*. “Charlie Chan . . . needs no recommendation. The films in which he appears are all genuine detective films as distinct from thrillers, they are always well-made and well-acted.” That’s the novelist Graham Greene in a review of Charlie Chan at the Circus that ran in The Spectator in 1936. Something to keep in mind when considering the split between high and low culture in the first half of the twentieth century.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release of this movie a pair of film historians (Rush Glick and Courtney Joyner) describe the run of Charlie Chan movies that came out in 1936-37 (Charlie Chan at the Circus, at the Races, at the Opera, and at the Olympics) as when the series “hit full stride,” and that these four indeed were “the best of the Charlie Chans.” It’s not a judgment I’d want to argue with, not because I find myself in full agreement with it but because I think it would be splitting hairs. Were these movies really that different from what came before or after?
*. Still, if you are a Chan fan, like Greene, you’ll probably enjoy this. There’s lots going on, from the introduction of Charlie’s entire family to a raft of suspicious looking circus types. Ten minutes after it was over I couldn’t remember any of the basics, the plot being somewhat tangled, to put it mildly. Despite only being 72 minutes there’s a lot to keep track of. There are threatening letters, forged documents, an insurance policy, a co-owner of the circus who is in financial straits, a shifty snake-handler, a pair of little people trying to keep the show going, a snake deposited in Charlie’s sleeping compartment, a trapeze artist being shot from the sky, a gorilla running loose (twice), and Number One Son chasing after a contortionist and dressing up in drag.
*. The scene in drag has him pushing a pram with a little person (George Brasno) in it who is smoking a cigar. I wonder if that’s where they got the idea for Baby Herman puffing on a fat one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
*. Yes, this is a movie with a gorilla character in it. The gorilla’s name is Caesar, not to be confused with the chimp leader in the Planet of the Apes franchise. And he looks like most gorillas in movies of the time: like a guy in a gorilla suit. But it’s even worse. Because you suspend your disbelief, going along with the idea that Caesar is indeed a gorilla, but then you find out that sometimes he’s a gorilla and sometimes he actually is a guy in a gorilla suit! And nobody can tell the difference! Which is a hurdle that disbelief can’t be suspended above.
*. It’s familiar ground, to be sure. Things end with the same ruse or trap of luring the villain into revealing himself at the end, a device used in many of the other movies. Odd that the series went back to this same ending so many times, but I guess it works well enough.
*. As for the wisdom of Charlie Chan, the script is now so thick with aphorisms that he seems incapable of communicating in any other way. Most of these are tedious. “Silent witness sometimes speaks loudest.” “One grain of luck sometimes worth more than whole rice field of wisdom.” “Cannot tell where path lead until reach end of road.” “Man who seek trouble never find it far off.” “Question without answer like faraway water — no good for nearby fire.” I can’t say I feel enlightened by any of these. But then, man who seek enlightenment from Charlie Chan movie looking in wrong place.