by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I cracked open the TCM Home Video boxed set of four of the Monogram Charlie Chan movies, one of which — the marvelous Dark Alibi, directed by Phil Karlson (this and his other entry in the series, The Shanghai Cobra, are by a pretty wide margin the best of the Monogram Chans — Dark Alibi has a genuinely thrilling story and both benefit quite handsomely by a director who was on his way up rather than on his way down, and who clearly gave a damn about what he was doing) — we’d already seen. The one we ran last night was Dangerous Money, Toler’s next-to-last film in the role (indeed, his next-to-last film, period) before he died in 1947 after one more Monogram Chan, The Trap (also included in the box).
Our spider-senses started to tingle from the opening credits, which didn’t include Benson Fong (as Charlie’s Number Three Son and successor to the sidekick role Keye Luke had had in the Warner Oland Chans and Victor Sen Yung in the Tolers at Fox) and, more seriously, didn’t include Mantan Moreland either — though Moreland mostly played the stupid Black servant stereotype, he was able to get a bit of street-smarts into his characterization and as a result he and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson are about the only Black comedians from this era of Hollywood film whose work is still funny. Alas, Fong was replaced by Victor Sen Yung, returning to the series for the remaining Monogram Chans (except for the very last one, Sky Dragon — the title refers to an airplane — which went even farther back in Chan history and brought back Keye Luke!); Fox had left off his Anglo first name and billed him as “Sen Yung,” and Monogram re-Victored him but misspelled his last name “Young”! Moreland was replaced by Willie Best, who had fought back against the producers who had insisted on billing him as “Sleep ’n Eat” in his earliest films and had won the accolade from Bob Hope (who, for all his Right-wing reputation, was anti-racist well before anti-racism was cool) as the greatest natural comedian he’d ever worked with, but who somehow never managed to transcend that stupid, scared servant stereotype the way Moreland did. (Intriguingly, in working out a character name for him screenwriter Miriam Kissinger — no relation, I presume — called him “Chattanooga Brown,” whereas Moreland had been named after another Southern city: “Birmingham Brown.”)
The title of Dangerous Money refers to “hot money” the U.S. Treasury Department is worried about being passed in the Philippines, along with art treasures that are being stolen from collectors in Australia and New Zealand and smuggled through the Philippines into the U.S. The opening scene shows Chan on board a ship sailing from San Francisco to Samoa, trying to have a confidential conversation with a Treasury Department agent who’s a close friend of his, while various passengers walk by them on the decks for reasons either innocuous and sinister. It’s by far the best sequence in the film (which incidentally is beautifully transferred on this Warner Home Video DVD — the technical quality is so far above the downloads and public-domain videotapes and DVD’s of the Monogram Chans it’s worth spending the extra money for the authorized editions if you’re really serious about these films) and it climaxes when an unseen hand saws through a rope on board the ship and a pulley crashes down and nearly kills the agent — Chan managed to push him out of the way at the last minute. But as anyone who’s seen the previous films in the series would immediately guess, the agent’s reprieve is just a temporary one: he’s killed by a thrown (we think) knife in the middle of an on-board show that features a professional knife-thrower (though he’s a red herring and is later murdered himself).
There are the usual quirky suspects, including Professor Martin (Emmett Vogan), an ichthyologist who has his own private museum in Samoa (where the second half of the film takes place, apparently to reuse the sets Monogram had left over from Call of the Jungle and similar South Seas non-epics); salesman P. T. Burke (Dick Elliott), who’s really a blackmailer; the people he’s blackmailing, purser George Brace (Joseph Allen) and his girlfriend, Rona Simmonds (Gloria Warren), who’s been forced to help the gang smuggle the usual objets d’art we’re told are priceless but look like cheap bling, as usual — and just about everybody in the dramatis personae turns out to be involved in the plot, either carrying it out or on the side of law enforcement trying to stop it. The ringleaders, according to the big dramatic revelation at the end, are Reverend Dr. Whipple (Leslie Denison) — did Chan start to suspect him when he caught him squeezing the toilet paper? — and his “wife,” who turns out to be smuggler Joe Murdock (Alan Douglas), who’s gone in drag through the entire movie as a cover (they hid their money inside the stuffed fish in Professor Martin’s museum — in which Willie Best ends up in a mock wrestling match with a model octopus in the funniest scene in the film). It’s also revealed that the fatal knives that have been stabbing people in the back throughout the movie haven’t been thrown, but have been shot from a harpoon-like gun — which Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) predictably goes wild with at the end of the film.
Dangerous Money has a legitimately surprising ending but it’s one of those movies in which we really don’t care whodunit, though overall the film is relatively well made — William Sickner’s cinematography has a nice sense of atmosphere and is blessedly free of the shadow “moustaches” with which he adorned some of the women characters in earlier films; and the director, Terry Morse, had done some better-than-average “B”’s at Warners and knew how to stage an effective chase scene even though he was hamstrung by Monogram’s limited set-construction budget: the actors chase each other all too revealingly around the same pieces of ship’s decks and the single staircase leading them, sets that become so familiar we want to wave and say hello to them. The acting is less competent than the staging and the cinematography; Toler is visibly old and tiring of the role — this looks like a film made by a star who had less than a year to live — and as Charles noted, sometimes he speaks in his familiar Chan voice and sometimes in his normal American inflections with no hint of a Chinese accent, and he’s not always attentive to the need to slow down his line delivery to portray the inscrutable Chinese — but then he’d already played Chan in 20 previous films (more than any other actor in the role) and one could understand him being tired of the part and longing for the days when he’d got to do his faux-Chinese act in great movies like the Sternberg-Dietrich Shanghai Express.