by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
After years of neglect — at least partly conditioned by Asian-American activists who’ve condemned the films as racist, less due to their actual content than that the hero was always played by white actors — 20th Century-Fox has reissued most of its surviving Charlie Chan films in DVD boxed sets, four films to a package with a couple of intriguing bonuses: the 1929 early talkie Behind That Curtain (the first Chan film to survive) and Eran Trece, the surviving Spanish-language version of Charlie Chan Carries On, the lost debut of Warner Oland in the role. This is a survey of all the films released so far as my partner Charles and I have gone through the boxed sets and watched them. — M.G.C., 6/4/08
Behind That Curtain is a 1929 Fox production that’s the first Charlie Chan movie produced at that studio, the first Chan talkie and the earliest Chan movie that survives. That’s about all it has going for it, though. It was based on the third Chan novel written by the character’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, who structured his book much the way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear: a mystery prologue involving the “sleuth” character, a long backstory flashback indicating who the murder victim was, who the murderer was and the entire history that led this person to kill that other person, and a short epilogue in which the sleuth returns to tie up the loose ends. Fox’s scenarists, George Middleton (credited with the adaptation, so this was presumably his idea) and Sonya Levien & Clarke Silvernail (script), decided to lop off the introductory passage with the sleuth and just tell the backstory, bringing Chan in at the end as a sort of deus ex machina.
William Fox, who when this film was made still headed the studio that bore his name (and who picked Upton Sinclair, of all people, to write his authorized biography, which makes me wonder what he’d think of the way the studio’s current owner, Rupert Murdoch, has made his last name synonymous with Right-wing news and political commentary), obviously saw this film as a follow-up to In Old Arizona, since he reunited that hit movie’s director, Irving Cummings, and star, Warner Baxter, and took advantage of all the opportunities for location work. A good chunk of the story takes place in what was then called “Persia” (modern-day Iran), even though it’s “played” by all too familiar Western locations and the “Persian desert” is obviously Hollywood’s all-purpose stand-in for deserts anywhere, the big sand dunes outside Yuma, Arizona.
Baxter plays British explorer Col. John Beetham, who’s just returned from a four-month trip to China to find that private investigator Hilary Galt (Edgar Norton, for once not playing an alcoholic) has dug up some derogatory information about him and threatens to reveal that to his client, Sir George Mannering (Claude King), which will jeopardize his chances of marrying Mannering’s niece Eve (Lois Moran, second-billed). Only it turns out that during his Chinese expedition Eve has met and fallen in love with no-good bounder Eric Durand (Philip Strange) and it’s Eric that Galt plans to dis to Sir George (who doesn’t need any persuasion since he already hates him and bitterly opposes Eve marrying him) — and, in order to prevent this from happening, Eric elopes with Eve, kills Galt and leaves a pair of Chinese slippers at the scene of the crime (gifts from the Chinese emperor to Col. Beetham) to frame Beetham for the crime.
Beetham flees by embarking on his planned expedition to Iran, and who else should turn up there but Mr. and Mrs. Durand. By then Eric is openly carrying on with his native servant, Nuna (Mercedes De Valasco) — even screwing her in what was supposed to be Eric’s and Eve’s marital bed — and Eve decides to separate from him but not divorce him because that would cause a scandal that would embarrass Col. Beetham, whom she’s decided she loves after all. Eve and Beetham run into each other when he’s about to set off into the Persian desert on his way to India, and the two of them ride into the desert and vibrate with mutual sexual frustration for several reels before they finally yield to the obvious temptation. Just then Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emery) of Scotland Yard turns up in Tehran, on the trail of Beetham for murdering Galt, and he meets Eric.
The two of them charter a plane to fly on ahead of Beetham’s caravan, and of course run into Beetham and narrowly miss Eve — who overhears them and rides back to Tehran, then leaves the area altogether. A year passes, and the principals all end up in San Francisco, where Bruce and police inspector Charlie Chan (E. L. Park) attempt to catch the killer. Eric corners Eve in an elevator in a San Francisco hotel and demands a letter she received from Alf Pornick (John Rogers), Galt’s assistant, which is the only physical evidence tying Eric to the murder — he tells Eve and us that he’s already killed Pornick to shut him up and plans to do the same to Eve. Beetham is scheduled to give a lecture in the hotel ballroom and show films of his expedition, and during the showing Eric attempts to shoot Beetham from the audience, Bruce blocks the shot and takes the bullet himself (though he survives), and Chan shoots and kills Eric, thereby allowing the case to be solved without the scandal of a public trial. Of course, Beetham and Eve end up together.
Behind That Curtain is a quirky story that could have made a good movie, but unfortunately this film is a virtual compendium of all that went wrong with the early talkies, especially the ones whose directors were too weak to stand up to the insane demands of the sound men that everyone … talk … really … slowly … and … distinctly, and … … pause … between … hearing their … cue line … and deliver- … -ing their own. The action is staged almost entirely in two-shots between the people presumably conversing, and though Fox was the pioneering studio in developing sound-on-film technology this film is as stiff, and its cameras as immobile, as anything Warners was making at the time with the handicap of the cumbersome (and soon obsolete) Vitaphone sound-on-disc equipment.
The films from 1929 that stand up as entertainment today — Vidor’s Hallelujah!, Mamoulian’s Applause, Lubitsch’s The Love Parade, Wyler’s Hell’s Heroes, Capra’s Ladies of Leisure — are the ones that ignored the ostensible strictures of sound shooting and featured actors conversing normally, cameras that actually moved, and creative uses of sound. Behind That Curtain is all too typical of the common run of early sound films, stiff and boring, and though William K. Everson seems far too patronizing about the later Fox Chans with Warner Oland (“There was never much mystery about any of the ‘hidden killers’ in the Chan movies, nor much variety in their unmasking,” he wrote — a comment belied by Charlie Chan in Paris, with its gimmick of having the killer wear such a heavy disguise that it turns out two separate people are committing the murders, taking turns wearing the disguise and thereby alibi-ing each other, though this particular gimmick would have worked better if the two actors had been the same height; as it was, one was noticeably taller than the other and that should have given the game away; or Charlie Chan on Broadway, in which the obnoxious reporter we expect to be the romantic lead turns out to be the killer), he’s right on about this one:
“The film itself, while it goes out of its way to exploit different kinds of sound effects and a variety of languages, is dull and plodding. The desert locales do nothing but emphasize the space in which nothing happens and also limits the number of characters involved, so that the interchange of dialogue is lengthened into tedium by long delays and reactions. The whole film is much more pedestrian than its basically good story and cast (including Boris Karloff) would indicate.”
As for Karloff — making his sound-film debut and billed only as “Hindu servant” (which explains how he can get away at one point with pretending he speaks neither English nor Farsi) — he’s Beetham’s manservant (there’s an unintentionally funny scene in which, inside a desert tent, he’s serving Beetham, Bruce, and Eric drinks) and he gets very little more to say than, “Yes, Sahib” — though in a film like this that’s something of an advantage (and it’s worth remembering that two years later Karloff would become a star from Frankenstein, in which aside from a few pre-verbal cries, grunts and moans his character was mute). The rest of the film just plods along and wastes some potentially interesting actors — including Moran, who didn’t have much of a career after sound came in even though she gets the two genuinely emotional moments in this one: the scene in which she’s debating whether to have sex with Beetham (in which she’s a lot more subtle than Baxter, who’s attempting to figure out how to do the Valentino schtick in a sound film) and the good suspense scene in which Eric traps her in the hotel elevator.
Warner Baxter had a tendency, even in better films than this, to seem unnecessarily overwrought (in his good films, like 42nd Street and The Prisoner of Shark Island, he was able to harness that to create effective characterizations), but in this one he seems determined to leave no stick of scenery unchewed — and at one point he audibly stumbles over a line, the kind of mistake one forgives in a stage play but in a movie makes one ask, “Why didn’t they retake?” I couldn’t help thinking that Behind That Curtain might have been a great movie, even in 1929, if Fox could have borrowed Josef von Sternberg from Paramount to direct; with Sternberg’s mastery of exotic atmosphere and his ability to get his actors to underplay (not just Dietrich but even 100 percent cured, smoked hams like Emil Jannings), and the control-freak tendencies that would have made him read the riot act to those stupid sound people, a Sternberg Behind That Curtain could have been a real gem.
There are elements in this film of some interest — Karloff’s glowering screen presence; E. L. Park’s Chan (he was a British actor but he was considerably more convincingly “alien” than the Chans to follow); the use of source music to take the place of underscoring (sound mixing was still in its infancy and the use of non-source background music under dialogue was a considerably later development, around 1931 or so) — though the virtually forgotten Hamilton MacFadden does a much better job in that department in the 1931 film The Black Camel, also in the current Chan box and the only survivor among the first five Oland Chans (and one of the very best films in the series, thanks to MacFadden’s creative direction and the welcome presence of Bela Lugosi in a key supporting role) and an overall story that could have made a good (if not great) movie — but they’re lost in … a welter of … badly delivered … dialogue and … flatly photographed … scenes that add … up to an excruciatingly … boring film. — 9/2/07
There was one film in the DVD packages I’d just got that I particularly wanted to see: Eran Trece (“There Were Thirteen”), made by Fox in 1931 as the Spanish-language version of Fox’s first Charlie Chan film with Warner Oland, Charlie Chan Carries On (the fifth of Earl Derr Biggers’ six Chan novels). Through one of the bizarre vagaries of film preservation, the English-language version with Oland has been lost (indeed, of Oland’s first five Chan films, only the second, The Black Camel, survives) but this Spanish-speaking version, shot (like the Spanish Dracula, the German Anna Christie and the Spanish and French versions of Laurel and Hardy’s first feature, Pardon Us) simultaneously with the English version (Lupita Tovar, the female lead of the Spanish Dracula, recalled that the Spanish version was shot at night on the same sets as the English version had been shot on during the day, and the director was instructed to block the action the same way as the director of the English version so they could use the same “marks,” the lines taped on the floor of the set instructing the actors where to stop so the camera will photograph them properly).
The American Film Institute Catalog credits David Howard as the director of Eran Trece (Hamilton MacFadden helmed the English-language version) and doesn’t list the translator of the script (the English version was written by Philip Klein and Barry Connors). The film opens with the murder of Isaac Potter, fabulously wealthy American, in a hotel room in London, and suspicion falls on the other 12 members of his tour group — he was on a round-the-world tour sponsored by Dr. Lofton (Julio Villarreal) — including his daughter Ellen (Ana María Custodio), Chicago gangster Max Minchin (Raul Roulien, who later played Gene Raymond’s rival for Dolores Del Rio’s affections in Flying Down to Rio — thereby putting everyone else in this cast one degree of separation from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!) and his wife Peggy (Bianca de Castejón), playboy and fantasist Walter Decker (Carlos Diaz de Mendoza) and his estranged wife, actress Sybil Conway (Lia Torá) — she wasn’t part of the tour group of trece but she was filming in San Remo and he was planning to join her when the tour reached there — as well as elderly attorney Paul Nielson (Antonio Vidal) — who in one sequence has a heart attack and his attendant saves his life using an amyl nitrite “popper” — and various assorted hangers-on.
