Monday, October 27, 2014

Adolphe's on Vacation

New York City District Attorney Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) is tired.  He needs a vacation badly, and the only way to get one is to go away and not tell anyone his destination.  So, he throws a dart at a map of NY State, and settles on a small upstate town.  He arrives to find the circus is in town, and with it the mystery of murder attempts on the life of star aerialist Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen).  Thus, The Circus Queen Murder (1933) brings Thatcher and his secretary Miss Kelly (Ruthelma Stevens) very far from a restful countryside.

The Night Club Lady was made the previous year, and was intended to be the first in a series of three movies about DA Thatcher Colt.  However, Circus Queen Murder was the only other one that was made.  It's not really clear why, though perhaps the enforcement of the Production Code played a part in it.  Eventually, Thatcher Colt returned in 1942's The Panther's Claw (starring Sidney Blackmer).  This TCM Article goes into greater detail about the films.
None of us was familiar with Ruthelma Stevens (pictured above), who played Miss Kelly, Colt's secretary, confidant, and more-or-less love interest (he can't go on vacation without her...)  She's excellent in the film; in fact, she is the most appealing part OF the film.  She is a strong actress, with an interesting voice and appealing, intelligent face.  She appeared mostly in B films and in small parts in major films (like The Fountainhead and The Scarlet Empress), as well as on Broadway.  She died at age 84 in NYC.  Though Ms. Stevens is the person you most remember, it is not her that is pictured on the poster - that honor goes to Greta Nissen.   The poster makes it appear that Thatcher Colt is involved with Ms. Nissen, which he most definitely is not.

Another notable actor in the film is Donald Cook, who is best known as James Cagney's brother Mike in The Public Enemy. Featured here as Josie's love interest Sebastian, the character comes across as a gentleman, who is gutsy enough to risk his own life to protect his lover.  And though Josie is married, it's really hard to condemn her for loving Sebastian.  Her husband Flandrin (Dwight Frye) is an insane stalker.  (Of course, this IS a precode film...)  We've seen Cook before as one of Barbara Stanwyck's lovers in Baby Face; he's not the strongest actor ever, and while he is good, he is not the character you will best remember from the film.  It's a well known fact, that he was originally cast in the role of Tom Powers, in The Public Enemy, however Cagney so completely blew him off the screen that the parts were reversed.  Though Cook's film career did not go much beyond the 1940s (he made a few film in the 50s),  he had a substantial career on Broadway, appearing in 20 plays, most notably in The Moon is Blue.  He died in 1961, at age 60.

There were several bits in the film that we found quite intriguing.  First was the use of a bulletproof vest!  Though we were unaware of it, bulletproof vests were being developed as early as 1561.  Also, the film establishes quite early that Miss Kelly is quite proficient at reading lips, a talent that will be important to the film action.  Unfortunately, the one bad aspect of the movie was the tendency to telegraph quite early later action: for example, the knife thrower has the vest to protect his target, so we are waiting for it to be used.  So too the film's title also gives away too much information.

The one aspect of in the film that was a bit off-putting were the circus cannibals.  It turns out, they were a much larger feature in the book on which this film is based - in fact, their chief helps Colt investigate the threats against Josie.  We felt they should either have been eliminated or put to better use.   

All in all, though, we enjoyed the film.  And we enjoyed Ms. Stevens enough that we'll be viewing another of her films next time.