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Although Hollywood adopted the Production Code drawn up by the Hays Office as early as 1930, the studios took their sweet time to institute self-censorship in any substantive way. Movies of the early sound era, produced between 1930 and 1934, have come to be labeled by historians and cinephiles as "pre-code," a retroactive designation describing a greater liberty taken with taboo subjects and/or a strong suggestion of the forbidden. Made by Columbia Pictures' as a sequel to their earlier, successful whodunit The Night Club Lady (1932), this film was the second in a proposed trilogy of "Thatcher Colt" mysteries, based on the writings of Charles Fulton Oursler. An interesting figure in the mystery community, Oursler was a journalist and editor, as well as a convert to Catholicism, who wrote several religious books among them The Greatest Story Ever Told, published in 1949 - using his given name while authoring detective fiction under the nom de plume of Anthony Abbot. (Oursler also co-wrote with his son Will the fact-based book that inspired the hit film Boys Town  starring Spencer Tracy.) Oursler's/Abbot's most famous sleuth, New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, is clearly modeled after Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, by way of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Nattily dressed and impeccably mannered, the metrosexual intellect was a perfect fit for dapper actor Adolphe Menjou.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1890, Menjou had ditched his engineering studies at Cornell for Vaudeville and was working in films in New York as early as 1914. His film career interrupted by military service in France during the First World War, Menjou returned stateside after the war and followed the movie business west. In Hollywood, the actor was given a contract by Paramount and choice roles opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and as Louis XIII in The Three Musketeers (both 1921) for United Artists. Menjou's fortunes crashed with the stock market in 1929; dropped by Paramount and picked up by Metro at half-salary, Menjou distinguished himself opposite Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) and replaced Louis Wolheim in The Front Page (1931), for which he received an Academy Award® nomination for "Best Actor."
Taking his personal style of dress from many of the dandies and cads he played, Menjou was living the part when he was cast by Columbia as the debonair Thatcher Colt in The Nightclub Lady. Clearly enjoying his rare leading man status in the sequel, Menjou makes Colt a pip of a puzzle-solver, clear-minded and courageous but not above endearing juvenile churlishness at the expense of his devoted (and patently lovelorn) girl Friday (Ruthelma Stevens).
In adapting About the Murder of the Circus Queen (Oursler prefaced many of his titles with "About the..." to keep them near the top of alphabetized book lists), scenarist Jo Swerling switched out the Manhattan setting (specifically Madison Square Garden) for upstate New York, into which the circus rolls one especially ill-starred Friday the 13th. When headliner Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen) receives death threats prior to opening night, suspicion points to her estranged aerialist husband Flandrin (Dwight Frye)...until his rifled caravan is found splashed with blood. Suspecting that the killer has fed Flandrin's corpse to the tigers, Colt and Kelly split up to interview suspects. A subplot in the novel, in which Colt infiltrates a tribe of Ubangi cannibals retained by the circus, is abbreviated here; written out of the narrative entirely is the native chieftain who becomes an equal to Colt in running the murderer to ground. Despite obvious cost-cutting measures (circus footage from Frank Capra's Rain or Shine  is used for establishing shots), The Circus Queen Murder remains an invigorating caper, rife with elements (from Greta Nissen's barely concealed pulchritude to an onscreen suicide) that would not pass muster with the Breen Office only a year later. Director Roy William Neill would later helm the Sherlock Holmes films for Universal while Jo Swerling would contribute dialogue to Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939), Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Although both The Night Club Lady and The Circus Queen Murder were and remain thoroughly entertaining romps, no third adventure would follow for Thatcher Colt... at least not at Columbia. In 1942, Poverty Row's Producers Releasing Corporation revived the character for The Panther's Claw, based on the short story About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry, published in Cosmopolitan in October 1940. Sidney Blackmer filled Thatcher Colt's wingtips for this unprepossessing low budget entry, set in New York's opera demimonde. A stage and screen veteran, Blackmer was known at the time for his many film performances as "rough rider" turned US President Theodore Roosevelt but also had starred in Republic Pictures' The President's Mystery (1936), cowritten by then Commander and Chief Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In truth, FDR's contribution to the best seller and subsequent film adaptation was only the logline, on which various writers, including Fulton Oursler and S. S. Van Dine, labored to turn into a proper whodunit.) Yet despite an opening scene set in a cemetery, The Panther's Claw lacks the Gothic sentiment or the encroaching menace of The Circus Queen Murder, in which talk of cannibalism and voodoo is interspersed with florid supporting performances by Dwight Frye (a year out from his career-defining turn as the lunatic Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula, 1931) and George Rosener, as ringmaster John T. Rainey (so named to agree with shots of the circus marquee from Rain or Shine). A Broadway playwright, director and lyricist, Rosener had been hired to adapt the stage play Doctor X as a film for First National. His work rejected by the studio, Roesner settled for a role in the film as the last victim of the cannibalistic "The Moon Killer."
Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Jo Swerling (screenplay); Anthony Abbot (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph August
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Thatcher Colt), Greta Nissen (Josie La Tour), Ruthelma Stevens (Miss Kelly), Dwight Frye (Flandrin), Donald Cook (The Great Sebastian), Harry Holman (Jim Dugan), George Rosener (John T. Rainey).
by Richard Harland Smith
Dwight Frye's Last Laugh by Gary J. Svehla, Susan Svehla and Jim Coughlin (Midnight Marquee Press, 1997)
Famous Movie Detectives II by Michael R. Pitts (Scarecrow Press, 1991)
Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography, 1931-1939 by Bryan Senn (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996)
Behold This Dreamer! A Biography by Fulton Oursler