Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Trap (Monogram, 1946)

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

Released November 30, 1946 — two and one-half months before the death of its star, Sidney Toler, from cancer — The Trap was the last Charlie Chan film with Toler and his last film, period, since once he resumed the Chan series at Monogram in 1944 with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service after a two-year hiatus following the cancellation of the series at 20th Century-Fox, he played nothing else except an Anglo detective named Sully in a 1945 film called It’s In the Bag — and incidentally my entry on Dangerous Money was wrong: Toler did appear in one of the Sternberg-Dietrich films, but not Shanghai Express and not as an Asian — that was Warner Oland! — but the next one, Blonde Venus, as a non-Asian but still a detective.

The Trap is actually a surprisingly entertaining film, directed by Howard Bretherton from another script by Miriam Kissinger, though it’s hardly surprising that Toler walked his way through the part of Charlie Chan with little or none of his previous authority — let’s face it, the man was dying! The Trap opens with some nice black-and-white nature shots of the beach at Malibu, then cuts to a sign of a Malibu Beach realty office — so at least Malibu is playing itself in this film rather than standing in for Coney Island, Dover or Monaco. We then see a cop (played by Kirk Alyn, the movies’ first live-action Superman — he played the role in two Columbia serials in the late 1940’s before George Reeves got it in a B-movie and then on TV — so Toler as Chan got to appear in movies with a future Superman as well as a future Batman, Robert Lowery, in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and Murder Over New York, the latter of which also featured former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez!) flag down a station wagon and accuse its driver of speeding.

The driver is circus impresario Cole-King (Howard Negley), who’s finished his troupe’s season and has rented a house on Malibu Beach for himself and the female members of his company to rest. His show’s star, Marcia (Anne Nagel, who usually played nice girls but here is quite effective as a bitch), is a prima donna in both senses of the word, throwing her weight around, insisting on a room of her own and a separate room for her Chinese maid San Toy (Barbara Jean Wong) while all the other girls have to sleep in the same room. She makes herself so hated by everybody in the troupe any reasonably movie-savvy audience member assumes she’ll be the first one to get killed — and Miriam Kissinger throws us a reasonably surprising curveball and instead makes the first victim Lois (Jan Bryant), another member of the troupe whom Marcia knew was underage and thereby blackmailed into stealing some letters from a third troupe member, Adelaide Brandt (Tanis Chandler) — though Marcia duly disappears and all the other girls are suspects, including Clementine (Rita Quigley), who’s supposed to have been a star in whichever European country she came from, France or Switzerland (Miriam Kissinger seems never to have decided which, and Quigley’s accent is as ambiguous as the script on this point).

Toler doesn’t enter into the action until 16 minutes into this 62-minute film — withholding the presence of the detective until an actual crime is committed is an acceptable genre convention, though here it may also have been to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on the terminally ill star — through a neat bit of mistaken identity: it seems that the Chinese servant girl San Toy has been dating Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung — once again Monogram insisted on spelling his last name “Young”!) and she’s called over to where he’s staying and asked for “Detective Chan,” and their chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, making a welcome return to the series after his replacement by the less amusing Willie Best in Dangerous Money, even though Kissinger didn’t bother coming up with much in the way of material for him and so he’s moderately amusing instead of screamingly funny) relays the message to Charlie Chan instead. There are a few interesting characters, including a forbidding maidservant who runs the Old Dark House where the circus girls are holing up, who’s given the ridiculous name “Mrs. Weebles” and is played by Minerva Urecal in so blatant an imitation of Judith Anderson’s performance as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca one expects her to announce imperiously, “I happen to be the president of the Judith Anderson Fan Club!” (The page on The Trap lists her character as “Miss Weebles,” but I distinctly heard “Mrs.” on the soundtrack.) Also on board are a physical therapist, Dr. Brandt (Walden Boyle), husband of Adelaide — and though we’ve originally been led to believe there’s some sort of nasty sex scandal behind the blackmail plot, it turns out that the letters Adelaide had in her trunk, that Marcia wanted Lois to steal, were to the California state medical board aimed at getting Dr. Brandt, a European refugee, admitted to practice medicine in the U.S.

The film has a comfortable air; the sets are more substantial than usual in a Monogram movie and the cinematography by James S. Brown, Jr. is well lit and even occasionally atmospheric (and well served by the TCM-Warner Home Video transfer); and the acting, especially from Nagel, Boyle and Urecal, is also better than average for a Monogram Chan, and though the “solution” to the mystery is a bit of a cheat — the girls (Marcia later turns up dead, her corpse found on the beach in a clump of seaweed), garroted by a silk cord, were killed by Mrs. Thorn (Lois Austin), ex-wife of Cole-King, who hoped he would take her back when she returned to the circus; instead he hired her as wardrobe mistress and she hatched a revenge plot that for some bizarre reason Miriam Kissinger didn’t make too clear took the form of knocking off his performers and thereby embarrassing him and putting him out of business — the film is fun. One amusing mistake: when Lois is killed in the house the circus’s press agent, Rick Daniels (Larry Blake), suggests that they take the body out and dump it on the beach to make it look like a drowning death instead of a murder. “How can you possibly be so callused?” Cole-King replies — obviously the word meant was ‘callous.” The Trap wasn’t a bad movie for Toler to make his exit on, but for anyone who remembers the power he (and Warner Oland before him!) had brought to the role at Fox it’s rather sad to watch his low-energy performance here.