The Charlie Chan Chanthology Review
Author Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan in the 1920's, with the first novel House without a Key released in 1925. Chan was inspired by a Chinese Detective that Biggers had read about while vacationing in Honolulu. The concept of an oriental detective solving various cases around the world fuelled his mind and in due course Biggers had written and released six hugely successful books. Not only were these books turned into films but the series would continue on with brand new adventures.
A total of 47 films were made between 1926 and 1949, with three actors taking on the lead role over the years; Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. 20th Century Fox had produced all of the Chan films (except for House without a Key and The Chinese Parrot in 1926) until 1944 when the wartime situation conflicted with Fox funding these features. They dropped the series and quickly afterward Monogram Studio took over the reigns. The budgets had now considerably decreased, some new characters were introduced but overall the general feeling was that the series had begun to tire.
The Charlie Chan films have come under a lot of fire over the years, in most part due to the fact that they used Caucasians to portray minority roles. Charlie was never played by an Asian actor, which was possible but in reality very unlikely. The time period in which these films were made saw people with far less tolerance for Asian or black actors taking on major roles, as such they were always singled out and given roles that were felt "appropriate", sadly butlers or chauffeurs. In many ways Biggers creation was treated in a disrespectful manner but the actors chosen to play Detective Chan went on to give memorable performances and in light of the age that these films were made in it wouldn't be appropriate for me to cause a debate over these choices.
One thing I must point out is that the way in which Charlie speaks is entirely deliberate, by no means is it an ignorant stereotypical portrayal. Charlie Chan was born in China in the late 1800's and at a young age he moved with his parents to Honolulu, situated in Hawaii. Here he learned English and gained a fine vocabulary, though he never fully mastered the language. His use of proverbs helped to turn him into such an endearing character for audiences, they made sense as well as being funny. In this respect the character of Charlie Chan is faithful to the series of books.
MGM's The Charlie Chan Chanthology takes place in 1944, with Charlie now working for the United States Secret Service in Washington D.C. This collection of films that star Sidney Toler are those that signify Monogram Studio's taking over of the franchise. 20th Century Fox recently remastered several from their collection of Charlie Chan films for broadcasting, but at this moment in time have no plans to release them on DVD.
So with this brief introduction out of the way I shall take you through the six films presented here: Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, The Chinese Cat, Meeting at Midnight, The Jade Mask, The Scarlet Clue and The Shanghai Cobra.
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) 63 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Benson Fong, Marianne Quon, Gwen Kenyon, and Arthur Loft.
Directed by Phil Rosen.
Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is enlisted by the Secret Service to investigate and solve the murder of an inventor who has developed a top-secret device that will enable US forces to protect themselves from German U-boats. Upon his arrival at the inventor's mansion he meets several guests and immediately orders a lock-down. One by one Chan interrogates the guests and searches for all important clues with the help of his number three son, Tommy (Benson Fong) and his daughter Iris (Marianne Quon).
In Monogram's first Chan outing Director Phil Rosen invites us to play Cluedo as we join Charlie and his guests in a locked room mystery. Think of every cliché you can and apply them to this film. It's true that this feature isn't a prime example of what makes a good mystery; Rosen is incapable of creating a tense environment here and relies too much on fog effects and overly grandeur scoring at the most inappropriate moments.
To his advantage however is the main cast. Sidney Toler is a charming Charlie Chan who by this point had eased into this role and was a seasoned professional. Toler offers a lot of charm and pleasantry to his character as he bemoans about his family members trying to help him solve a case when they should be off studying. He delivers a few famous Chan proverbs that always manage to raise a smile and his co-stars are not without their moments either.
Benson Fong and Marianne Quon do nice jobs in supporting Toler and provide much of the innocent humour that so often becomes this series. They represent the "hip and young" generation as they so point out to their father. This film introduced Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, who would go on to reprise his role in several future films as Charlie's long suffering and wise-cracking assistant. Brown is a natural comic talent whose humorous moments here work best in moderation. His occasional one liner gags are enjoyable, while his physical comedy is less effective (though later he would impress more often) but he makes a decent addition the cast.
