Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Golden Eye (Monogram, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I a “B” movie I’d recently downloaded from, The Golden Eye, one of the last Monogram Charlie Chans featuring Roland Winters — who didn’t have the natural slant to his eyes that had helped Warner Oland and Sidney Toler be at least somewhat credible as a Chinese detective, and who rejected the various attempts to slap tape on the sides of his face and cover it up with makeup to look “Asian.” Instead, Winters simply squinted while he was on camera, and the directors of these things (the director of this one is William Beaudine, who made a few good movies — mostly when he got a legendary star to work with, like Mary Pickford in the 1925 Little Annie Rooney, Jean Harlow in Three Wise Girls and W. C. Fields in The Old-Fashioned Way — but for the most part was a more effective sleep-inducer than Sominex) had to remind him, just before they called “Action!,” to do so: he recalled the directors saying, “Remember the eyes!” This was the second-from-last in the Chan series (though the very last, Sky Dragon — the title refers to an airliner — I remember as surprisingly good, a tale about murder on an airplane that welcomely returned Keye Luke to the series) and it was pretty clear that the old crew — Winters, Beaudine, screenwriter W. Scott Darling and supporting players Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung (too old for this sort of nonsense and just as annoying as he was in the later Fox Chans with Toler) — were getting tired. The title refers to a played-out gold mine in Arizona, adjacent to a dude ranch; both properties are owned by Mr. Manning (Forrest Taylor), who in the opening scene — which, like the openings of a lot of these movies, is the best thing in the film — is fleeing through the streets of Chinatown while being chased by a baddie who’s trying to kill him. Said baddie actually shoots Manning while he’s visiting his friend, a Chinese antiques dealer named Woo Fat, but because he shot through the antique store’s closed front window, the shot misses. (I’ve noted before how many murder victims in Chan movies get theirs by being shot through open windows — and wondered why Chan didn’t just keep his damned windows closed when he had visitors who were being targeted by the bad guys!)

Manning wants Fat to contact Charlie Chan for him, and he does so, though later on Manning is killed after all — he’s pushed down a mineshaft and is supposedly brought back to his home, merely injured instead of killed, but he’s wearing an Invisible Man-style hood of bandages and the patient in the bed at the Manning home, where Manning’s daughter Evelyn (the always personable Wanda McKay) is living, is actually a woman in disguise. Of course, we don’t learn all this until the movie is nearly over; until then we get a lot of shots of reasonably attractive people of both (major) genders around the dude ranch’s swimming pool, and a lot of shots of women being cruised by obnoxious drunken playboy Vincent O’Brien (Tim Ryan), who’s really undercover police officer Lt. Mike Ruark (that’s what it says in the cast list, though it sounded to me like Roland Winters was calling him “Pike”!). The two incognito lawmen are after a criminal conspiracy that appears to be using the Golden Eye mine as a front for gold smuggling, since after years during which it produced almost nothing is spewing out gold like crazy, only geological analysis of the ore samples proves that they came from somewhere else. Actually, they would prove that if they were being analyzed by an honest assayer instead of Talbot Bartlett (Bruce Kellogg), who’s handsome and personable enough to be a credible boyfriend for Evelyn Manning but who turns out to be the villain, a crook in league with the mine’s foreman, Jim Driscoll (Ralph Dunn), to use the mine to smuggle stolen gold from Mexico into the U.S. At least that’s what I think was happening, since W. Scott Darling wasn’t all that big on plot consistency and it wasn’t easy to figure out just what the crooks were after. (Hitchcock may have said the “MacGuffin” was the least important part of a thriller story, but at least he made sure his writers were clear about what it was!)

It was also nice to see Evelyn Brent in the cast list — she was the female lead in Josef von Sternberg’s big gangster movies at Paramount in the late 1920’s but soon got lost in the Hollywood shuffle after Sternberg stopped working with her in favor of his 1930 German discovery, Marlene Dietrich, though Monogram saved her and allowed her to make a living in minor parts for years — but she’s playing a sinister nurse, Sister Theresa, who’s supposedly there to minister to Mr. Manning but is in fact part of the criminal conspiracy, and she’s so well hidden in that nun’s habit I thought the big switcheroo at the end wasn’t going to be that the supposed “Manning” was a woman but that “Sister Theresa” was a man! Though he doesn’t get much interesting comic dialogue and he doesn’t have a Black sidekick to do one of his great double-talk routines with, Mantan Moreland is still the most entertaining element of this show — and Beaudine and Darling seem to have realized that, because they end the movie with Moreland facing the camera and addressing the audience directly with a few lines that sum up the film. The Golden Eye has a lot of the deficiencies of later Monogram — cheap sets that look like a junior-high drama class made them out of canvas and scrap wood, dull stock music (the print we were watching was from an contributor who said he did major rehab work on the soundtrack and at one point erased the music from the soundtrack and replaced it with a better-sounding copy of the same stock cue from another Monogram Chan) and Beaudine’s usual soporific pacing of what could have been an exciting story — but it also has a sort of familiar charm that makes it an unoppressive way to spend an hour even though it isn’t particularly entertaining.