This episode finds Chan on vacation on the mainland with the entire family--but when he takes the family to the circus he finds himself embroiled in the murder of the show's co-owner, a man so widely disliked by his co-workers and employees that virtually any one might have killed him. Begged into assisting the investigation by circus performer "Lady Tiny," Chan and number one son Lee join the circus train in an effort to ferret out the truth.
Like most Chan films, the plot is full of holes--but what makes this installment particularly enjoyable is the supporting cast. Son Lee (the ever-enjoyable Keye Luke) finds romance with Chinese contortionist Su Toy (the beautiful Shia Jung) and trapeze footage of Marie Normand (played by real-life trapeze artist Maxine Reiner) offers a glimpse into the circus world of the 1930s that is quite fascinating. Most enjoyable of all, however, are Col. Tim and Lady Tiny, played by popular circus stars and occasional film actors George and Olive Brasno; their sideshow dance alone would make this film worth the effort. It's all a tremendous amount of fun.
Chan films are often accused of being racist, and critics often complain that the actors playing Chan wore "yellowface" make up. The films, however, must be seen within the context of their era. In the 1930s, Hollywood presented most Asian characters as either servile or as Fu Manchu-like entities; Chan was actually just about the only positive Asian character going, and as such the films were tremendously popular with Asian-American audiences of the era.
True enough, Chan is inevitably played by an occidental actor, but this was typical of the era, in which star status was considered more important than racial accuracy. (Other Asian characters are almost always played by actors of Asian heritage, with Keye Luke and Shia Jung cases in point.) Whatever the case, neither Warner Oland or the later Sidney Toler wore significant make-up for the role, and Oland--although a Swede by birth--actually had a strong strain of Asian ancestry in his family tree. But most significantly, while Chan often allows the suspects to dismiss him through their own prejudices, as a character he is always presented in a positive light.
While I would not rank it along such knock-out Chan films as CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA or CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS is a thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series, and in many respects the film's "old fashioned" qualities (watch out for that wild gorilla suit!) add to the fun. Recommended for Chan fans everywhere.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer