts (Scarecrow Press, 1991)
Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography, 1931-1939 by Bryan Senn (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996)
Behold This Dreamer! A Biography by Fulton Oursler
The Circus Queen Murder
It's a well known fact that cannibals differ from the rest of us in their dietary customs.- Thatcher Colt
Copyright registration notes that the Anthony Abbott novel first appeared as a serial in Liberty magazine prior to book publication. This was the second and last of three anticipated "Thatcher Colt" mysteries made by Columbia. The first film was The Night Club Lady (see below), the previous year.