Sunday, September 5, 2010

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

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

Having just acquired the fifth and last volume in the boxed sets of the complete Charlie Chan movies on 20th Century-Fox, I decided to run the first item in the box; Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, an engaging 1940 “B” that wasn’t quite as thrilling as it could have been but still had its points. It was actually based on a real Earl Derr Biggers novel featuring the Chan character, Charlie Chan Carries On (the fifth and last in Biggers’ series of six — he wrote them between 1925 and 1933 and, unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, abandoned the Chan character only when he himself died; though he’d been a successful commercial novelist and playwright before that, including writing the original of Seven Keys to Baldpate later adapted by George M. Cohan, he didn’t seem to mind that audiences so loved the Chan novels that they quickly forgot he’d ever written anything else), which had been the very first Chan film starring Warner Oland, in 1930. (That version is lost but the simultaneously shot Spanish-language edition, Eran Trece, with Manuel Arbò as Chan, survives and was reissued in one of the previous Fox Chan boxes.)

The original story didn’t introduce Chan until about two-thirds of the way through; it deals with a tour group traveling around the world, one of whose members committed a murder just before the group sailed. A Scotland Yard inspector heard about the murder but too late to prevent the tour group from leaving the country; instead he decided to join the tour himself under a false identity and see if he could catch the killer before it returned — only when the tour stopped in Honolulu the killer got him instead and Charlie Chan, an old friend of the Scotland Yard official, “carried on” his investigation by joining the tour in his place. For Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise screenwriters Robertson White and Lester Ziffren understandably shoved most of that into backstory and had the Scotland Yard man murdered in the first reel — and killed in Chan’s office, to boot, with Chan’s Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung, who in his Chan films was billed without the Anglo first name that generally appeared on his other credits) and Number Seven Son Willie (Layne Tom, Jr.) in attendance. The killer wears a grotesque mask that gives him the appearance of a bushy-haired, bushy-bearded, bespectacled bum, and the writers repeat the gimmick of Charlie Chan in Paris that the far-out disguise allows more than one person to take part in the crimes — though that doesn’t become a major plot point until the very end of this movie, when the main killer blackmails someone else into being an accomplice and tries to frame him for the crimes.

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise was directed by Eugene Forde, a reliable Fox hack, and benefits from the casting of Lionel Atwill as Dr. Suderman, leader of the round-the-world tour group (though all he does by way of a German accent is to make his normal speech patterns just a shade more guttural). Unfortunately, most of the other characterizations are uninteresting stock figures: the retired industrialist uncle who’s the next victim after the Scotland Yard guy; his nephew and heir Dick Kenyon (future Batman Robert Lowery), who’s the principal suspect; Dick’s girlfriend Paula Drake (Marjorie Weaver), who provides him yet another motive since he wanted to marry her and his uncle didn’t approve; flibbertigibbet Susie Watson (Cora Witherspoon), who employs Paula as secretary and traveling companion; nervous-breakdown victim General Pendleton (Leonard Mudie); Davidson-like freelance moralists Mr. and Mrs. Walters (Charles Middleton — a far cry from his Emperor Ming! — and Claire Du Brey, who together look like they could have modeled for Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting); and archaeologist Professor Gordon (Leo G. Carroll — though he wasn’t yet using his middle initial), the person I (correctly) fingered as the murderer partly because he had the least reason to be there and partly because Carroll was portraying him so unctuously he obviously had to be up to no good. His motive was utterly preposterous: it turns out he was a jewel thief who had a grievance against his ex-wife Laura (Kay Linaker), who had turned him in to the police and then, while he was in prison, divorced him and married Pendleton, and with a number of people supposedly involved in fingering him traveling as part of Suderman’s tour group he decided to infiltrate them and start knocking them off, leaving little bags containing 30 dimes on each corpse (supposedly invoking the 30 pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Jesus).

The finale has Chan bringing out Laura Pendleton, blindfolded and in a wheelchair — supposedly the result of an accident — whose husband had tried to warn her not to come to San Francisco to meet him when the ship docked because they were in danger, but who had been killed on board and whose killer had phoned in a substitute radiogram saying all was well and she could meet her husband on schedule — and Chan has her identify her ex-husband by hearing his voice (in Eran Trece this scene is staged, much more excitingly, in a darkened room), whereupon Gordon reveals himself as the killer, Chan — who knew Gordon was the murderer but was afraid he might weasel out for lack of evidence — extracts the confession and then Laura Pendleton is revealed to be un-disabled and with her sight intact. For some reason 20th Century-Fox prefaced this disc with a disclaimer that it had been released from the best sources available — it was actually a magnificent transfer, preserving Virgil Miller’s contrasty if not especially creative cinematography — and the film was reliable entertainment from a time when the Fox Chans had settled into being nothing more than that. One oddity is the virtual absence of a musical score — except for one scene featuring source music from the ship’s band as an ironic accompaniment to one of the murders — something we’d expect far more in a film from 1930 than one from 1940. Sidney Toler makes a good Charlie Chan, though he lacked Warner Oland’s almost supernatural identification with the character and Oland’s ability to make Chan seem like an almost alien being, a creature from another culture with very different attitudes toward time and patience.

I’ve never quite understood the animus Asian-American activists from the 1960’s onward have felt towards the Chan movies — yes, Chan is a stereotype, but he seems a largely complimentary one to me — though they did have a point in their complaint that (at least after the first two now-lost Chan silents, The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot, in which he was played by Japanese actors George Kuwa and Kamiyama Sojin, respectively) Chan was always played by a “yellowface” white actor instead of a real Asian; certainly it’s tempting to imagine the Chan series with Philip Ahn in the lead (taller and thinner than the stocky white guys like Oland and Toler but still well within the right “type”), and it’s a pity the “suits” at Fox didn’t at least consider a genuine Chinese actor like Ahn when they had to recast the part after Oland’s illness and death, but on its own merits Toler’s characterization is perfectly serviceable and the Chan films remain quite good “B” entertainment even though they’re more films of mystery and detection than suspense and thrills (the truly great movie mysteries are the ones that managed to do both).