Monday, September 6, 2010

Charlie Chan in Panama (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

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

I ran the second film in volume 5 of the Charlie Chan films for 20th Century-Fox, Charlie Chan in Panama, which turned out to be a much better movie than Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise. We ran the original trailer, included on the DVD as a “special feature,” before we saw the film itself, and just the elements in the trailer — including Chan in disguise as a Panama hat salesman and store owner, references to a terrorist plot to blow up the U.S. fleet in the Panama Canal and the search for a mysterious terrorist named “Ryner,” hiding incognito in the middle of a bunch of tourists — gave the film away as a remake of the 1934 pre-20th Century Fox film Marie Galante. (When Charles reads this he’ll say, “1934 was in the 20th century, silly goose.”) The original starred Spencer Tracy as an American businessman named “Crawbett” who was really a government agent out to stop a plot to blow up the fleet in the canal and catch the mysterious “Ryner,” and French actress Ketti Gallian as an immigrant girl of an almost unbelievable naïveté who innocently gets mixed up in the plot, with Helen Morgan farther down in the cast as a torch singer in a seedy nightclub in Panama City.

The Chan version of this story, credited as an “original” by John Larkin and Lester Ziffren, has Chan replace the Japanese agent Saki Tenoki as the incognito Asian shop owner “Fu Yuen” and combines the Gallian and Morgan characters from the original into Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers, coming off considerably better than she did in her thankless role as Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon serials), t/n Baroness Kathi von Czardas, a Czech refugee hiding out as an entertainer at the seedy cabaret of Manolo (Jack LaRue) to keep away people from her now-occupied home country that want to kill her. Another Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars cast member, Kane Richmond (who played both heroes and villains in various serials, usually heroes for Columbia and villains for Republic), appears as Richard Cabot, an engineer who arrives in Panama to work on the canal.

The dramatis personae also include another delightful red-herring performance from Lionel Atwill as British mystery novelist Cliveden Compton; Dr. Rudolph Grosser (Lionel Royce), whom Chan’s Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) suspects of being Ryner because he’s German and is doing research involving rats infected with bubonic plague germs; government agent R. J. Godley (Addison Richards, essentially playing the Spencer Tracy role from Marie Galante) who’s killed just as he’s about to unmask Ryner; Achmed Halide (Frank Puglia), a suspicious Egyptian tobacconist whom Chan briefly suspects when Godley is murdered by smoking a cigarette spiked with poison; and schoolteacher Miss Jennie Finch (Mary Nash), who in a more surprising denouement than the Chan movies usually mustered [spoiler alert!] is unmasked as Ryner at the end when Chan tricks her into a confession by locking the principal suspects in the engineering room at the Miraflores Locks just before the bomb planted there, that’s supposed to blow up the U.S. fleet in the Canal, (Chan actually discovered and disarmed the bomb earlier, but the suspects don’t know that — and neither do we.)

Directed by Norman Foster, a much better director than Eugene Forde and one who deserved a more prestigious career than he got (he had the bad luck to make a film for Orson Welles, Journey into Fear, at a time when Welles’ name was mud in Hollywood), Charlie Chan in Panama is a genuinely exciting thriller with some neat atmospherics from Foster and cinematographer Virgil Miller, and benefits from an original score by Samuel Kaylin (though he’s credited only as musical director, not composer) instead of the near-silence (except for the dialogue) in which Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise took place. (There’s also some nice “Latin” source music, including Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney” and Quirino Mendoza’s “Cielito Lindo,” heard as dance music in Manolo’s cabaret and a restaurant the characters repair to later.)

Sidney Toler’s performance as Chan still doesn’t have the almost other-worldly perfection of Warner Oland’s reading of the role, but he’s as good as could have been hoped for after Oland’s death (though I still wonder what the Chan series might have looked like if Cy Kendall, one of the other actors tested, had been picked — and as I noted about Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, it’s even more tantalizing to think how the series might have gone if they’d had the idea to put a real Chinese actor in it and cast Philip Ahn), and Sen Yung’s comic-relief role as Number Two Son is likewise a comedown from Keye Luke’s work as Number One Son in the Oland Chans, but he’s considerably less annoying in this film than usual. We also get a nice shot of him, naked from the waist up, while he’s taking a bath as he and Charlie Chan are talking over the case, though that too would have been better with Luke; Keye Luke was genuinely handsome and Sen Yung was merely cute. It also helps that the shots of the U.S. fleet actually in the Canal locks are impressive and photographically as good as the rest of the movie; obviously they were extracted from Fox’s own Movietone newsreels and not purchased on the open market for stock footage.