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Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) takes his vast family to the circus, and as
it is with wherever Chan goes, a murder happens while he watches the
performance. At first, it looks like an unsolvable locked room mystery,
but once it's found out the circus's gorilla has escaped his cage, the how
can quickly be established. As for the who and why ...
The murder victim
was the circus co-owner Kinney (Paul Stanton), a bit of a scoundrel nobody
really liked, who wanted to get his hands on the shares of circus founder
Gaines (Francis Ford) to make the circus into cash. Gaines of course
refused to sell, so Kinney tried legal loophole after legal loophole to
steal the circus from him. Now that puts Gaines on the spot, and
investigating detective Macy (Wade Boteler) is already more than ready to
arrest him, but Chan has his doubts, persuades Macy to let Gaines go and
decides to travel with the circus for a while, together with his son Lee
(Keye Luke). Chan soon knows he is on the right track when an unsuccessful
attempt on his life is made using a poisonous snake. But still, there are
suspects aplenty among the circus folks, since everybody it seems had his
own feud with Kinney. Then things take an unexpected turn when the
circus's wardrobe woman Nellie Farrell (Drue Leyton) claims she has been
married to Kinney for the past 6 months - much to the surprise of
everybody, but going through Kinney's things in the circus safe, a
marriage license is found. However, trapeze artist Marie (Maxine Reiner),
Kinney's sweetheart, doubts it and promises Chan proof that the marriage
certificate is a forgery ... but before she can to so, she is badly
injured in her aerial act when one rope of her trapeze is shot through.
However, from Marie's collection of newspaper clippings Chan finds out
that at the time Kinney was to have married Nellie, he was a witness for
the defense at a murder trial, the man who actually got the accused off
the hook. Now all of this makes Nellie and her brother Dan (Boothe Howard)
the prime suspects in the murder of Kinney and the attempt on Marie's
life, doesn't it?
Yes, it does of course, but Charlie Chan doesn't like
simple answers, so he has Lee phone the courthouse where the murdertrial
was held regarding the identity of the murder suspect, while he personally
sees to it that Marie gets complicated surgery right there at the circus.
But someone knocks out Lee and sets the gorilla free - again - and thus
the gorilla crashes the operation ... if it was real, that is, actually it
was only a ruse to lure the killer out into the open. And when the gorilla
makes his getaway, he is shot, and revealed not to be the real gorilla at
all, but the circus's snake charmer (J.Carrol Naish), who's also a
notorious gambler who hasbeen in league with Kinney for quite some time,
but now they had a fallout. The information Lee has gotten from the
courthouse only corroborates that story ...
Chan-mystery, a bit far-fetched in story perhaps, and full of
plotholes, naturally, but the circus atmosphere gives the rather routine
and over-comvoluted plot the necessary spots of colour, and a competent
ensemble cast of course doesn't hurt either.
By the way, baddie
J.Carrol Naish would be promoted to playing Charlie Chan
himself about 20 years later in the short-lived TV-series The
New Adventures of Charlie Chan.