Friday, October 17, 2008

The Circus Queen Murder (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Wednesday night Charles and I watched an interesting Columbia “B” movie from 1933: The Circus Queen Murder, the second and last of a projected three-film series dealing with the detective character Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou), created by Fulton Oursler under the pen-name “Anthony Abbott” (I’ve also seen the final name spelled with just one “t,” but on the credits here there are the usual two). Colt was the New York City Police Commissioner, but on his “off” time he would investigate cases personally — as here, when he and his long-suffering secretary and (it’s hinted) fiancée Miss Kelly (Ruthelma Stevens — a quite personable and effective actress who should have got a new name and a star buildup) go on vacation to the upstate New York town of Gilead. There they find a circus, the Greater John T. Rainey Shows, which is so dowdy I couldn’t help but wonder what the lesser John T. Rainey Shows looked like; Rainey (George Rosener) has sold most of his interest in the circus to a scheming investor, Lubbell (Clay Clement), whose interest is trying to get in the pants of aerialist Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen), who owns the other half of the circus and whose act is virtually its only commercially appealing attraction.

As usual with movie circuses (including the one from Frank Capra’s film Rain or Shine, made three years earlier — I suspected the wagons and tents came from that film, and according to I was right), this one is on its last legs financially, but the main intrigue comes from Josie La Tour and the three men who are interested in her: Lubbell, her lover Sebastian (a quite hot-looking Donald Cook) and her (understandably) jealous husband Flandrin (Dwight Frye), The circus also features an act of 13 cannibals, ostensibly straight from Africa — there were 14 originally, a fact the ringmaster announces to the audiences and leaves them to guess at the most dire conclusion possible, though one of them actually died of the flu earlier in the tour — which gives the director, Roy William Neill (who’d later helm Boris Karloff’s melodrama The Black Room at Columbia, lose the directorship of the British film The Lady Vanishes when his work permit ran out and he had to return to the U.S., and ultimately direct all but the first of Universal’s 12 modern-dress Sherlock Holmes films from 1942 to 1946 with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson), plenty of chances for quite exciting Gothic effects that make this look much more like a Universal than a Columbia product and provide an effective setting for Dwight Frye’s typically twitchy performance.

Surprisingly, the story is not a whodunit; Frye’s character, Flandrin, fakes his own death but is found out quickly when the blood left behind when he disappears (it really looked like chocolate syrup, which I suspect the Columbia prop department actually used!) turns out to be dog’s blood. Colt quickly realizes that Flandrin is still alive and is targeting Josie and Sebastian — and in some surprisingly Phantom of the Opera-ish scenes he’s shown above the big tent cutting ropes so Josie will fall to the ground during her act and die. This is actually quite an engaging movie, and it’s a bit surprising the third Thatcher Colt film Columbia projected was never made — at least not by them; in 1942 PRC put out the film The Panther’s Claw with Sidney Blackmer as Colt — since this is a good thriller at a time in Hollywood history when (as I’ve mentioned in these pages before) few really good thrillers were being made; Hollywood made great gangster movies in the early 1930’s but seemed at sea dealing with other sorts of crimes (the best American thrillers of the early 1930’s were the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1934 The Thin Man, both based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, though the 1931 Maltese Falcon was overshadowed by the classic Huston/Bogart remake 10 years later) — though the associations with Gothic horror, the performances by a surprisingly good cast (Nissen was the German beauty cast by Howard Hughes in the silent version of Hell’s Angels and then replaced by Jean Harlow in the sound version because Nissen’s Dietrichesque accent would have been unbelievable coming from someone who was supposed to be English — though, quite frankly, Harlow’s nasal Midwestern English wasn’t that much more credible!) and above all the snappy pace of Neill’s direction make this a considerably better-than-usual suspense film for the period.