Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) receives free tickets to the circus for him and his entire family, all fourteen of them. Before the big top performance, Charlie is approached by one of the circus owners, Joe Kinney (Paul Stanton). Kinney tells Charlie that he has been receiving threatening letters and he would like to talk to Charlie about them later. They make an appointment to discuss the letters at 9:00. Later when Charlie shows up at the office wagon the door is locked and there is no answer. When the door is finally opened Kinney is found dead. It appears that he was killed by a gorilla that has escaped earlier from his cage. The preliminary investigation reveals that the gorilla, Caesar, was released on purpose.
Lieutenant Macy (Wade Boteler), from the police department, arrives to take over the case. Charlie receives a visit from Lady Tiny (Olive Brasno), one of the performers in the circus. She asks Charlie to help with the case because Macy is holding many of the performers in jail as suspects and the circus will go bankrupt if they are not allowed to perform. Charlie agrees.
Charlie convinces Macy to let the circus continue on its tour believing that everyone’s guard will be down, and the killer may make a mistake. Charlie, Macy and Charlie’s son Lee stay with the circus to keep an eye on the suspects, who happen to be just about everyone in the circus. The first night with the circus someone tries to kill Charlie with a poisonous snake. Then someone tries to break into Kinney’s safe.
Inspecting the safe Charlie and Macy find a marriage certificate that shows that Kinney and the costume seamstress, Nellie Farrell (Drue Leyton), were married in Mexico a few months prior despite Kinney being engaged to the trapeze artist, Marie Norman (Maxine Reiner). Marie says she has proof that the marriage is a fake but before she can provide it, she is seriously injured when her rigging is sabotaged. Charlie believes he knows who the killer is, but he must set a trap to get the evidence he needs to prove his case.
“Charlie Chan at the Circus” was released in 1936 and was directed by Harry Lachman. It is the eleventh of sixteen films that Warner Oland did as Charlie Chan. The Charlie Chan films were based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers.
I’m not a circus fan so it was nice that this offering spent its time on the murders and the suspects instead of a lot of padding with silly circus acts. I did like the beginning, just after the opening credits, where shadows of performers and circus images were reflected on matte paintings of various circus acts. It gave the film a circus flavor without hitting you over the head with it. The actual circus acts that were in the film were important to the plot and short in duration.
This is where Keye Luke starts to get a little annoying. He is only semi-helpful to his father and is stuck doing stupid things like dressing as a woman and pushing a cigar smoking midget in a baby carriage. He’s also beginning to babble and rush around, half misinterpreting clues, and chasing after a contortionist. He went from being a devoted son that wanted to help his father to being ridiculous comic relief.
The gorilla Caesar is played by Charles Gemora. John Aasen, who played the giant in the film, was also in Tod Browning’s “Freaks” 1932. George and Olive Brasno, who played married couple Colonel Tim and Lady Tiny, were brother and sister. J. Carol Nash has a small part as a snake wrangler.