Monday, September 27, 2010

The Chinese Ring (Monogram, 1947)

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

The night before Charles and I had watched the last Charlie Chan movie in the recent four-disc TCM DVD set of the later Monogram Chans — three of the last ones with Sidney Toler, including Dark Alibi (a quite good “B” thriller with a strong plot — centered around a deserted theatrical warehouse and Chan’s efforts to find an unjustly convicted man innocent just days before he’s scheduled to be executed — it was certainly the last good Chan in the sequence with Toler, who was diagnosed with cancer around this time and was already fatally ill when he made the next two in the box, Dangerous Money and The Trap) and this one, The Chinese Ring from 1947 and the first of the six final Monogram Chans made with actor Roland Winters.

Like Toler, Winters was American-born, and since he didn’t have the slightly slanted eyes that had made it easier for Toler and Warner Oland to appear Asian, he ultimately had to squint on camera during every take. “They tried makeup on my eyes, but it wouldn’t work,” Winters later recalled. “They fiddled around with wax for the eyes, putty and stuff. But it didn’t work either. So I did it myself. I just squinted. Before every shot, the director would say, ‘Remember the eyes!’” In order to save money, Monogram recycled at least two of the plots for their last six Chans from the Oriental-detective series they’d done from 1938 to 1940 with Boris Karloff playing James Lee Wong — movies that got made because Monogram wanted to cash in on the popularity of the Warner Oland Chans at Fox and Karloff signed for because horror films had faded in popularity and it was a convenient way to keep working. The Chinese Ring was based on a film that has always been my favorite of the Wongs — the third one in the sequence, Mr. Wong in Chinatown — and the same screenwriter, W. Scott Darling, was credited, though I don’t know whether Darling did any actual work on The Chinese Ring or they simply copied his script so exactly (except for changing the character names) no other writer qualified for credit.

After the low energy of the last two Toler Chans, it was a pleasure to see Roland Winters acting the role with some of the power and authority Toler had had in his better, healthier days, and even getting a few Chan aphorisms into his dialogue (some of them, as Charles pointed out, coming directly from Earl Derr Biggers’ original Chan novels). The opening reel is quite well done: a mysterious young woman comes to Chan’s home at night and doesn’t see him, but does see his Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung — his last name misspelled “Young” as it was in all his Chan films for Monogram), and his manservant Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, who’d been one of the highlights in previous Monogram Chans but who seems wasted in this one, mainly because he didn’t get the custom-tailored comic material that showed him off at his best). She won’t tell either of them what she wants, and soon enough she’s killed with a dart from a poisoned blowgun by a man lurking outside in front of an open window. (This happened in so many of the Chan films one would think Charlie Chan would finally learn his lesson and realize that the only way to preserve the lives of his houseguests was to keep his windows closed.) The only clues to her identity are a Chinese ring she left behind — which Charlie Chan immediately recognizes — and a scrawl reading, “Cap’t. K — ” she left on a pad on his desk.

It turns out that she was the victim of a scam by two con artists, both of them with names beginning with K — Captain Kong, who commanded the ship that brought her from China; and Kelso, owner of a phony airplane factory; she had come with a small fortune to buy planes for her faction in the Chinese civil war (a plot line that was a bit more dated in 1947 than it had been in 1939) and they were trying to scam her out of it, only her real killer was her banker, Armstrong (Byron Foulger), who had ripped off her money even before the phony airplane company could do so and killed her when she was about to discover what he’d done. The Chinese Ring could have been a movie on the level of its predecessor except that Monogram assigned it to an even duller director than the one who made the original, William Nigh — William Beaudine, who made one of the worst Bela Lugosi Monograms (The Ape Man) and whose only truly great film was the 1934 comedy The Old-Fashioned Way, starring (and written by) W. C. Fields. But then again, Fields was one of those people with whom anybody could direct a great movie: all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus, and the mikes were open wide enough to capture his dialogue. Beaudine’s handling of The Chinese Ring works beautifully in the genuinely suspenseful and atmospheric opening sequence, but for the remaining six reels he’s so dull he makes Nigh look like Alfred Hitchcock by comparison — and The Chinese Ring emerges as the sort of mediocre movie that just misses cut-above-the-normal-“B” status.