Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Circus Queen Murder

“The Circus Queen Murder” (1933) isn’t much of a mystery, but it’s still an enjoyable 63 minutes. If you’re a whodunit fan, stay away, but if you enjoy pre-Code banter and melodrama done with a great deal of visual style, you’ll find much to enjoy here.

Adolphe Menjou stars as New York City Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, and a more nattily attired Police Commissioner you’ll never see. Thatcher Colt (love that name) makes 007 look like Gilligan.

A great success at bringing the wrath of the law on the gangs and rackets controlling his city, Colt is long overdue for a vacation. He doesn’t know where he’s going to go and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is, so in the presence of loyal secretary Miss Kelly (Ruthelma Stevens), he throws a knife at a map of New York State, which hits the town of Gilead. So Gilead it is, a small town in upstate New York. Despite wanting to leave everything in New York behind, he brings Kelly with him. Hardworking, devoted, and probably love starved, I don’t think Miss Kelly minds the invitation at all. (I can see her and Della Street commiserating together over a few drinks).

Both Menjou and Stevens originated their roles a year earlier in “Night Club Lady” which is supposed to be quite good. It was originally scheduled to air on TCM but got pulled. I’m hoping it will be shown at a later date.

Any savvy movie Police Commissioner (or detective or lawyer) should know they can’t go away for a simple vacation without getting involved in the local skullduggery. Sure enough, a circus is visiting Gilead and circus p.r. man Dugan (Harry Holman), an old acquaintance of Colt’s, asks for his help. Someone is sending threatening notes, and one of the cannibals is missing, leading to this piece of priceless dialogue:

Dugan: There were 14 cannibals in that troupe last week. Now there are only 13.

Colt: What happened to the 14th cannibal?

Dugan: They’re cannibals. You figure it out.

For added enjoyment, Dugan is played by cherubic Harry Holman, an instantly recognizable figure even today thanks to his role as the principal in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and in The Three Stooges short “Hoi Polloi” (1935), where he takes on the thankless task of insisting that, when it comes to behavior, environment is more important than heredity, and accepts a wager to turn the boys into gentlemen. Not a good wager. Vegas bookies wouldn’t even cover that bet.

Leading lady trapeze artist Josie LaTour is played by Garbo wannabe Greta Nissen. She never made it big and soon hightailed it back to Oslo. Fighting for her attentions are fellow trapezer Donald Woods and her ex-husband, played by Dwight Frye.

With that cast, you already know who the lunatic is, and if you don’t know, then why are you reading this blog?

There’s no musical score to speak of, but the roars and cries of the circus animals at night provide a most spooky soundtrack.

“The Circus Queen Murder” was directed by Roy William Neill, best known today for directing all but one of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. I’ve always liked his style, and he brought a great deal of panache to everything he directed. Check out the great Karloff Gothic shocker “The Black Room” (1935) sometime, and the opening scene in the cemetery in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943) is probably the highpoint of 1940s Universal horror movies.

Thank the movie gods for TCM and their showing of obscure titles like this from the Columbia library. They’re keeping the VCR a hummin’ and there seems to be no end in sight. If the planned rumors come true of TCM getting access to the pre-1948 Universal and Paramount libraries, then I’m afraid all is doomed, and I may as well just pitch a tent in the living room. But until that fateful day happens, I’ll be content to watch countless 1930s gems from Warner Bros., Columbia, RKO and M-G-M. There’s still lots of discovery ahead.

Rating for “The Circus Queen Murder”: Two and a half stars.

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