Monday, September 20, 2010

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I watched the final films we hadn’t seen before from the volume five boxed set of the Charlie Chan series at 20th Century-Fox. The night before last we ran Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, the one David Zinman chose as representative of the series in his book on classic-era movie series, Saturday Afternoon at the Bijou. Made four films before the end of the Fox Chan series (Murder Over New York, Charlie Chan in Rio and Castle in the Desert followed it), Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum was directed by Lynn Shores (which sounds like the name of a beach, not a person!) from a script by John Larkin, and is indicative of the feeling of the “suits” at Fox that the old Chan formula was losing its audience appeal and needed to be invigorated.

In this case, they decided to add quite effective horror and Gothic elements — virtually the whole film takes place inside the titular wax museum on the proverbial dark and stormy night, and the crooks rewire the museum’s telephone lines to establish that the good guys are isolated there and have no way to reach the outside world. The film opens at the trial of Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence), a convicted murder and associate of the notorious gangster Butcher Dagan, who’s presumed to have died a decade earlier, who has just been convicted of murder on the basis of Charlie Chan’s evidence: Chan (Sidney Toler) is in the courtroom as the judge pronounces a death sentence, and is still sitting there calmly when he hears a commotion in the hall: it seems McBirney grabbed the gun of one of the deputies and escaped. The cops trace him to the wax museum owned by Dr. Cream (C. Henry Gordon), who’s actually a disgraced former plastic surgeon who’s operating the wax museum as a front: his real business is doing illegal plastic surgeries on crooks to disguise their appearance. McBirney shows up and demands Dr. Cream’s services — he gets them, but spends most of the movie with his face completely bandaged, like the Invisible Man — and Chan and his number two son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) go to the wax museum — which, as a promotion, plays host to a live radio drama once a week which tells the story of a crime depicted in one of the museum’s exhibits.

This week the show is about the case of Joe Rocke, convicted and executed of a murder which Chan has since become convinced he didn’t commit; and his widow (Hilda Vaughn) crashes the show and disguises herself as one of the wax exhibits to spy on the show and see if it’s going to do justice to her husband or be biased to reinforce the original verdict that he was guilty. Also on the scene are Lily Latimer (Joan Valerie), Dr. Cream’s assistant — at one point Jimmy Chan overhears her telling Cream, “I hope we’re not going to get double-crossed,” but Larkin drops this plot point and nothing is heard of it again — and criminologist Dr. Otto Von Brom (Michael Visaroff), who switches chairs with Chan and is killed by a poisoned dart from a blow gun. Also there are the staff members of the radio program, producer Tom Agnew (Ted Osborn) and reporter Mary Bolton (Marguerite Chapman) — she pleads with him to keep the broadcast on the air once Von Brom is murdered in the middle of it, but he calls the station to say he’s signing off and get them to put on a music program instead — and the various characters picturesquely skulk around the wax museum for a few reels until McBirney is also found dead. Chan has deduced that Butcher Dagan never actually died; instead he got a new face from Dr. Cream and he’s involved in the new murders, working incognito as one of the people at the wax museum and killing Von Brom when he discovered Dagan’s new identity. Eventually Chan tricks a confession out of Agnew, the radio producer, whom he began to suspect when he cut off the broadcast so abruptly (“Small nose for news in radio man brings aroma of suspicion,” Chan says).

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a finely honed little suspenser with effective elements of horror — and it’s helped by the fact that at the time wax musea weren’t as hackneyed a setting for horror films than they were later: in fact, before this film the only important horror films set in a wax museum were Paul Leni’s 1924 German film Waxworks and the 1933 Warners production Mystery of the Wax Museum (its even more successful — but less good — 1953 remake House of Wax really established the wax museum as one of the clichéd horror settings, as well as “typing” Vincent Price as a horror actor instead of the lounge-lizard type he’d usually played earlier) — proof that given proper handling, there was life in the old Chan series yet, though the humor that had played so important a part in the success of the earlier films (“Chan became an enduring movie hero because he brought a gentle spoofing quality to a favorite genre,” Zinman wrote) had now just started to get in the way; all too often one wonders why Chan doesn’t just strangle that scapegrace son of his and send him to his ancestors early!