THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER. Columbia, 1933. Adolphe Menjou, Greta Nissen, Ruthelma Stevens, Dwight Frye, Donald Cook, Harry Holman, George Rosener. Based on the novel About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932) by Anthony Abbot. Director: Roy William Neill.


   More stylish than Dear Murderer [recently reviewed here ] but less intelligent, The Circus Queen Murder offers Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Abbott’s Thatcher Colt, crusading District Attorney essaying that pre-doomed enterprise, a vacation from crime.

   Colt and his Gal Friday (An actress with the unlikely name Ruthelma Stevens, very good in a Glenda-Farrell-ish way.) quickly hook up with a traveling circus that just as quickly turns into one of those hotbeds of passion celebrated in cheap movies and paper-backs: threats, killing, more threats, murder and impersonating-a-cannibal ensue before things sort themselves out.

   Under the sure hand of director Roy William Neill (he of Universal’s “Sherlock Holmes” series) this moves along quickly and with a certain amount of class, filled with catchy camera angles and some surprisingly subtle touches.

   I particularly liked Stevens reporting a conversation to the investigators: “He called her a lying little [micro-pause] cheat,” and a few minutes later, Menjou looks at her knowingly and says, “So he called her a lying little [same micro-pause] cheat, did he?” leaving our fertile minds to conjecture just what he really called her.


   Unfortunately, there’s more style than sense here. I kept waiting for the legendary Thatcher Colt to come up with some brilliant deduction, surprise us with some clever twist or maybe just shoot something, but (WARNING!) there are no bombshells here: no surprise about the killer, the victim, none of that, and we pretty much just watch Adolphe Menjou watch things turn out the way they would have if he’d never stepped in.

   Something does finally lift Circus Queen out of its rut, though, and that’s Dwight Frye, the spiritual progenitor of Elisha Cook Jr. and a cult actor if ever there was one, here cast perfectly as the maniacal cuckold.

   Frye was perhaps a limited actor, but he was unforgettable in Dracula and Frankenstein, and here, given a meaty part, he takes it in his teeth and runs with it, turning this into a pretty satisfying time.