At this point in the ongoing adventures of Charlie Chan it would have been preferable to see a more innovative Monogram debut. The mystery is spoiled by a few poorly executed moments. Too often we see a close up shot of an eye that looks over proceedings. This mysterious person is obviously a woman and seeing as there are only a couple of women in the suspect line up it doesn't take too much effort by the audience to accurately point fingers. Charlie always solves his case after finding a vital clue, the unlikely set up being that the victim always leaves a clue before he/she hits the floor - something that would plague future films and contribute to their lack of originality.
Overall Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is somewhat of a disappointing first entry in Monogram's Chan library but it is lifted thanks to its supporting cast who provide a lot of fun in their characters, helped by George Callahan's often witty dialogue.
The Chinese Cat (1944) 65 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Benson Fong, Mantan Moreland, Joan Woodbury and Ian Keith.
Directed by Phil Rosen.
It seems so long ago that Thomas Manning (Sam Flint) was murdered, holding some chess pieces in a locked room. Since then his daughter, Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury) has been searching for her father's killer but the police force has given up the hunt. When she discovers that an expert criminologist has written a book about her father's unsolved death that points to her mother as the killer, she pays a visit to Charlie Chan with the hopes that he will take her case.
With Charlie out of the building his number three son Tommy takes the case on his behalf. Charlie returns to find a case waiting for him but he only has 48 hours to solve it before he must leave. Charlie and his "assistants" must track down a gang of gem thieves who have their eyes set on stealing a diamond that is hidden inside a black, porcelain cat.
Monogram's second Chan feature sees Phil Rosen take a darker approach this time around and Detective Chan investigates the run down surroundings of an old funhouse. Rosen uses fog again to create an air of mystery but his obsession with this proves to be a disadvantage to the film. This aside he does take a better approach to the story that sees a less predictable outcome. Rosen becomes too involved with too many characters, several of whom offer little interest but he sticks closer to its mystery roots that serve as a more interesting factor.
Once again Benson Fong and Mantan Moreland are reunited with Toler to provide the bulk of the laughs. In the film's big set piece that sees our heroes lost in the dark, abandoned funhouse we are offered some effective directing that Rosen failed to provide much of last time around. Throughout much of this, Moreland is left to his own devices as he continually gets lost whilst his pursuers are finding themselves confused in the maze like setting. Toler and Fong share some great moments, often resulting in a humorous father and son outcome. However annoyed Charlie gets with the intervention of his son he is often thankful that he is such a disobedient one.
Meeting at Midnight (1944) 65 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Frances Chan, and Joseph Crehan.
Directed by Phil Rosen.
Birmingham finds himself a new job, working as a butler for the Bonner family. Unbeknownst to him the family are con artists who specialize in holding trick séances. It isn't long before murder is afoot and even worse Charlie's daughter Frances (Frances Chan) becomes a suspect. Everybody has a motive according to Charlie and he himself becomes a target for these conspirators.
The third Monogram outing was originally titled Black Magic, as we see in the opening credits, referring to Charlie's reasoning that the séances were acts of black magic before he naturally comes to the real conclusion. The film is a quite a disappointing entry because it feels so lazy in its execution. Phil Rosen returns as director and again shows his inconsistency when it comes down to pacing and flair. Taking a step back from his previous Chan film he offers us another locked room case that features bland surroundings and tired direction.
Meeting at Midnight's saving grace is once again its main cast, with Toler and Moreland being joined this time by the beautiful Frances Chan playing Charlie's daughter Frances. Coincidence aside Frances has a nice part in the film and shares a good amount of chemistry between herself, Toler and Moreland. Frances doesn't go all out with her acting abilities but she's a charming young lady with a wonderful smile who so obviously is enjoying her time on set. It's nice to see her connect with Toler during a couple of pleasant father/daughter moments. Moreland continues to do what he does best - talk to himself a little too often, providing a few smiles and Sidney Toler holds everything together, while the supporting cast flag from time to time.
The Jade Mask (1945) 65 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Edwin Luke, Mantan Moreland, Frank Reicher and Hardie Albright.
Directed by Phil Rosen.
When a brilliant scientist (Frank Reicher) is discovered murdered Charlie and his assistants Birmingham and number four son, Eddie (Edwin Luke) investigate. Arriving at an old house they meet the occupying family and discover that the deceased was working on a new kind of gas that can make wood unbreakable. Dr. Samuel R. Peabody was disliked by everyone in the house and therefore everyone is a suspect…even the butler.