For the first three-fifths of the film Chan doesn’t appear at all — the lead detective is Inspector Duff (Rafael Calvo) of Scotland Yard, who gets involved in the first place because the initial murder (there are others, and while the first victim is strangled with a luggage strap the rest are shot by an unseen gunman who has an amazing ability to pick off people while firing through open windows) took place in his jurisdiction and who follows the tour group around the world (established through some generic sets on the Fox backlot and ghastly silent-era stock footage of the Pyramids and Sphinx to let us know they’re supposed to be in Egypt) until he himself is picked off through the open window of Charlie Chan’s office in Honolulu; he eventually recovers, but meanwhile Charlie Chan “carries on” with the case and ultimately uncovers the real murderer in San Francisco along with the motive — something about smuggling diamonds out of South Africa (we don’t leave the film with too clear an idea of what the crime was all about or why the killer, the usual peripherally involved character, picked these particular people to eliminate: maybe all was clearer in Biggers’ novel).
On one level, Eran Trece is a surprisingly good movie: director Howard uses a surprisingly mobile camera and there are even some bits of background underscoring, unusual in a 1931 talkie, that make much of the film (especially the middle reels) look more like 1935 than 1931. But it’s still workmanlike rather than inspired, and given the superb atmospherics director MacFadden achieved in the second Fox Chan film, The Black Camel, I can’t help but think that the English version was probably better (unlike the Spanish Dracula, which despite the absence of Bela Lugosi and the mere competence of the actor who replaced him actually comes off, on balance, as a better film) — and by the way, why wasn’t The Black Camel included in the first Chan boxed set? Because it doesn’t have a title that begins with Charlie Chan in … ? Because of the myth that it’s unshowable today because one reel has poor sound quality (the bootleg tape I got from Canada contained the entire 72-minute film and the sound quality, though nothing to write home about, was consistent throughout and good enough that one could understand the dialogue and follow the plot)?
It’s a pity, and one can only hope 20th Century-Fox Home Video includes it in the next Chan boxed set (and they’re calling this one Volume 1 so there’s a strong possibility that there will be a Volume 2) [actually they included it in Volume 3 — M.G.C., 6/4/08] because, along with Charlie Chan at the Opera, it’s the best film in the series, with MacFadden’s proto-noir compositions and superb use of “source” Hawai’ian music instead of orchestral backing (and a great performance by horror icon Bela Lugosi as a fake swami, though it takes real suspension of disbelief to accept Lugosi’s Magyar tones as coming from someone who’s supposed to be British).
Like a lot of other later Chans, Eran Trece is sluggish (as I’ve pointed out often in these pages, it’s quite surprising that the early 1930’s produced so many great gangster films but, with virtually only two exceptions — the 1931 Maltese Falcon and 1934 Thin Man, both based on Dashiell Hammett novels — 1930’s filmmakers turned flat, leaden and dull when they tried to dramatize other sorts of crime), and the actor playing Chan, Manuel Arbó, is clearly modeling his performance on Oland’s long before Oland’s became iconic; also the famous Chan aphorisms literally lose a lot in translation (reading them in subtitles, they just sound stupid) — and Charles informed me that in Mexico people tell “Chinese jokes” the way Americans told “Polish jokes” and that Arbó was doing a lot of “l” and “r” switches that made Chan more of a buffoon than the serious character Biggers intended and Oland (and Sidney Toler after him) played. Eran Trece is a good movie, and I’m glad it survived and is back in circulation, but it’s hardly a long-lost gem. — 10/8/06
The movie I wanted to run when we got home was the 1931 film The Black Camel, the main reason I had bought the Charlie Chan, volume 3 DVD boxed set from 20th Century-Fox. I’d seen it before in a mediocre-quality bootleg tape from Vortex Video in Canada and it was nice to see it in an “official” DVD transfer that was quite beautiful, doing full justice to director Hamilton MacFadden’s atmospherics and the chiaroscuro effects cinematographers Joseph August and Daniel Clark (more prestigious names than usually got to do Chan films) got for him. The film is a quite close adaptation of the fourth Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers — though it opens when movie star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) and her film company reach Honolulu, Hawai’i and omits the long prologue Biggers wrote detailing the action on ship on their way there, during which Fane started a shipboard romance with millionaire Alan Jaynes (William Post, Jr.). He wants to marry her, but she’s concerned that he may learn her role in the death, three years earlier, of fellow movie actor Denny Mayo.
Shelah sends for Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi), her favorite fortune-teller, and he arrives in Honolulu and not only tells her she can’t marry Alan but induces her to confess to the murder of Mayo. Shortly thereafter, Shelah is found stabbed to death on the floor of the pavilion of the Royal Hawai’ian Hotel — and Chan, who has already been investigating Tarneverro while posing as a humble Chinese merchant, is on the case. There’s the usual pool of suspects, including Shelah’s personal assistant, Julie O’Neil (Sally Eilers, second-billed) — who’s dating her own rich young man, Jimmy Bradshaw (Robert Young, looking like he just got out of high school) — Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi), actor and Shelah’s former husband; Smith (Murray Kinnell), an artist-turned-beachcomber; his native girlfriend Luana (Rita Rozelle); Thomas and Anna MacMaster (J. M. Kerrigan and Mary Gordon), foster parents of the late Denny Mayo and his brother Arthur; Shelah’s maid Anna (Violet Dunn); Jessop (Dwight Frye, reunited with Lugosi from the Dracula cast), butler at the hotel; and Van Horn (whose connection to the others is unclear but who looks sinister enough if only because C. Henry Gordon is playing him).
About the only false note in the story is the appearance of a comic sidekick for Chan, Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka), who like the Number One and Two Sons in the later Chan films is always causing trouble — at one point he bursts into the room where Chan is holding the suspects and slams a door, causing the bits and pieces of Denny Mayo’s torn photo Chan is trying to reassemble to fly about the room — but the rest of the film is so good this pointless character can’t hurt it much.
I was impressed this time around with most of the same things I’d liked about the movie the first time: MacFadden’s sure command of atmosphere, the benefit of footage actually shot in Hawai’i (something Fox hyped a good deal back in the day, though it’s clear the only Hawai’ian footage was shot by a second unit and used as process-screen backgrounds or cut in for “authenticity”), Ben Carré’s spectacular sets (another far more prestigious name than usually got associated with the Chan films); Warner Oland’s typically imperturbable performance as the detective (it was only his second performance as Chan — and the only one of the first five Oland Chans that survives — and he isn’t bored with the role, as he became later in the series); a considerably more emotionally intense and rangy performance from Lugosi than he usually gave in his horror films; the marvelous use of Hawai’ian source music as a substitute for orchestral underscoring (the effect of “native” music was also used in Behind That Curtain, but far less effectively) — especially in a cruelly ironic scene in which a high-school glee club has assembled outside the hotel pavilion to serenade Shelah while she is dead inside — and the sheer mobility of the film.
This was made just two years after Behind That Curtain, but the technology of the talkies had improved so dramatically it seems more like 10 years later; MacFadden and the cinematographers take what could have been an extraordinarily dull film and liven it up with swooping camera movements, dramatic lighting and almost claustrophobic interiors, especially in the scene in which Tarneverro drives Shelah to confess to having killed Denny Mayo shortly before she is killed herself, and the later sequences in which Chan holds the various suspects in a hotel ballroom and forces them to remain while he investigates the case.
The Black Camel is also superbly plotted; the backstory murder of Denny Mayo hangs over everything (someone is so determined to obliterate his memory that when Chan goes to the Honolulu library to look through back issues of the Los Angeles Times to see his photos, all of them have been cut out of the library copies — though one would think that since he was supposed to have been a movie star in his own right somebody would have remembered what he looked like) and the denouement, though far-fetched, at least hinges on a motive that makes sense instead of the arbitrary climaxes of some of the later Chan films (particularly the ones that weren’t based on actual Biggers stories): Tarneverro turns out to be Arthur Mayo, Denny’s brother (their strong physical resemblance was the reason for their attempt to destroy all Denny’s photos); and maid Anna turns out to be Denny Mayo’s widow.
The two were convinced that Shelah had killed Denny from the time it happened (which she had; Shelah was desperately in love with Denny but he refused to marry her because he was already married to Anna, so she killed him), and hatched a long-term revenge plan; Tarneverro would establish a reputation as a psychic and use background information supplied by Anna to make Shelah think he had genuine mystic powers; he would worm his way into her confidence and make her confess to the murder; and then they would turn her in to the police — only just after her session with Tarneverro, Shelah tore up the autographed photo Denny had given her shortly before she killed him, and Anna was so upset she lost control and stabbed Shelah on the spot. Smith, the homeless artist, attempted to blackmail one of the others and then was killed by Jessop, who was in unrequited love with Anna and wanted to shield her from being exposed by the critical piece of evidence (a diamond pin of Shelah’s which Anna had stomped on the night of the murder, not realizing that a piece of it had lodged in the high heel of her own shoe) Smith had discovered.
The Black Camel is so good one wishes MacFadden’s other Chan films, Charlie Chan Carries On (an adaptation of Biggers’ fifth and next-to-last Chan novel from 1930 and the first time Oland played Chan) and Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case, survived (he also began the direction of Charlie Chan in Paris in 1935 but was mysteriously fired after just one week of shooting and replaced by the dull hack Lewis Seiler — “a real pity,” I wrote after Charles and I saw that film, “since MacFadden’s sense of atmosphere could have benefited this film, and I suspect the almost Gothic scenes in and around the sewers of Paris (‘Sing, my angel of music!’ Charles couldn’t help but joke, an allusion that wasn’t lost on me either) and some nearby exteriors were MacFadden’s work.”
The collapse of MacFadden’s directorial career after 1937 (he had only two other directorial credits, Inside the Law from 1942 and Youth for the Kingdom, which he also wrote, in 1945) is a real mystery — after that he was mostly reduced to being an actor (he’s in The Black Camel as, appropriately enough, the director of the film Shelah Fane is shooting; and when Fox changed the setting and remade The Black Camel as Charlie Chan in Rio with Sidney Toler in 1941 MacFadden was in the film in the Robert Young role) and did no work in films after 1945 (though he lived until 1977). One wishes MacFadden could have made a directorial comeback in the mid-1940’s since on the strength of his work here he would seem ideally suited for the film noir genre; as it is, his most famous directorial credit was probably Stand Up and Cheer, the 1934 musical starring Behind That Curtain star Warner Baxter and introducing the little girl who would become the biggest movie star of the 1930’s, Shirley Temple. — 9/3/07
Afterwards I reached into the Charlie Chan boxed set and dug out the earliest of the four films represented (not counting Eran Trece, which was formally only a supplement to the Charlie Chan in Shanghai disc): Charlie Chan in London. I think Charles and I had actually screened this one before after we watched Gosford Park, where it was mentioned, but neither of us had any recollection of it. It’s one of those frustrating movies that takes a potentially great plot premise and accomplishes all too little with it.
Having exhausted all other possibilities, including a judicial appeal and a petition to the Home Secretary, Pamela Gray (Drue Leyton) corners Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) in London and pleads with him to save the life of her brother, murder convict Hugh Gray (Douglas Walton), just three days before he is to be hanged. That gives Chan three days to find the real murderer, since he and we both believe he’s innocent even though Pamela’s boyfriend, attorney Neil Howard (Ray Milland — on the trailer he’s billed as “Ray” but on the actual film’s credits he’s still using the longer form of his first name, “Raymond”), blurts out to Pamela that he’s now convinced her brother was guilty even though he represented Hugh at trial (no wonder he lost!).
