Saturday, September 11, 2010

Charlie Chan in Rio (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008, 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

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. 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 cinematographer Rudolf Maté’s American 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


I ran Charles the next-to-last film in the sequence of Charlie Chan movies from 20th Century-Fox, Charlie Chan in Rio, directed (as was its immediate predecessor, Dead Men Tell) by Harry Lachman, this time from a script by Samuel G. Engel and Lester Ziffren. Lachman’s direction was far less atmospheric than it had been in Dead Men Tell, alas, even though the story was considerably stronger since it was a remake of the 1931 Chan film The Black Camel, based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Chan novels instead of a studio concoction (though its origins in a Biggers novel aren’t credited and the only acknowledgment to Biggers is for creating the character of Charlie Chan). It also offers the only direct comparison available between Warner Oland and Sidney Toler as Chan in the same story, though at least part of the comparison suffers because of the overall formula the series had worked out between 1931 (when The Black Camel, the second Oland Chan and the only one of the first five to survive, was made) and 1941— particularly the comic-relief schtick involving one of Chan’s older sons. At least Victor Sen Yung is considerably less annoying here than he was in Dead Men Tell (where you really had to give Charlie Chan credit for keeping himself from killing his obnoxious kid).

As the title suggests, the story is moved from Honolulu to Rio de Janeiro — probably not only a nod to the Good Neighbor Policy and the suggestion from Franklin Roosevelt’s administration that the studios make good-neighborly pictures set in Latin America but also an excuse for 20th Century-Fox to recycle some of the elaborate sets they were building for the Carmen Miranda musicals (a playback of Miranda singing “I-I-I-I-I I Like You Very Much” even appears as a record supposedly made by cabaret performer Lola Dean, played by Jacqueline Dalya and assuming the plot function of Shelah Fane in The Black Camel as the much-hated woman whose murder early on sparks the plot) — and the character names are changed. Also, there’s a weird bit of how-the-mighty-have-fallen in that Hamilton MacFadden, who directed the 1931 Black Camel, is demoted to actor this time, playing Bill Kellogg, one of the young men who are competing with each other for Lola Dean’s dubious affections (though it’s clear on screen he’s at least a decade older than his rivals).

With only 61 minutes of running time to work with (as opposed to the 71 minutes Barry Conners and Philip Klein had on The Black Camel), Engel and Ziffren pulled one of the usual tricks of “B” mystery writers, short-changing us on motive and letting us in on whodunit while whydunit remained pretty much a muddle. Lachman had proved on Dead Men Tell that he could be a superbly atmospheric director even within the Chan formula and a “B” budget, but this time around he didn’t seem to be trying, playing much of the action in long shots and essentially phoning it in. (I couldn’t help but think that MacFadden probably recalled the days when he was directing this story and thought, “I could be doing it better than he is!”)

The opportunity for direct Oland vs. Toler comparison goes about the way you’d expect it to — pretty much the way the comparison between Bela Lugosi and Carlos Villarias in the English- and Spanish-language versions of the 1930 Universal Dracula, or between Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade in the 1931 Maltese Falcon and Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 version also go: between a perfectly competent professional actor who delivers a perfectly competent professional performance and an actor who seems born to the role, so perfectly fusing the character’s personality with his own that he seems to be playing himself. I still can’t help but wish 20th Century-Fox would have got Philip Ahn to play Chan after Oland’s death, not only because he was really Chinese (the Asian-American activists who complained about the Chan films in the 1970’s had a better case against them for not casting a genuinely Asian actor than for stereotyping — Chan may be a stereotype but at least he’s a positive stereotype, and the value clashes between Chan and his Americanized sons, who were played by Chinese actors, are well-wrought conflicts between the immigrant and the second generation not that different from the ones Oland had played, in a different ethnic context, with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer) but because he could have come a lot closer than Toler to matching Oland’s success in dramatizing Chan as the product of a very different culture with a very different attitude towards life, love, death and time.

Charlie Chan in Rio is nowhere nearly as strongly cast as its predecessor; it’s nice to see Mary Beth Hughes as Joan Reynolds (whose husband Ken, played by Richard Derr, is one of the men on Lola Dean’s string) in full bitch cry (why she didn’t get to play more femmes fatales after her incandescent performance in Anthony Mann’s 1945 Republic “B” The Great Flamarion is a mystery to me) and Cobina Wright holds her own in their confrontations, but Victor Jory as the phony psychic — here called “Marana” — is perfectly competent but a far cry from Bela Lugosi, and I couldn’t help but wish Fox had got Lugosi to remake the role; Jory merely comes off as a sinister, pompous faker while Lugosi (playing a character posing as a psychic to nail the woman he was convinced had murdered his brother) gave a far richer performance with a much greater range of emotion. (Here as in the two Chandu the Magician movies, it’s surprising but also enlightening to see Lugosi play a part with far more emotional subtlety and definition than another actor in the same role.) Like most of the later Fox Chans, Charlie Chan in Rio benefits from the major-studio infrastructure (you don’t have to worry about the sets falling down on the hapless actors any moment as you do watching a Monogram movie!) and is a perfectly reasonable mystery, but it’s hardly a match for its predecessor from a decade earlier in the Chan series. — 9/11/10