Phil "I like fog" Rosen sets up his fourth Chan outing in a way that would be most becoming of any low grade horror film being made at the time. The mansion's haunted façade serves as a decent backdrop, that is until we are invited inside at which point it is obvious that we are dealing with another standard looking set. Rosen continues to attempt creating an environment of uneasiness but with the introduction of Peabody and his assistant in what would appear to be some kind of homage to many a horror feature, it soon degenerates into a technical failure. Rosen obscures his actor's faces with more abundant use of steam trickery. I can only assume at this point that he did not have much at his disposal and resorted to using the only things he could get his hands on. It is a shame that the budgets rapidly dropped during this period in time but I don't feel that Phil Rosen is a number one choice to helm so many entries in the Chan series.
The scripts have often offered fine dialogue, this time it is a mixed bag and many lines suffer from being poorly quoted by the selection of actors here. A good example with this film demonstrates how comfortable with comedy the participants are. Edwin Luke is introduced here as Charlie's number four son. Arriving at the gate he says "Ah, this looks like an excellent place for murder". It's almost too absurd and out of character to find funny and yet it can't be considered a straight, dramatic line. However the delivery could have been better but Luke is unable to find a good tone and style for most of his performance. On the other hand, Mantan Moreland (now introduced as Charlie's chauffeur after a slew of unsuccessful jobs) is very adept and comfortable, my favourite line of his being his theory - "Now the way I figure this thing out is the murderer must be on the inside, so what we gotta do is...stay outside". Luke looks as if he's excited by doing a film but he is far from an accomplished actor. Toler again shines in his famous role but I wonder if he himself began to tire of these weaker scenarios when Monogram Studios took over?
The victims continue to find time to leave clues before they die, this time a major clue pertaining to a jade mask and others that hang on the mansion walls. Surprisingly there isn't much in the way of jade masks as the title suggests, and finally seeing the supposed "jade" mask onscreen makes for a disappointing moment as it actually looks quite rubbish. Again we have a locked room scenario with below par performances from the supporting cast playing suspects and a tacky ending that looks like it could have well inspired the Scooby Doo series.
The Scarlet Clue (1945) 65 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Ben Carter and Benson Fong.
Directed by Phil Rosen.
Charlie is led to a radio station that is connected to a radar operation in the same building, after a fellow detective makes a mistake during an operation to catch a thief. With the help of Birmingham and once again his number three son Tommy, Charlie is drawn to a murder investigation that involves expert criminals and their plans to steal top-secret radar plans.
Phil Rosen in his fifth outing directing Toler and friends does a remarkably good job. While some of his trademark flaws are still evident he manages to direct a reasonably paced film that offers an interesting murder mystery scenario that curiously foregoes Charlie's usual description of events and how he solved them by the anti-climactic end. It is the events that lead up to the finale that offer the most interesting and amusing parts of the film. The radio station in which this instalment is set clearly provides a setting for the writers to poke fun at, namely the cheesy, radio drama shows that were being aired at the time. The monotony of voicing these particularly awful characters is made present through the attitudes of the actors taking part, which makes for a nice shift of location as we're taken behind the scenes of a media network.
Manton Moreland (now acknowledged by Charlie as second assistant) and Benson Fong return for more of their familiar escapades and a good amount of chemistry flows between the two, who now make a good comic pairing. Moreland goes on to steal the show however, in two superb comic moments that involve himself and Ben Carter (playing himself). Moreland and Carter performed these same routines in their stand-up nightclub show that see them creating conversations with the pair finishing off each other's sentences. Moreland has been entertaining throughout most of these films but it isn't until this feature that you can really appreciate him as a great comical artist, not only in these scenes but just about every other one he appears in.
The sets are about the only major problem this time. Though most of the film is staged in a radio station there are times that call for the action to be taken elsewhere. With a minimal budget Phil Rosen makes the most of his fake snow and steam effects in a couple of poor audible scenes that are a struggle to listen to. Overall this is perhaps Rosen's best effort that's helped by a good script and memorable performances.
The Shanghai Cobra (1945) 64 Minutes.