The original murder victim was a man named Hamilton, a captain in the Royal Air Force, who was killed in the stable of the country home of Geoffrey Richmond (Alan Mowbray) in the decidedly fictional English county of “Retfordshire.” The usual motley crew of suspects is also staying there, and Chan — after a charming sequence in which he’s shown climbing through Pamela’s window to get in to see her after an overprotective butler has denied him admittance (and a maid goes into racist overdrive and thinks he’s a diabolical Chinaman who’s going to hack them all to bits in their beds!) — reunites everyone who was there that weekend when Hamilton was killed.
Two other people get killed in the three days available and Chan finally traces the murder to an invention Hamilton worked on for the RAF, a way of silencing military aircraft to make them undetectable by an enemy, and reveals that the killer was actually Geoffrey Richmond himself, who in a plot twist screenwriter Philip MacDonald obviously borrowed from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story “His Last Bow,” is revealed actually to be a foreign spy named Frank (that’s his last name) — his country of origin is unspecified but it’s not too difficult to tell what a 1934 audience would have guessed it to be — who was after Hamilton’s secret and was willing to murder him to get it.
Charlie Chan in London is not an especially well-made movie: director Eugene Forde’s pacing is almost soporific in its slowness, there’s no background music underscoring (a surprise since there was underscoring in Eran Trece, made three years earlier) and, as silly as the comic-relief device of having one of Chan’s sons (Keye Luke as Number One Son in the Oland Chans and Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son in the Fox Tolers) attempt to help his father solve the case and only screw it up, at least that gimmick provided energy and action in the later films in the series; without it, this one seems dull.
What gives Charlie Chan in London its entertainment value is some of the supporting cast — Drue Leyton, whoever she may have been, is excellent, powerfully expressing her torment over the impending execution of her brother, and though I don’t think anyone watching this film would have necessarily predicted future stardom for Ray Milland he’s also quite good as the attorney/boyfriend exasperated by the conflict between his role as Hugh’s attorney and his doubts about his innocence (the scene in which he blurts out his belief that Hugh is guilty and Pamela goes ballistic on him, slapping him and then tearing off his engagement ring and hurling it at his feet, is utterly convincing and far more intense emotionally than one expects from this sort of genteel whodunit), though Douglas Walton can’t decide whether to underact or hysterically overact as the innocent victim facing a date with the hangman — and above all, Oland’s performance. Sidney Toler may have been more credible as a man of action (the point most of the Chanatics who prefer him to Oland cite) but neither he nor any of the other Chans ever matched Oland in portraying Chan’s alienness, his heritage from another culture with a very different philosophical view of time and human nature from those of the West. — 10/9/06
Charlie Chan in Paris, the next in sequence in the Fox Charlie Chan box after Charlie Chan in London, is actually one of the better entries in the series. For some reason, Hamilton MacFadden started as this film’s director but was replaced in mid-shoot (after one week of a three- to four-week schedule) by Lewis Seiler, a long-time hack mostly known for his work in Warners’ “B” unit — a real pity, since MacFadden’s sense of atmosphere could have benefited this film, and I suspect the almost Gothic scenes in and around the sewers of Paris (“Sing, my angel of music!” Charles couldn’t help but joke, an allusion that wasn’t lost on me either) and some nearby exteriors were MacFadden’s work. (Dan Clark was the cinematographer on MacFadden’s sequences, and Ernest Palmer replaced him when Seiler came in as director.)
At least Seiler’s approach gave the film speed, and the film also benefited by the use of a background score and the debut in the series of Keye Luke as Chan’s Number One Son, Lee — not only because Luke was a fast-paced, energetic performer who added excitement to the film but also because his assimilation to Western culture contrasted markedly with Charlie Chan’s resolute alienness, his heritage from a different culture with a very different philosophical sense of time (the part of the Chan character, as I pointed out in my comments on Charlie Chan in London, that Oland caught better than any actor who’s played him since) — and it helped that the script for this one (by Edward T. Lowe, later a Universal horror writer, and Stuart Anthony based on a story by Philip MacDonald) was a good deal better than most of the Chans and was genuinely mysterious.
The plot deals with a scandal involving the Lamartine Bank of Paris and a scheme to counterfeit its bonds — which must have at least one “inside” player because the bank’s actual CEO, M. Lamartine (Henry Kolker), is signing the fake bonds as well as the real ones. Chan is assigned to investigate, though he has to pretend to be in Paris merely on a vacation, and he’s supposed to contact a fellow agent, a woman named Nardi (Dorothy Appleby) whose cover identity is as an apache dancer in a local café — only Nardi is stabbed by a weird apparition in a tousled wig, thick shades and walking with a cane, who’s supposedly a shell-shocked and doubly disabled (lame and blind) World War I veteran.
The payoff is that the two conspirators in the counterfeit bond racket, “insider” Henri Latouche (Murray Kinnell) and “outsider” Max Corday (played by the fine farceur Erik Rhodes, best known for his comic-relief parts in the Astaire-Rogers films The Gay Divorcée and Top Hat, and surprisingly good as a serious suspect), took turns wearing this disguise and eliminating the people who might threaten their counterfeit bond scheme (though since Rhodes was at least a head taller than Kinnell one would think the changes in the height of the fake “veteran” would have tipped Chan and the other characters off well before the end) while providing each other with alibis for the murders. This is certainly one Chan film for which William Everson’s rather snotty remark about the series as a whole (especially in Oland’s years) — “There was never much mystery about any of the ‘hidden killers’ in the Chan movies, nor much variety in their unmasking” — definitely does not apply! — 10/11/06
The film was Charlie Chan in Egypt, hailed as the best of the Warner Oland Chans by William K. Everson — he called it “one notable exception to the rather disappointing overall quality of the series” and hailed it for having genuinely suspenseful and even horrific moments, including “some genuinely nightmarish sequences which are still chilling today” — and while I think he overrated it a bit and that some of the other films in the series (notably the rarely seen The Black Camel and the far better known Charlie Chan at the Opera) are even better, it’s still a good entry even though it’s somewhat derivative not only of previous films in the Chan series (Charlie Chan in London in particular) but of other things Hollywood was putting out at the time, especially The Mummy (almost inevitably for a film set in Egypt and dealing with archaeology in the tombs of the Pharoahs and their closest advisors).
Charlie Chan in Egypt is also one of those movies that’s especially intriguing from a degrees-of-separation perspective, since the cast includes not only Warner Oland but also Rita Hayworth (using her original name, Rita Cansino, and playing a rather anonymous Egyptian maidservant — she’s O.K. but no one seeing this film would have been likely to predict that in less than a decade this woman would be a superstar) and Stepin Fetchit, the most unwatchable Black comedian of the 1930’s. At least Mantan Moreland and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson were able to play streetwise as well as stupid, and Willie Best — as put-upon as he was by the same shuffling dumb-Black stereotype — was able to put a little genuine wit in the characterization; Fetchit (it’s noteworthy that, unlike Best, who fought back against producers who wanted to bill him under the equally demeaning sobriquet “Sleep ’n’ Eat,” Fetchit proudly accepted such a ridiculous name) has become emblematic of the whole stereotype and his shaved head, whiny voice and shaky acting skills even within the bizarre limits of his characterization make him awfully hard to take today (though he’s at least dressed appealingly, in a white linen shirt and white shorts, and one can imagine a bulked-up version of his basic physical type on a “Naked Black Men” calendar today).
Charlie Chan in Egypt has lost its original titles and the ones it has now, probably shot for a TV release in the 1950’s, Latino-ize the first name of its director, Louis King, as “Luis” (!). King and cinematographer Daniel Clark manage to evoke the mood of The Mummy in some quite good scenes set in and around ancient Egyptian tombs, including an arresting opening shot in which one member of a party of archaeologists led by Professor Arnold (George Irving) is overcome by fumes as they open the tomb of the high priest Ameti, a major advisor to the Pharoahs of the 20th (or was it the 21st?) dynasty. Then the film cuts to the unlikely sight of Warner Oland as Charlie Chan flying into Egypt in a two-seater plane (obviously used as an excuse to use some aerial stock footage of the Pyramids and Sphinx) and the plot kicks off with Arnold’s daughter Carol (Pat Paterson) and her fiancé, Tom Evans (Thomas Beck), worried that they haven’t heard from Arnold père in over a month, and the only clue they have as to his whereabouts is a letter he allegedly sent them from his next dig site.
From that point on Charlie Chan in Egypt follows the blueprint of Charlie Chan in London pretty closely (the scenarists this time were Robert Ellis and Helen Logan) with a bit of admixture of King Solomon’s Mines (the daughter worried about her dad’s disappearance in the middle of an exotic African country). Most of the film takes place in and around the lavish home of Arnold’s archaeological partner, Professor Thornton (Frank Conroy) — a quite impressive set that may have been recycled from a previous Fox epic set in ancient Egypt (and the tomb sets also looked way too lavish to have been constructed especially for this film) — and the writers introduce a motive for the murder (a French archaeological society that originally underwrote the Arnold-Thornton expedition and later withdrew their financial support nonetheless claims that all the finds not retained by the Egyptian government should go to their own museum, and has assigned Chan to investigate once relics from Ameti’s tomb start turning up in other musea and private collections).
The film also includes a wide gallery of other potential suspects, including Carol Arnold’s brother Barry (James Eagles), who seems to do nothing but get himself photographed Sternberg-style behind the gratings and lattices in the house and play morbid Egyptian melodies on the violin; Dr. Anton Racine (Jameson Thomas), an Egyptian physician who’s been lacing Carol’s cigarettes with a drug called mapouchari, supposedly discovered by the ancient Egyptians and in use since; Racine’s delivery person, Edfa Ahmad (the cadaverous-looking Nigel de Brulier), who when he isn’t running prescriptions for the doc is denouncing Western interlopers digging up the tombs and stealing the national treasures that should belong to Egypt (he sounds awfully modern to me!); and Thornton himself, who to no particular surprise turns out to be the murderer, having discovered a cache of treasure inside Ameti’s tomb and determined to knock off Arnold so he can keep it for himself. There’s also an intriguing scene in which Barry dies suddenly in the middle of his violin solo and Chan finds a hole drilled into the soundboard of his instrument, through which the murderer introduced a vial of poison gas in a thin glass ampule that shattered and delivered the gas full-force into Barry’s nose once he played a note of the right frequency to break it.
The tomb scenes are still genuinely suspenseful and frightening, though Fetchit’s “comedy” — he’s supposedly in Egypt seeking his ancestors (almost 40 years before Alex Haley!), though why he thought his ancestors would have come from an Arab country remains a mystery in the heads of Robert Ellis and Helen Logan — and the leads (personable enough but no match for Ray Milland and Drue Leyton in the almost identical roles in Charlie Chan in London) take this one down a couple of notches despite Clark’s marvelously atmospheric cinematography and the visual magnificence of the sets — and the intriguing battle of wits between Chan and the local Egyptian detective, Fouad Souetda (Paul Porcasi, who usually portrayed the sympathetic owner of the Italian restaurant at which the romantic leads were regulars), who unlike most of the local cops in the Chan adventures not only doesn’t want him involved in helping solve the case but can’t wait to get rid of him. When Chan told him that they had a lot in common, I couldn’t help but joke, “That’s right! We’re both portly First World actors playing Third World policemen!” — 10/15/06
The film I picked was Charlie Chan in Shanghai, fourth and last of the Warner Oland Chan movies included on the recent 20th Century-Fox DVD box. Dully directed by James Tinling from an original script by Edward T. Lowe (on his way up from Monogram to Universal) and Gerard Fairlie, Charlie Chan in Shanghai took a potentially fascinating pair of premises — the most famous fictional Chinese of the time visiting his homeland in the real China (though, unsurprisingly, the real China is represented here only by some pretty grainy stock footage and process work) and trying to break a worldwide opium smuggling ring — and did all too little with them.
