Before I saw THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER, I didn’t know who Adolphe Menjou was and had only heard the name once(on M*A*S*H’s Henry Blake farewell show when he came out in a fancy suit and Hawkeye made one of his quips, referencing the actor). Apparently he had a reputation as a sharp, debonair attitude in both manner and dress.
In THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER, he’s Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt of New York City and he’s in need of a vacation. For six years he’s battled crime and the syndicates. It’s the era of prohibition, a time when many people, both criminal and “honest,” made their fortunes. The film is loosely based on the novel ABOUT THE MURDER OF THE CIRCUS QUEEN. And when I saw loosely, I’m not kidding. The bare bones murder of the queen is about all they kept. Different killer, different motive, the narrator of the novel, Anthony “Tony” Abbot is replaced by a secretary, the location of the murder. Everything.
When he decides to take that needed vacation, he’s not sure what, or where, he wants to do and go. Just away. He has his secretary, Miss Kelly(Ruthelma Stevens), fending off reporters with tales of him already being gone. He decides his destination by flipping a knife at a map of New York State and finds himself heading to Gilead. Miss Kelly goes with him. Though they never say, one gets the impression there’s something between them. She goes along willingly. This is the second film for Menjou playing Colt, The Night Club Lady the first, and both were based on novels by Anthony Abbot(pen name for Fulton Oursler). part of a series about the fighting Police Commissioner. His intent is to remain anonymous on vacation, Mr. Smith.
The two of them arrive in Gilead by train at night during a driving rain storm and see a circus coming in at the same time. The greater Rainey Shows is the name and, as things develop, it’s learned it’s two smaller shows combined. The Circus Queen, Joise La Tour(Gretta Nisson), of the title owns half with her husband, Flandrin(Dwight Frye), both aerialists, though they are separated, she wanting a divorce, and has taken up with Sebastion(Donald Cook). Rainey(George Rosener) owns the other half.
We see a brief sequence where Josie and Flandrin argue about the divorce. He will oppose it and later tells Sebastion if he would just go away, things would get patched up with his wife.
The next day, the couple are enjoying the circus parade along with the Gilead residents, Thatcher munching peanuts, when he’s recognized by an acquaintance, press agent Jim Dugan(Harry Holman), who we learn quickly, will be Thatcher’s comedy foil. When Dugan sees him. he wants the commissioner to come to the circus. Troubles were assailing it and he thought Colt could help. The very thing he wanted to avoid is happening and Colt reluctantly comes along, anxious to get it over with.
He soon becomes embroiled in murder, threatening notes to all performers not to do their acts(not to mention opening night is Friday The Thirteenth), cannibals(the number keeps varying between thirteen and fourteen), Josie’s dead dog, her insanely jealous husband missing and thought dead, blood found on his bedding in the trailer and a bullet hole in the window above, and suicide before a live audience.
One amusing line between Colt and Dugan, while they are looking for Flandrin’s body, when Dugan makes a reference to the cannibal act, Colt says “It’s a well known fact that cannibals differ from the rest of us in their dietary customs.”
It’s never much of a secret who the villain is. Dwight Frye plays a suitably creepy jealous husband.
A couple of bits of trivia. Gretta Nissen starred in the unreleased Howard Hughes silent HELL’S ANGELS. When it was remade with sound, Nissen’s thick German accent(she has one in this film) wouldn’t do playing an Englishwoman and she was replaced by Jean Harlow.
The name of the circus, The Greater Rainey Shows, was chosen to take advantage of footage and sets from a previous film, RAIN OR SHINE(1930).
This was Menjou’s second turn as Thatcher Colt, THE NIGHT CLUB LADY being his first turn in the role. In 1942, a third Colt film was made, THE PANTHER”S CLAW, starring Sidney Blackmer as Colt.
For more overlooked movies, Todd Mason does the gathering over at SWEET FREEDOM on Tuesdays.