Starring: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Benson Fong, James Cardwell and Joan Barclay.
Directed by Phil Karlson.
Charlie, Tommy and Birmingham investigate a case involving a series of murders, all strikingly similar in that each victim's cause of death has been that of a cobra bite. The mastermind behind these murders strikes Charlie as being the same man he arrested many years ago, who escaped from the Shanghai police and is now set on stealing a highly toxic radium from the government.
Taking the helm for The Shanghai Cobra is Phil Karlson in a film that breathes some new life into Monogram's often shaky entries. Billed as being a lot more noir like and in tone with the original Fox productions the film comes off very well and stands out as the best in this collection. Karlson takes his time in setting up events and introducing us to the secondary characters before bringing Chan onscreen almost ten minutes into the run time.
From the dark, rainy opening Karlson has already established a different looking film that uses more inspired camera techniques than Rosen never managed to pull off. It's no surprise that later Karlson would go on to direct several highly regarded films, including Kansas City Confidential, The Silencers and Walking Tall.
This film is interesting because it pits Charlie against an old enemy who is now unrecognisable after reconstructive surgery. His nemesis keeps one step ahead but with Charlie on the case you know it isn't going to be long before he cracks it in the end. Of course we know this each and every time but this story does well to hide certain truths and keeps to a less than predictable path, until Chan finally hammers the last nail at which point an interesting twist occurs.
Mantan Moreland and Benson Fong team up again and entertain as much as they did in The Scarlet Clue - a stand out moment being their "U-Turn" conversation. Sidney Toler continues to be engaging as Charlie and despite not being Asian he has made the role his role and embraced it fully. It wasn't long after this that his health would rapidly begin to decline; he made five more Charlie Chan movies until his sad passing from cancer in 1947.
This set of films is my first introduction to the Charlie Chan series and while they might not be a perfect place for me to start I am glad to have had the opportunity to see them. The films on offer here are a mixed collection but have plenty of positive points for me to be able to recommend them. I feel that I have perhaps found my favourite Chan player and supporting characters, a fondness you develop after seeing something for the first time, much like fans who take to heart the first actor they see portraying James Bond for example.
MGM present The Charlie Chan Chanthology as six separate armaray cases housed in a stylish black box that is a little thin but a nice compliment to the series. Each cover is nicely designed and curiously coloured - at first leading you to believe these films have been colorized. Thankfully that isn't the case and these cases serve as nice homes for the DVDs.
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio the Monogram films do not appear to have had any re-mastering done to them but nor do they appear to have really needed much done, because they look quite acceptable considering their age. The source materials have held up well and their faults are not something for me to get too involved with because they should just be accepted. Each film suffers from various problems that are merely down to the materials used for filming, as such a lot of scenes show grain that is considerably worse during foggy pieces and a number of night time set ups. Day time scenes fare much better and black levels are strong throughout the entire series. The obvious print damage does little to distract and the films look as good as they likely ever will.
Each film is presented in their original 2.0 Mono track. Each track has very low qualities that require you to turn up the volume to get the most out of them. There are occasional moments where natural drop-outs occur and a slight hiss can be heard but otherwise these are easy to listen to and should not be of any concern to anyone.
It's a crying shame that for such a nicely presented series we are left with no extras whatsoever. At the very least it would have been nice to have the original theatrical trailers, it would have been excellent to have had photo galleries, documentaries and commentaries from surviving cast members or historians. The Charlie Chan series deserve more attention to be paid to them and a little background information would have been most appreciated.
Aside from the obligatory scene selections there are also optional subtitles in English, French or Spanish. The subtitles are bold and yellow and are of excellent quality.
Clearly the Monogram efforts lacked in certain departments but still maintained a sense of charm. I am going to assume that MGM have plans to release the rest of the Monogram productions as there were eleven more features that followed after these, if not then that would be a great shame. As for the 20th Century Fox productions I can only hope that they do eventually release them because by all accounts the greater Charlie Chan cases are to be found during the Fox era.
It's easy to put down the films for being politically incorrect but to do that would be pointless here because these films are simply a sign of the times in which they were made. Instead just enjoy them for what they are - low budget detective mysteries that are performed admirably by the main cast and offer the occasional surprise.