The Chan movies were already hardening into formula (the fact that of the first five Oland Chans all we have are number two, The Black Camel, and the Spanish-language version of number one, Eran Trece a.k.a. Charlie Chan Carries On, makes it virtually impossible to judge the series from its beginnings, though if The Black Camel is indicative of the quality of the first five generally, all of which were based on Earl Derr Biggers’ Chan novels instead of other writers riffing on Biggers’ character, the remaining films are sorely missed): the young couple, with the male (secretary to the heroine’s father, who’s the murder victim in the first reel) being the unjustly accused suspect; the various suspects, most of them rather venerable; and the sinister figure who at first seems an agent of good but ultimately ends up revealed as the mastermind behind the whole plot.
The unjustly accused young man is played by Charlie Locher, who later (like Ray Milland from Charlie Chan in London and Rita Cansino, later Rita Hayworth, from Charlie Chan in Egypt) became a major star, in his case after a name change to Jon Hall and a showcase role in Sam Goldwyn’s 1937 special-effects extravaganza The Hurricane, but all too often he looks like he just stumbled in from the Harbor Inn in his other pre-Hall role in the serial The Clutching Hand. The Lowe-Fairlie script makes too little of the exoticism of the location (a far cry from the work of Robert Ellis and Helen Logan on Charlie Chan in Egypt, which for all its deficiencies at least tapped into the strangeness — to a Western audience — of both ancient and then-modern Egypt) and offers too few chances for Oland to speak Chinese and interact with Chinese characters (other than Keye Luke, providing reliable comic relief as his Number One Son), at least partly because Shanghai in the 1930’s apparently still was largely governed extraterritorially: much of the movie takes place in the British enclave and the police officials Chan works with in solving the case are British, not Chinese.
What makes this film less interesting than it could have been is partly the elaborateness of the gimmicks (the initial victim is killed when he opens a box in which a gun has been placed, set so that the act of opening the box fires the trigger — but the fatal heart wound suffered by the victim depended on his being hunched over the box when he opened it, and if he’d opened it any other way the shot would either just have wounded him or missed him completely) but mainly the dullness of Tinling’s direction; he gets some nice atmospheric shots of the villain’s secret hideout but he’s utterly unable to bring any excitement or pace to the film.
It’s reliable series entertainment, and some of the other Chans around this time are even duller (notably Charlie Chan’s Secret) — and at least it has the quirky appeal of both Warner Oland (with his own voice, presumably — in his role as Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer Oland has the odd distinction of having been the first actor in history whose singing voice was doubled) and Keye Luke singing (for a while it seemed to be turning into Charlie Chan: The Musical), but a lot more could have been done with this concept and even with this script. Incidentally, there’s a quirky mistake in the film: on board the ship to Shanghai Chan receives a note telling him not to get off the ship, or else — but when we see the note again it’s in a different handwriting. — 10/23/06
I chose the DVD of Charlie Chan’s Secret, a 1936 series entry which the last time I was involved with the Chan movies en masse — when American Movie Classics showed most of the Fox Chans in the early 1990’s and I taped them — had struck me as one of the duller films in the cycle. It still does, despite the promise of its haunted-house setting. It begins in the waters off Chan’s home town of Honolulu, with a team of divers (represented mostly by stock footage) searching a wrecked boat for the remains of Alan Colby, who seven years previously had left his comfortable life as the heir to a fortune in San Francisco to join the French Foreign Legion, had been held prisoner by the Riffs (in other words, he was a member of an occupation coalition in the Middle East who had been apprehended by the resistance!) and had just escaped and was making his way home to reclaim his family’s fortune from his aunt, Henrietta Lowell (Henrietta Crossman, the star of John Ford’s marvelous 1933 film Pilgrimage), and her family: her daughter Alice Lowell (Rosina Lawrence), Alice’s fiancé Dick Williams (Charles Quigley), her accountant Fred Gage (Edward Trevor), his wife Janice (Astrid Allwyn), Henrietta’s long-suffering butler Baxter (Herbert Mundin) and a husband-and-wife team of mediums (media?), Professor Bowan (Arthur Edmund Carewe, who played the undercover cop, “The Persian,” in the silent Phantom of the Opera) and Carlotta (Gloria Roy).
The conceit of this film’s writing committee — Robert Ellis and Helen Logan are credited with the story and co-credited with Joseph Hoffman on the script — is that she’s a genuine medium unknowingly being exploited by her husband, who’s a fake. Another conceit is that the Lowell house is clean, modern and well-maintained, while the Colby house is your standard-issue Universal-style haunted house — decayed, crumbling, full of sinister shadows and secret passages. A Universal director like James Whale could have made something of this setting; alas, the director of Charlie Chan’s Secret, Gordon Wiles, gets one actually effective suspense scene (when Alan Colby returns to the family manse only to be killed when a knife is thrown at him) but otherwise just plods through the filming, wasting the marvelous haunted-house atmospherics of cinematographer Rudolph Maté (a surprisingly prestigious name to see on the credits of a Chan film!). Both Charles and I were having trouble staying awake for this one, no matter how stunning some of Maté’s shots were, and by the time this film lurched to its end and Fred Gage turned out to be the murderer (he’d been cooking the books of the Colby estate and was worried Alan would catch him if he inherited), neither of us really cared. — 8/30/07
The film I picked was Charlie Chan at the Circus, the first in sequence of the four Chans with Warner Oland in the volume 2 boxed set I just ordered. (I also got volume 4, containing the first four Chan films with Sidney Toler, and given their format of including four films in each box I’m not sure how they’ll manage the rest of the Tolers, since there are only seven of them remaining!) It turned out to be a pretty good movie, a comfortable and well-done whodunit even though “who” dun it wasn’t especially mysterious (indeed, my one doubt over whether the snake-charmer character played by J. Carrol Naish would turn out to be the murderer was a suspicion that writers Robert Ellis and Helen Logan wouldn’t make it that obvious — but they did!), and directed by Harry Lachman, who in a sense was revisiting the territory he’d explored the year before in a more prestigious Fox release, Dante’s Inferno, since the film begins in Dante’s Inferno territory — with a barker hawking the carnival side show at the circus.
Chan arrives with his wife and 12 children (one of the few times we got to see Chan’s entire famously huge family on screen all at once — the only other time I can recall is in The Black Camel, which used the Chan family the way Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers had: as an audience while Chan explained his progress with the case and gave us the exposition needed to keep us abreast of the plot) to a circus merged by the previous owners Joe Kinney (Paul Stanton) and John Gaines (Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother making one of his rare appearance as an actor in a film not directed by his more famous sibling!). The personnel of the circus come mostly from Gaines’ old show, and recall that they were treated respectfully and paid on time until Kinney bought into the enterprise two years previously, and Kinney holds some of Gaines’ notes and is threatening to foreclose on Gaines’ half of the circus and take the show over completely after the current season.
In an interesting Ellis-Logan variation on the locked-room mystery, Kinney (who had actually been the partner to consult Chan based on some threatening letters he had received — though after Kinney’s death the letters are not found and this part of the plot just gets dropped) is killed inside the locked railroad car that contains the circus’s business office, and it turns out the killer is Caesar, an ape who was falling so far out of control that the circus’s animal trainer, Hal Blake (John McGuire), had recommended that he not be allowed to perform in the big top — which Kinney, of course, ignored.
There are an awful lot of plots and counter-plots going on, including Kinney’s attempt to marry aerialist Marie Norman (Maxine Reiner) despite the fact that he’s already married to the circus’s wardrobe woman, Nellie Farrell (Drue Leyton, playing a disappointingly small role after the marvelous impression she made as the ingénue in Charlie Chan in London), and the motive turns out to be that on May 30, 1935 Kinney witnessed a murder in El Paso committed by Holt (J. Carrol Naish), which was also the date Kinney married Nellie in Ciudad Juárez — and since both claims can’t be true, Chan deduces that Kinney really didn’t marry Nellie and that Holt shot through the trapeze bar from which Marie was performing her act, causing her to fall and get seriously injured (since she was performing without a net), in order to shut her up.
Chan announces that Marie needs an immediate operation and they can’t wait for her to be moved to a hospital, so they have to perform it then and there — and lo and behold, Caesar the ape crashes the impromptu operating room and tries to kill Marie, only the “patient” is a dummy and the whole thing a sham designed by Chan to flush out the killer — who turns out to be, not Caesar the ape, but Holt dressed in an ape costume (an interesting authorial reflection on the fact that the “ape” is pretty obviously a man in an ape suit even in the scenes in which we’re supposed to believe it’s a real ape! Incidentally, did J. Carrol Naish play the “real” ape as well? No other actor is listed for the ape role) — while the real Marie is alive, well and undergoing the operation she needs in a real hospital.
Charlie Chan at the Circus also has some other quite delicious divertissements, including a quite good tango done by real-life little-person couple George and Olive Brasno (who actually get billing on the main title card along with Oland and Keye Luke; Olive Brasno looked enough like Shirley Temple I wondered if she’d been one of the little people who stood in for Temple and thereby sparked the urban legend, which persisted for years, that Temple had actually been an adult little person posing as a child) in the roles of “Col. Tim” and “Lady Tiny,” a nice scene in which Lee Chan (Keye Luke) traces a couple of the baddies by disguising himself in drag and posing as the mother of an “infant” played by Col. Tim (whose cigar smoking gives them away — had Ellis and/or Logan seen the Laurel and Hardy film Sailor, Beware!, which also had a little person, Harry Earles, disguised as a baby and blowing it by smoking a cigar?), and a young Chinese contortionist, Su Toy (Shia Jung), to provide a love (or at least lust) interest for Luke (though we never actually see her contort herself, meaning she was an actress and not an actual circus performer, unlike some of the other cast members recruited from the A. G. Barnes Circus, whose tents, cars and equipment were used while the circus was laying off for the winter), who got to perform a stronger action role than usual in the series.
Charlie Chan at the Circus is also noteworthy for the better-than-usual direction by Lachman, who got some nice atmospheric effects into it (the opening scene shows the shadows of three of the sideshow performer while in the front the barker is hawking their acts) and moving-camera shots (Daniel Clark was the cinematographer), though he couldn’t do much about the script or the performance by Warner Oland, who by this point in the series (it was the11th of his 16 appearances as Chan) had pretty much hardened into clichéd schtick. — 2/28/08
When we got home Monday night I ran Charles the next Charlie Chan movie from volume 2 of the Fox boxed-set series with Warner Oland: Charlie Chan at the Race Track. Noting that the next one in the box was Charlie Chan at the Opera, Charles noted the coincidence that Chan went to the same two destinations that the Marx Brothers had in their adjoining movies from the same period — though the Marxes went to the opera before they went to the race track.
It was also the first Chan film directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (the “H.” — as Carol Easton found out when she interviewed him for her biography of Sam Goldwyn, for whom he directed Wonder Man — stood for “Harry”) and, though it didn’t have any major guest stars (no established horror icons like Bela Lugosi in The Black Camel or Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera and no stars-to-be like Ray Milland in Charlie Chan in London or Rita Hayworth in Charlie Chan in Egypt) it turned out to be one of the better entries in the series, less of a whodunit than usual (there is a typical “puzzle” but for much of the action our attention is kept off the whodunit aspect and on the known baddies, a gang of gamblers stretching nationwide who are involved in a plot to fix a big horse race at “Santa Juanita” — just take the first two letters off the last name and you have the real racetrack where the racing scenes were shot!) and a flatly directed but well-paced, exciting thriller in which Chan is surrounded by a swirl of activity.
The story (by Lou Breslow and Saul Elkins, adapted into a script by Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Edward T. Lowe) begins in Australia, where horse breeder Major Gordon Kent (George Irving) has just sold his star horse, Avalanche, to his son-in-law, George Chester (Alan Dinehart). Avalanche is scheduled for a big race in Australia and is favored to win, but loses when his jockey, “Tip” Collins (Frankie Darro, who seemed to be playing nothing but crooked jockeys during this period: he was one in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races and in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry), deliberately fouls another horse because the gambling syndicate has paid him $5,000 to do so. He’s caught, ruled out of racing for two years, and stiffed by the gamblers; understandably miffed at having lost his livelihood for nothing, he threatens to go to the authorities and they quietly kill him (indeed, his fate is disposed of in a few lines of dialogue and he never gets within hailing distance of Charlie Chan or anybody else who might actually have been interested in his story).
Meanwhile, Major Kent, George Chester, his wife (Kent’s daughter) Catherine (Gloria Roy) and assorted hangers-on Warren and Alice Fenton (Jonathan Hale and Helen Wood), Bruce Rogers (Thomas Beck), Bagley (Gavin Muir), and Denny Burton (G. P. Huntley, Jr., who had played in Fred Astaire’s stage show Gay Divorce in the part Edward Everett Horton played in the movie) take an ocean liner that stops in Honolulu on its way to Los Angeles — where Charlie Chan receives a ship-to-shore telegram from Kent that he fears for his life and hopes Chan will investigate. By the time the ship docks in Honolulu, Kent is already dead, apparently kicked by Avalanche in the horse’s stall — but Chan goes on board and dedices Kent was murdered by a human being who clubbed him with a winch that would heave a horseshoe-shaped imprint on his body.
From then on the film features a lot of skullduggery on board the ship, including a plot to swap Avalanche for another horse, Gallant Lad (the idea is for the gamblers to bet on Gallant Lad and make a killing when the faster Avalanche, running under Gallant Lad’s name, wins the big handicap at Santa ‘Ju’anita) which Chan sees through when the pet monkey belonging to the Black stable boy, “Streamline” Jones (John Henry Allen, who was obviously being groomed by Fox to take over the Stepin Fetchit roles in case the original started demanding too much money), reacts violently to the supposed Gallant Lad. (It’s previously been established that the monkey was friends with Gallant Lad and it was Avalanche the primate hated.)
There’s also a series of threatening notes, all typed with the same typewriter (its “e” is filled in and its “r” hits above the baseline) and dropped seemingly at random in the laps of all the principals — later it’s revealed that Chan wrote all the notes but the first one, in an effort to find out who wrote the original by how they reacted when they got them — and a final fillip involving the camera mechanisms at the track that give the results in so-called “photo-finish” races, Director Humberstone was apparently given to explanations of the high-tech of his day — there’s a brief (half-hour) documentary on him as the “special feature” on the Charlie Chan at the Opera disc and his daughter explains that he was a gadget freak and loved to stop his films in their tracks to insert an account of the workings of some new high-tech gizmo — though in this movie the gimmick also relates to the plot: one of the guys operating the camera is in the pay of the gamblers and he’s substituted a drugged dart in the camera at the three-quarter mark so if Avalanche, despite the crooks’ best efforts, is leading then the baddies can shoot him and render him unconscious before the finish line.
There’s also a kidnapping in which the gamblers (led by director Humberstone in a cameo) hold Chan in a hotel room, but he escapes in time to get to the track for the big race and, using his son Lee (Keye Luke, who has more to do than usual in this movie — including carrying on long conversations with Chan in Chinese so the others around them can’t understand) as a distraction (he has Lee fill a laundry truck with fireworks and sets them off so he can sneak into the paddock and switch Avalanche and Gallant Lad back to their real identities), Chan witnesses the race. Jockey Eddie Brill (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), sidelined from racing by a previous injury, emerges to ride Avalanche after all the other jockeys at the track are scared away by the death threats, Avalanche gets stuck with the dart but still wins, and in the end Chan establishes that Major Kent was killed by his son-in-law George Chester, who was in cahoots with the gamblers (he went along with switching the horses because then he could bet on his own horse under the underdog’s identity and get a bigger payoff) and had to kill Kent because he would have instantly recognized which horse was which.
Charlie Chan at the Race Track is actually one of the better series entries; though not a particularly atmospheric director (Humberstone’s daughter said he particularly loved film noir and I Wake Up Screaming was his favorite of his films, but the movie is plodding and not alive to the potential of the marvelous story and cast), at least knew how to keep a story moving, and Charlie Chan at the Race Track, though it lacks the wonderful atmospherics of The Black Camel, also isn’t as dull as some of the other entries in the series (notably Charlie Chan’s Secret) and, as Charles pointed out, offered a large enough pool of suspects so the denouement was genuinely mysterious — though I had my suspicions about the husband through much of it and should have been able to nail it down, if only because Alan Dinehart’s portrayal was at his most unctuous! — 3/5/08
Last night Charles and I followed up Charlie Chan at the Race Track with Charlie Chan at the Opera, which was long my favorite film in the series partly because Boris Karloff was in it and partly because of its operatic setting. It was the only one I actually purchased on VHS (as opposed to recording off cable), in an edition by a short-lived Fox subsidiary called Key Video that was actually better packaged than the current DVD, with a clever fold-out cover listing the whodunit elements of the movie — “The Case,” “The Suspects,” “The Motives,” “The Clues” and “The Questions” — to challenge the viewer to solve the mystery ahead of the characters. (When I searched for it on imdb.com, the image illustrating their page on it was from the Key Video VHS edition, not the current DVD.)
Scripted by Charles Belden and Scott Darling from a story by Bess Meredyth (a somewhat more prestigious writer than usually represented in the Chan series), Charlie Chan at the Opera begins by a direct reference to Charlie Chan at the Race Track — the head of the Los Angeles Police Department personally thanks Chan for busting the gambling syndicate behind the killings there — though the actual opening scene takes place in the sort of weather Karloff’s movies usually began in, the proverbial dark and stormy night, at a sanitarium in which a patient who was suffering from amnesia and has never revealed (or himself discovered) his own identity in the seven years he was there is suddenly jogged back into consciousness of who he is by the sight of a picture of prima donna Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) in a newspaper announcing her coming Los Angeles appearances with the touring San Carlo Opera Company. (At the time touring opera companies actually existed in the U.S. and made enough money at least to stay in business and pay their personnel.)
Before that we see the (presumed) madman — Boris Karloff, of course — sitting at a piano in the asylum’s rec room and singing in a baritone voice (Karloff’s own, according to his biographers) that, though it wouldn’t have kept Nelson Eddy awake at nights worrying about the competition, was not only competent but surprisingly strong. The police, headed by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest, thinner and lankier than we remember him from his later films or My Three Sons but still a quite effective comic foil for Chan) and Inspector Regan (Guy Usher), can’t figure out what story in the paper set off the escapee, but Chan figures it out and hangs out at the San Carlo Opera Company, which is performing a piece called Carnival (written especially for the film by Oscar Levant, with a libretto by William Kernell — the text was written in English but is sung in the film in Italian, and Levant said he never found out who did the translation) when its personnel aren’t engaging in enough off-screen intrigues that their private lives could be turned into an effective opera themselves. Rochelle is having an affair with baritone Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye), whose wife Anita (Nedda Harrigan, later Mrs. Joshua Logan) is understandably miffed — as is Lilli’s husband, Whitely (Frank Conroy).
Seven years previously, Rochelle had been married to another company baritone, Gravelle; she and Enrico Borelli had plotted to kill him by locking him inside a burning building — only he was rescued in time, alive and well physically but with no memory of who he was. Naturally, this is Karloff’s character. During the night’s performance of Carnival, Gravelle dresses up in the costume of his old role — as the Devil! — intending to put Barelli out of commission, take over the role himself and thereby shock Lilli into confessing her role in his attempted murder. Both Lilli and Barelli are murdered during the course of the first act, and not surprisingly the rest of the cast wants to call it a night and go home, but the police announce that they’re not letting anyone leave the theatre and the performers might as well go on to finish the opera since both they and the audience (who, peculiarly, are never seen or heard from during the film!) are literally captive.
There’s a scene featuring one of the technological gizmos director H. Bruce Humberstone was so fond of — this time a detailed explanation of how a wire photo is transmitted and developed — as Chan sends to a Chicago newspaper for a photo of Gravelle and thereby establishes the identity of the Karloff character. (Interestingly, 12 years later another 20th Century-Fox mystery film, Call Northside 777, prominently featured a wire photo transmission in its climax.) The second act goes on with Anita Borelli filling in for Lilli Rochelle and Gravelle singing his original role, and when it concludes with the investigation still inconclusive Chan ends up asking the company to sing the first act again. The police shoot Gravelle but fortunately the bullet only grazes him — fortunately because Chan deduces that the real killer of Lilli Rochelle and Enrico Borelli was Anita Borelli, who had never forgiven them for their affair and saw a way to knock them both off and frame the “escaped lunatic” for the crime. Gravelle ends up on the road to recovery, both physical and mental, and reunited with his daughter Kitty (Charlotte Henry), who had been hanging around most of the movie with her on-screen boyfriend without us having a clear idea who she was or why she was there.
Charlie Chan at the Opera has some intriguing connections with other films; it’s a “doubles” movie, for one (both Warner Oland and Boris Karloff had played Dr. Fu Manchu); and at least two of the cast members put everybody else in the film one degree of separation from several superstar comics: Margaret Irving had portrayed Margaret Dumont’s social rival in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers and Charlotte Henry had acted with W. C. Fields in the 1933 Paramount Alice in Wonderland (a much better film than its reputation and an obvious precursor to The Wizard of Oz) and with Laurel and Hardy in the 1934 Babes in Toyland. Interestingly, the title card actually bills the lead actors as “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera,” but there’s no real confrontation between the two: they don’t appear together until 52 minutes into this 72-minute movie and they can hardly be said to be at cross purposes since the denouement is Chan proving Gravelle innocent of the murders.
It’s a reliable Karloff performance rather than a brilliant one (he certainly doesn’t add as much to this movie as Lugosi did to The Black Camel!), but he acts with his usual power and authority — and his singing voice is quite good, far better than the one belonging to Boretti (whether Gregory Gaye’s or a double’s). Oscar Levant’s faux opera is also quite entertaining — certainly a lot better than the Tchaikovsky pastiches Nelson Eddy got stuck with in several of his films (for Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald the MGM music department had to come up with fake operas because almost no real ones feature romantic duets for soprano and baritone!) — and director Humberstone actually gets some nice atmospherics into the dark-stormy-night scene of Karloff’s escape before settling into his sprightly slovenliness.
The “special feature” mini-doc on Humberstone on this DVD did its best to establish him as at least a major second-tier director (wisely they didn’t try to put him on the pedestal along with his former employer, John Ford!) but it was hard for them to get away with that: Humberstone’s movies are always entertaining and rarely dull, but William K. Everson said of him that “through his career [he] was always to be too relaxed when handed a murder mystery, even so heady a one as I Wake Up Screaming” (given the marvelous performance Josef von Sternberg got out of Victor Mature the same year in The Shanghai Gesture, it’s fascinating to imagine I Wake Up Screaming with Sternberg as director!), and Carol Easton was even harder on him in her Goldwyn bio:
“Actors who have been directed by Humberstone contend that he hustled them so hard that they didn’t know what they were doing. His pictures were assembly-line productions from start to finish. Which is precisely why he was in such demand. There was an enormous market for low-budget ‘B’ pictures, companion features for the biggies, and somebody had to direct them. Who? John Ford wasn’t about to, not for any amount of money — nor was Willy Wyler or King Vidor or any other aesthetically oriented director. But more often than anyone cares to admit, artistic talent was subsidized by the commercially profitable hack work of the Lucky Humberstones, who could turn out a feature-length picture using less than 200,000 feet of film, retakes and all [though John Ford made How Green Was My Valley, a prestigious ‘A’ picture that beat out Citizen Kane for the Academy Award, with only 100,000 feet of film — which astonished his cinematographer, Arthur Miller, when the Fox lab informed him after the shoot that he had drawn so little raw stock on the project — M.G.C.] — as opposed to a George Stevens, whose artistic discrimination might require a million.
“’I don’t know why they call him Lucky,’ a producer said to me. ‘He’s always been such a loser.’ The nickname took hold after Humberstone miraculously survived a horrendous car accident. But on reflection, it’s not at all inappropriate. For a man of average intelligence, without noticeable talent or charm, to have directed six-figure productions starring Betty Grable and other household words — what better name than Lucky? … I did not have the courage to ask H. Bruce Humberstone whether he considers himself a success, or what he did with all that money, or even how he spends his time. I did ask, as he stood there expectantly with that terrible two-o’clock-in-the-morning look in his eyes, what the H. stands for.
“It stands for Harry.” — 3/5/08
When we returned I ran him the final Warner Oland Charlie Chan DVD we hadn’t screened previously, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, a 1937 release that used official footage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics provided by the German government (which meant that H. Bruce Humberstone essentially had Leni Riefenstahl as his second-unit director!) for the climax of a tale involving a robotic control mechanism for airplanes whose inventor, Cartwright (John Eldredge), expresses the hope that the device would enable future wars to be fought entirely by machinery without the loss of actual human life.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of skullduggery surrounding the invention, including sinister arms dealer Arthur Hughes (C. Henry Gordon); his vampy girlfriend Yvonne Roland (Katherine DeMille, you-know-who’s niece); Richard Masters (Allan Lane), the fine, upstanding test pilot and Olympic athlete she was assigned to seduce; Richard’s understandably jealous girlfriend, Betty Adams (Pauline Moore); Hopkins (Jonathan Hale), owner of the airplane company testing the device; Edwards (David Horsley), the pilot who takes up the plane with the robot device on the test flight in which it’s hijacked and he’s killed; and Miller (O. G. “Dutch” Hendrian), the hijacker who is eventually killed himself, his body found in Yvonne’s room, which kicks off Chan’s investigation.
Chan’s son Lee (Keye Luke) is a swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team and so he’s sailing to Berlin on the S.S. Manhattan with the other principals, and Chan charts out a way to catch up with them by flying from Hawai’i to the U.S. mainland on the China Clipper, then on another airliner from San Francisco to New York and finally on the Hindenburg (which had already crashed and burned on its infamous final flight by the time this film was released) to Germany. While there Chan allies with sympathetic Captain Strasser (Fredrik Vogeding) of the Berlin police (he’s dressed in a Kaiser-era dress uniform and presented as a good guy, a surprise to anyone who’s seen the film Casablanca, in which the character named Strasser was a black-hearted Nazi villain played by Conrad Veidt in his last role!) to trace the sinister Charles Zaraka (Morgan Wallace), who’s after the device and who himself gets killed.
There are a lot of bullets fired through the windows of the people who presumably hold the device, and a plot in which Chan supposedly recovers the device but in fact keeps it and fakes a package to send to Zaraka as a trap — and the ridiculous denouement reveals that Cartwright, the inventor, is the killer (if he wanted to sell the invention on the open market and make himself a killing — which was supposedly his motive — why didn’t he simply do so instead of going through the whole rigmarole of supposedly offering it to the U.S. government through Hopkins’ company?).
Despite that lapse, the script by veteran Chan scenarists Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (from a story by Paul Burger) is exciting and keeps the interest, and Humberstone was a stronger director than anyone assigned to the Chan films since Hamilton MacFadden; though he lacks a sense of atmosphere and doesn’t have much of a flair for composition (when the film starts cutting in some of the stunning images from Riefenstahl’s Olympia towards the end the gulf between the two directors in terms of visual imagination is all too apparent), he does know how to keep a script like this moving and maintain excitement instead of letting the film degenerate into a dull talk-fest the way some of the Oland Chans (notably Charlie Chan’s Secret) did — and there’s a cute but still reasonably astringent performance by Layne Tom, Jr. as Chan’s second son (a part that would be played by Victor Sen Yung in the Sidney Toler Chans to come).
Overall, the Humberstone-directed Chans do seem to stand a cut above some of the others in the Oland series (the way the Toler Chans directed by Norman Foster did above his others), and as Charles pointed out it was probably because he took them quite a bit more seriously than the other Chan directors did: though he wasn’t an especially creative director (not even an especially creative “B” director the way Robert Florey or Edgar G. Ulmer were!), he did have a real sense of commitment to his films and a flair for a kind of insouciant approach to action and thrills that stood him well in the Chan assignments. — 3/9/08
I picked out Charlie Chan on Broadway, a relatively late (1937) entry in the Warner Oland phase of the series and a pretty good movie. The writing committee on this one — Art Arthur, Robert Ellis and Helen Logan, story; Charles Belden (later The Strange Mr. Gregory and House of Wax) and Jerry Cady, script — actually gave it a flavor of screwball comedy as well as murder mystery, and whoever cast it did so majorly against type — one of the thugs, Buzz Moran, is played by paternal Leon Ames; while Harold Huber, usually cast as a gangster, this time plays a cop, Inspector Nelson, the white guy who makes all the mistakes and has to rely on Chan to find the killer.
The victim this time around is Billie Bronson (Louise Henry), a Broadway entertainer who was jilted by a gangster, Hottentot Club owner Johnny Burke (Douglas Fowley) and paid by him to leave the country, only she’s sneaked back — on the same ship as Chan and his number-one son Lee (Keye Luke) — and a rat-faced man (Marc Lawrence) locks her in her bathroom on board ship and searches her room frantically for a diary which, if it becomes public, will expose the major organized criminals in New York City. Needless to say, she gets killed, though not before she’s hidden the diary in Lee Chan’s trunk. There’s a wide variety of gangster characters and also a couple of ingénues, aggressive reporter “Speed” Patten (Donald Wood) and paparraza Joan Wendall (Joan Marsh), who got a picture of Billie sneaking off the boat when she was supposed to be out of the country, and Patten’s editor Murdock (J. Edward Bromberg) — an ironic character name indeed for a newspaper editor in a movie now owned by media über-tycoon Rupert Murdoch!
In the end it turns out that “Speed” is the murderer — he wanted to kill Billie before her diary exposed his practice of shaking down the rich and famous — an ending which certainly gives the lie to William K. Everson’s claim that there was never any particular mystery about whodunit in these films. I probably would have liked Charlie Chan on Broadway better if I’d been more awake and alert (as it was it kept me up until midnight), but as it was it seemed appealing even though a bit routine. Incidentally, the print we were watching was prefaced with a warning that it had been pieced together from the best available sources, and both Charles and I groaned in grim anticipation of what that usually means. Surprise: aside from a couple of scenes that showed just the beginning of nitrate dissolution, the film as a whole was crisp and clear, an impeccable transfer of a 1937 original in remarkably good shape. — 8/29/07
The film we picked was the last one in the Charlie Chan boxed set, volume 3 (and, interestingly, this and its two predecessors contain all 12 of the Chans with Warner Oland known to exist): Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, a 1937 production (released 1938) and not only Warner Oland’s last Charlie Chan film but his last film, period. (He began production on another Chan, Charlie Chan at the Ringside, in January 1938 but had a dispute with Twentieth Century-Fox, quit the film, went to his native Sweden and died there in August 1938 as he was scheduled to return to Hollywood. Charlie Chan at the Ringside was later rewritten as a Mr. Moto vehicle, Mr. Moto’s Gamble, and after Oland’s death Fox revived the series a year later with Charlie Chan in Honolulu, casting Sidney Toler in the role after having tested Leo Carrillo — who would have been terrible — and Cy Kendall, who’d already played Chan on a radio series and would have been great.
Incidentally, Oland and Toler both appear in Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich: Oland as an Austrian in Dishonored and a Chinese in Shanghai Express and Toler as a detective in Blonde Venus — and Shanghai Express also features the wife of a third Chan, Sojin.) William K. Everson, who didn’t think much of the Oland Chans in general, called Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo “by far the weakest of his group, possibly due to his own ill health, but largely because of the excessive footage given to the overacted French [sic] policeman of Harold Huber, and perhaps too because the old team was getting a little bored,” but I found the film quite engaging and enjoyable even though the comic relief — not only Huber’s foofiness as Joubert, chief of the Monaco police, but Keye Luke’s stumbles with the French language and Louis Mercier’s comic taxi driver whose cab is given to minor explosions that stall it completely — seems at times to overwhelm the mystery plot.
Also, precious little is made of the potential of Monte Carlo as a location — the casino looks like they simply used one of Fox’s standing sets of a high-class restaurant and moved in one table each for roulette and baccarat (one wishes they could have done what RKO did for the ending of Stingaree and rented from Universal the spectacular set of the Monte Carlo casino Erich von Stroheim had had built for Foolish Wives) and the intrigue doesn’t have anything to do with gambling, as Charles had (not surprisingly) expected. It opens at the baccarat table, surely enough, but it’s really about finance as two of Europe’s greatest stock speculators, Paul Savarin (Edward Raquello) and Victor Karnoff (Sidney Blackmer), are equally vicious rivals at the card table and in the market.
The plot hinges on Karnoff’s plan to dump his $1 million worth of “metallurgical bonds” on the market and therefore drive the price down so Savarin’s holdings of the same investment become virtually worthless, and the murder — which Chan and his Number One Son Lee stumble on while walking through the Monegasque countryside after their cab has broken down (again) — is of Karnoff’s bank messenger, who was transporting the bonds to the stock market in Paris for sale. Naturally, the bonds themselves are stolen — though Karnoff files an insurance claim and receives their value almost immediately — and they’re recovered in the hotel room of bartender Al Rogers (George Lynn), who’s been blackmailing Karnoff’s wife Joan (Kay Linaker) because they were actually married earlier; she assumed he had divorced her and therefore married Karnoff, but then he turned up, alive and still legally her husband, in Monaco and forced her to steal $25,000 in the metallurgical bonds for him as his pay-off.
Also among the red herrings is Evelyn Grey (Virginia Field), a gold-digger who has been dating Karnoff’s secretary, Gordon Chase (Robert Kent), but also seeing Savarin on the side. From the opening reel it was all too easy to peg Gordon as the murderer -— if only because he had his hair combed so differently from any of the other male characters and he presented an overbearing manner that made him seem capable of violence — though it’s not until the very end that the writing committee, Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (story) and Charles Belden and Jerry Cady (script), bother to explain his motive: at an earlier time he’d stolen $200,000 worth of the metallurgical bonds himself and sold them to lavish the money on Evelyn, only to have her desert him for the genuinely rich Savarin, so he stole the bonds and killed the bank messenger intending to replace the $200,000 worth he’d previously stolen from the issues Karnoff had marked for sale — only Karnoff still had the record of the issue numbers (which Gordon had tried to destroy by burning a trash can full of papers, which he thought contained that record but did not) and therefore the plot unraveled.
Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo isn’t especially mysterious, but much of the “comic relief” is genuinely funny (for a change), Joubert turns out to have a brain behind all the foofiness, and the final scene is a quite moving leave-taking in which Joubert says his good-byes to Chan … which, given that this was in fact Warner Oland’s last film, comes off as a heart-rending tribute to the actor as well as his character, a rare moment of frame-crossing beauty in a series that for the most part was enjoyable formula entertainment but little more. — 9/8/07
Afterwards I told Charles I wanted to run us another movie just as a palate cleanser, and so I broke open the fourth Charlie Chan boxed set from 20th Century-Fox and brought out Charlie Chan in Honolulu, released January 13, 1939 and the first film in the Chan series in which Sidney Toler replaced the late Warner Oland as Chan. H. Bruce Humberstone returned as director, which helped (the much weaker Eugene Forde had done the last two Oland Chans, Charlie Chan on Broadway and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo) and screenwriter Charles Belden ramped up the camp aspects of the series, replacing the usual dumb Black servant with dumb white servant Al Hogan (Eddie Collins), who’s in charge of a large shipment of animals bound for the San Francisco Zoo on the freighter Susan B. Jennings — including a lion named Oscar whom he not only lets runs loose but actually sleeps with.
Also ramping up the camp level are the long scenes in which Chan’s Number Two Son, Lee Chan (Sen Yung — in his other films he was usually billed as Victor Sen Yung but Fox generally left his Anglo first name off the credits of the Chans) impersonates Charlie Chan when he takes the call from police inspector Rawlins (Paul Harvey) to investigate a murder aboard the Susan B. Jennings of a man whose identification tags were systematically stripped from him after he was killed. Also on board the ship are Dr. Cardigan — a mad scientist who’s kept alive a severed human brain and is played by George Zucco as a parody of the roles he was usually associated with — as well as a pair of ingénues, Judy Hayes (Phyllis Brooks) and ship’s officer George Randolph (John King) and an unscrupulous widow, Carol Wayne (a dark-haired Claire Dodd), as well as a pair of crooks fleeing Chinese justice, one of whom (Richard Lane) is masquerading as the cop who’s arrested the other (Marc Lawrence).
The gimmick is that Judy was supposed to be carrying $300,000 in cash to be paid to a mysterious contact who’d be giving her a wedding ring as a signal, and the contact she was supposed to give the money to was the man who was later murdered — and turns out to be the still-alive husband of Carol Wayne, whose real name is Elsie Hillman and who is murdered before she can tell the secret. The secret is that the ship’s captain (Robert Barrat — we should have known!) was really the killer; he decided to steal the $300,000 by killing its rightful owner and then put back $10,000 of it in Judy’s room to frame her for the crime.
As usual in a Humberstone Chan, the villain is unmasked with a technological gimmick — Chan rigs up a camera to take a flash photo in the dark of the criminal reaching for a gun which supposedly contains fingerprints which will incriminate him or her (though the fingerprints were actually too smudged to be of use — which given the way we’ve seen Hogan handle the gun in an earlier scene is not at all hard to believe!) — and Cardigan emerges on the side of good when he helps Chan develop the incriminating photo. Charlie Chan in Honolulu was well received when it was new — audiences quickly found they could accept the new actors and not pine for the absences of the dead Warner Oland and the departed Keye Luke — and though at times it’s too funny for its own good, it’s a nice bit of casual entertainment and Toler, though not in Oland’s league at playing an alien from a different culture with a very different idea of time, is still a good Chan and well worth watching in the role. — 3/26/08
I ran him the second 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movie with Sidney Toler, Charlie Chan in Reno, which had its moments but was hardly the film it could have been with a basically interesting (though way too convoluted) story and a good cast. Interestingly, three of the supporting cast members themselves played famous movie crimefighters: Ricardo Cortez was Sam Spadein the 1931 Maltese Falcon, Morgan Conway was Dick Tracy in the first two of RKO’s four mid-1940’s “B”’s (Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball) and Robert Lowery was Batman in the second (and far inferior) of the two Columbia serials, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, in 1948.
The story draws Chan to America’s divorce capital, not because he’s jettisoning his own spouse (after she gave him 12 kids, I would hope not!) but to try to save Mary Whitman (Pauline Moore), wife of his friend and Honolulu resident Curtis Whitman (Republic serial veteran Kane Richmond — who, come to think of it, played the Spider and therefore adds yet another famous crimefighter to the résumés of this cast!), from the charge of murdering obnoxious drunk divorcée Jeanne Bently (Louise Henry) after Jeanne served notice on Mary that she planned to marry Curtis as soon as Mary’s divorce went through.
The story had its basis in a tale called “Death Makes a Decree” by a semi-major writer, Philip Wylie, but it rather plods along and the scenarists, Albert Ray, Frances Hyland and the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent (who got so many credits over the years I had no trouble believing the anecdote about him by cinematographer Richard Kline in the winter 2007/2008 issue of Films of the Golden Age: “As fast as he could type, that’s how fast the script came out. I’d walk by his little office, the door would be open, and he’d say, ‘Oh, hi, Richard!’ and we’d talk about [say] a ballgame from the night before, and he’d still keep typing while we were talking about the ballgame!”), throw us way too many characters and red herrings — including a man at the “Hotel Sierra” where most of the action (such as it is) takes place, who may or may not have killed Jeanne in the process of robbing her of her winnings at the hotel’s casino) — and cut to a plodding, ridiculous scene set inside a ghost town which gives director Norman Foster a chance at some night atmospherics but otherwise offers little and pretty much stops the plot dead in its tracks (its only point is to establish that one of the characters is a mining engineer and therefore has access to nitric acid, which one of the characters wanted to use to ruin another’s face and the other — Miss Vivian Wells, the hotel’s terminally chirpy social director, played well by Phyllis Brooks in an otherwise pretty anonymous cast — killed her to keep this from happening).
Charlie Chan in Reno spared us (for the most part) the camp that weakened the first Toler Chan, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, though it still offered an especially embarrassing introduction for Victor Sen Yung as Chan’s Number Two Son: he’s portrayed as a student at USC and, when he hears his father is coming to Reno, borrows a car from a classmate and drives it there — only to be robbed by two hitchhikers he made the mistake of picking up, who steal not only his money but his (borrowed) car and even his clothes, so he’s picked up by the police wearing nothing but his undies and Chan, sitting in on the lineups of the Reno police, suddenly recognizes his son and mumbles a Chanorism about how he is “embarrassed to admit same” when his son asks Chan to confirm his identity and their relationship. (Then a drunk in the same lineup who doesn’t look at all Chinese adopts a mincing pidgin voice and even pushes up his eyelids manually in an attempt to convince the dumb police that he’s Chan’s number three son.)
Charlie Chan in Reno has its moments — Toler, though not as good in the role as Warner Oland, is still good; Cortez has a wonderfully oily role as the hotel’s in-house doctor (who regards romancing the divorcèes-to-be as a perk of his job); Phyllis Brooks manages to do a credible scene at the end when she finally confesses; but the rest of the cast is pretty mediocre and the writers don’t even nail down completely whether the estranged Whitmans get back together at the fadeout or not. Fortunately, better was on the way: Fox’s next Chan film, Charlie Chan on Treasure Island, was by far the best of the Toler series, with Cesar Romero a powerful and charismatic villain. — 4/21/08
I ran us the film Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, the next in sequence in volume four of 20th Century-Fox’s DVD reissues of the Chan movies and, to my mind, the best of the Sidney Toler Chans even though the first time I saw it I guessed the identity of the villain midway through. Directed by Norman Foster from an “original” story and script by John Larkin, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island was set against the backdrop of the 1939-40 World’s Fair in San Francisco, actually held on an artificial island built in San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Oakland and accessible only via the recently completed San Francisco Bay Bridge. (During World War II the island was appropriated by the U.S. Navy for a base, and they’ve been on it ever since, so it’s been inaccessible to the general public.)
The characters begin the movie by flying in from Honolulu on the China Clipper — in a nice ironic touch, Charlie Chan is reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island during the flight — with Chan’s Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) alternately getting airsick and having dire thoughts of the plane crashing and taking them all down with it, and Larkin’s script effectively introducing us to the other principals on board the plane: Thomas Gregory (Douglass Dumbrille — billed here without the final “s” on his first name), an insurance actuary and quite obvious red herring; and Paul Essex (Louis Jean Heydt, whose blond good looks and interesting personality should have given him a bigger career than he had), a friend of Chan’s and a mystery novelist who’s just completed his latest book, an exposé of phony spiritualists in the guise of suspense fiction.
Essex receives a radiogram aboard the plane threatening him if he denounces San Francisco’s reigning fake psychic, “Dr. Zodiac” — and sure enough, he dies on board the plane and Chan has the task of breaking the news to his widow Stella (Sally Blane, real-life sister of Loretta Young) when they land. Gregory steals the attaché case in which Essex was carrying the manuscript of his novel (which he was actually shown finishing on a portable typewriter on the plane), Chan is the victim of a mock “kidnapping” by two of his old friends in the San Francisco Police Department, and the other dramatis personae include reporter Pete Lewis (Douglas Fowley, in what was probably the most sympathetic part he got until he played the male lead in Lady in the Death House), who’s also trying to expose Dr. Zodiac; and Rhadini the Great (Cesar Romero), a stage magician who performs at the Temple of Magic at the World’s Fair and, like his real-life namesake Houdini (obviously John Larkin’s inspiration for this character), has offered a large reward to any spiritualist who performs a feat Rhadini can’t duplicate with the skills and equipment of a stage magician.
Chan, Lewis and Rhadini (in disguise) visit Dr. Zodiac’s séance room — investigating the mysterious deaths of four of Zodiac’s clients, which Chan suspects are due to Zodiac’s having blackmailed them with revelations they gave him during their readings — and Chan eventually discovers that Zodiac’s costume is padded inside to make him look like a larger man than he really is. Meanwhile, though Rhadini is in the business of exposing fake mystics, his act includes his girlfriend Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), a real mind-reader, and it all comes to a climax at the Temple of Magic, where Chan — having in the meantime raided Zodiac’s home and burned the files of information with which he was blackmailing people (apparently his reading has encompassed not only Stevenson but Dashiell Hammett’s “The Scorched Face,” which has a similar denouement) — stages a confrontation between Rhadini and Zodiac. The person in the Zodiac costume is killed and turns out to be Zodiac’s servant Abdul , and though Rhadini is supposedly wounded in the confrontation it turns out that he is Zodiac and had used Abdul to wear the Zodiac costume and thus make it seem as if they were two different people, then faked the wound with a knife concealed in his magic wand.
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is way ahead of its two predecessors in the Toler Chan series for several reasons. First is Cesar Romero’s marvelous portrayal of the villain, even though he’s so smarmy and self-righteous throughout the whole movie that even when he’s being portrayed as a sympathetic character you still get the impression that he’s up to no good. It also helps that the director is Norman Foster (a cut above the hacks like Eugene Forde and Louis King that directed most of the Warner Oland Chans) and that most of the action takes place at night. There’s comic relief but at least it’s controlled — it doesn’t seem to take over the whole movie and turn it into a camp-fest the way it did in the scripts for Charlie Chan in Honolulu and Charlie Chan in Reno — and for once even Victor Sen Yung (a perfectly competent actor but hardly at Keye Luke’s level) is genuinely funny, especially when he assumes a preposterous disguise in a doomed effort to fool his dad as to his true identity.
My recollection of the rest of the Toler Chans is that they were quite entertaining even though they slipped into formula pretty quickly (especially Sen Yung’s antics) and they were probably better movies than the Oland Chans — certainly directors like Foster and H. Bruce Humberstone (who I believe was the only person who directed both Oland and Toler as Chan) made the films faster-moving and got the draggy exposition parts out of the way relatively quickly — though Oland remains the best Chan precisely because he was the most successful at creating the impression that he was a different sort of person from a very different culture with a different sense of time, and the clashes between him and Luke (between the immigrant and the U.S.-born and assimilated generation which followed) seem more effective than those between Toler (who simply doesn’t look or act as convincingly Asian as Oland had!) and Sen Yung.
The Chans have been raked over the coals for their stereotypical depictions of Asians and the refusal of Fox (and, later, Monogram) to cast an Asian actor in the role (though the two Chan films made in the silent era, The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot, did use Asian stars — Japanese actors George Kuwa and Kamiyama Sojin, respectively), but frankly they hold up quite well and it’s hard to accuse them of racism since in every film it’s the Asian detective who’s the smart one and the white cops who reach to the most obvious, but incorrect, conclusions about the cases. — 4/27/08
The night before Charles and I had watched Charlie Chan in City in Darkness — that being what it said on the DVD box, a rather awkward title and not necessarily the best transcription of what the opening card actually said (“Charlie Chan in City in Darkness, with Sidney Toler”); the American Film Institute Catalog listed it simply as City in Darkness. It’s the last movie in the fourth volume of Charlie Chan DVD’s from 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment (and the first one with Toler rather than Warner Oland as Chan) and it’s a potentially interesting movie that could have been a lot better than it was.
Though not released until November 1939 — after World War II had started, which makes the supposedly prescient last line (the French police officials are high-fiving each other at how the agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich has averted war and Chan says, “A wise man once said, ‘Beware of spider who invites fly into his place for tea’”) not quite as prescient as it sounded; most likely it was added to an otherwise finished film after the war began, like the endings of The Four Just Men and Foreign Correspondent — the movie is actually pretty dramatic when it opens with newsreel footage of Hitler, Chamberlain, French president Edouard Daladier and others, along with scenes of the Sudetenland and the German tanks rolling in to occupy it. (After reading Leonard Mosley’s history of this period, On Borrowed Time, it was especially thrilling to see this footage, even in the ahistorical context of opening a Charlie Chan movie.)
The scene then shifts to a French hotel room, where villainess Charlotte Ronnell (Dorothy Tree) is arranging a delivery of French munitions to a German captain (Frederick Vogeding) — his national identity isn’t specified in the script but that accent is unmistakable — only they don’t have the official papers needed to allow their ship to sail, and the corrupt broker who’s promised to get them, Belescu (Noel Madison, at last getting to act in a major-studio film instead of independent crap like Cocaine Fiends and The Black Raven), has double-crossed them and given them blank pieces of paper instead. Among the plotters is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work named B. Petroff (Douglass Dumbrille at his scheming-meanest), who’s falsely reported his former secretary, Tony Madero (Richard Clarke), as an embezzler to keep Tony from exposing his nefarious activities as a smuggler.
Chan gets into the case when, on a visit to Paris (the titular “city in darkness” — the film takes place before and during an air-raid drill in which the city’s residents are told to practice blacking out to protect against air raids — like a lot of movies around this time, this film depicts Britain and France as far better prepared for war than they actually were!) to see his friend, prefect of police J. Romaine (C. Henry Gordon, playing a good guy for once!), Petroff gets murdered and Madero and his girlfriend Marie Dubon (Lynn Bari, second-billed and offering her usual exotic non-performance) are the prime suspects. Also supposedly “assisting” the investigation but actually getting in its way is the “comic-relief” character of Marcel Spivak (Harold Huber, considerably more oppressive and less amusing than he was in Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo), prefect Romaine’s adopted son — one can readily imagine the writers thinking, “Instead of Chan, let’s have the other cop has the stupid son who screws things up!”
There’s an exciting action climax in which Charlotte and the captain escape in a plane, only it gets a flat tire before it can become airborne and ultimately crashes and burns, killing both the plotters — only it turns out that the real killer is Antoine (Pedro de Cordoba), Petroff’s butler (so this is one whodunit in which the butler did do it!), who’d lost a leg in combat in World War I and had just seen his son off in a troop train when he realized that his employer was working for the other side, and killed him to derail the smuggling operation and thereby protect France from having her own arms used against her. Scenarists Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (Chan series regulars) drew this story from an unproduced play by Ladislas Fodor (a name we’ve seen before on Tampico and other stories of wartime intrigue) and Gina Kaus, and I suspect the original play did not include Charlie Chan as a character and Ellis and Logan had the rather awkward task of writing him in. The director was Herbert I. Leeds, a hack who’s on most critics’ love-to-hate lists, but though he isn’t especially exciting he and cinematographer Virgil Miller manage a quite nice atmosphere — and the plot devices almost at times make this film seem a forerunner of Casablanca.
Turner Classic Movies is in the middle of a series on Asians in films, and the Asians they’re interviewing (modern-day actors and writers like Amy Tan) make a big to-do about how Chan was always played by non-Asian actors (true, if you don’t count the now-lost silent Chans The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot, both of which cast Japanese actors as Chan — George Kuwa and Kamiyama Sojin, respectively) and they had to have their eyes taped to look Asian (not true — both Warner Oland and Sidney Toler had naturally slanted eyes, not to the degree of actual Asians but enough that between their natural slants and relocating their eyebrows, they could look convincingly Asian without tape) — and while there certainly were authentic Asians around Hollywood in the 1930’s who could have played the part (judging from his detective role in the 1929 talkie The Unholy Night, Sojin would have made a quite good sound-film Chan; and Philip Ahn would also have been eminently qualified for the part), Oland in his way was a marvelous Chan and Toler was serviceable, though far less charismatic as a performer: scenes in this film in which Oland would have shined seem dull and flat with Toler in the role. Still, this is a nicely atmospheric film and a good ending to the 18-film Chan survey on Fox (though presumably the seven remaining Tolers will be issued on DVD boxed sets of their own to fill out the series). — 6/4/08
And just in case you’re not totally sick of reading about Charlie Chan at the moment, here’s an old comment of mine about a later Chan film, Charlie Chan in Rio (the 1941 remake of The Black Camel):
I ran Charles the last film on the Murder on a Honeymoon/Trouble in Paradise tape: Charlie Chan in Rio, a 1941 series entry from 20th Century-Fox (a year before they abandoned the series and sold the rights to star Sidney Toler, who in turn sold them to Monogram Pictures two years later) that, though the official credits stated was written by Samuel G. Engel and Lester Ziffren and merely “based on the character ‘Charlie Chan’ created by Earl Derr Biggers,” was actually a fairly exact remake of the second Fox Chan film, The Black Camel, which in turn was based on one of Biggers’ actual Chan novels. (Actually The Black Camel was the third Fox film to use the character of Charlie Chan, but the first — Behind the Curtain (1929), though based on a Biggers Chan novel, only used him in a very minor bit at the end.)
The locale was changed (the original took place in Chan’s stomping grounds of Honolulu), Biggers’ elaborate shipboard prologue was jettisoned (as it had been in the script for the 1931 film, credited to Hugh Stange, Barry Conners and Philip Klein and with some uncredited continuity contributions by Dudley Nichols, of all people), the first murder victim was demoted from movie star Shelah Fane to nightclub entertainer Lola Dean (Jacqueline Dalya) and the phony mystic, called “Tarneverro” in Biggers’ novel (and played superbly by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film), was rechristened “Marana” and played by Victor Jory (which made the payoff that he was really the brother-in-law of the murder victim in the backstory more believable even though Jory was hardly the charismatic screen presence Lugosi was!). Indeed, all the character names except Chan’s were changed.
Though Charlie Chan in Rio was definitely a “B” movie (only 62 minutes long, 10 minutes shorter than the 1931 Black Camel), it still had the production polish of a major-studio film. Director Harry Lachman — a quirky and underrated filmmaker almost totally forgotten today even though he established Rudolf Maté’s career in Hollywood by using him on the visually spectacular Dante’s Inferno — and cinematographer Joseph P. MacDonald gave the film an atmospheric look rivaling that of Hamilton MacFadden’s direction in the original (ironically MacFadden was involved in this version as well — as an actor, playing the nerdy character of Bill Kellogg, boyfriend of one of the key suspects), though this film had a conventional background music score that was far less evocative than the marvelous use of Hawai’ian source music MacFadden had concocted for the original (at a time when most filmmakers believed background music in general was an outdated holdover from silent films that would fall into disuse in the sound era).
In this version Marana concocted a mixture of caffeine and a special herb he used to spike cigarettes, so when he gave his clients coffee and one of his special smokes they went into what the script described as a “semi-comatose state” and spilled their deepest, darkest secrets at his command — and the ultimate revelation of the murderer (Marana’s sister Barbara, using the name “Helen Ashby” [Kay Linaker], who was out for revenge against Lola Dean for having killed her husband when he refused to divorce Barbara and marry Lola) was dependent on Marana, her confederate, doing a reading of her in front of everybody but giving her a normal cigarette instead of one of his spiked ones, and having her fake a trance in which she denied all knowledge of the murder. (Charles said he’d seen this film as a kid and somehow that plot twist had stuck in his consciousness for 30 years!)
The fact that the Chan series had held up for over a decade and could still produce a film this good (not great, mind you — with the possible exceptions of The Black Camel and Charlie Chan at the Opera, it would be hard to describe any of the Chan films as “great” — and those two only stand out because of the presence of major horror stars, Lugosi and Karloff respectively, as well as MacFadden’s atmospheric direction and highly creative scoring of the former) was pretty remarkable. — 2/16/03