Chanthology: Charlie Chan in the Secret Service / Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat Review
MGM’s recently released Chanthology focuses on six of the Charlie Chan films made for Monogram Pictures during 1944 and 1945. The first disc, the one under review, houses two titles, the very first Monogram title Charlie Chan in the Secret Service and another effort from 1944, Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat.
Having been made at the same studio in the same year with many of the same personnel (including director and leads), it is perhaps unsurprising that there is little to separate the two. Indeed, the plotting in both is barely related to Earl Derr Biggers’ character at all and either title could easily be transposed into a venture for another cinematic sleuth of the thirties and forties, the Falcon, say, or Mr. Moto (incidentally, one of the Mr. Moto films, Mr. Moto Takes a Gamble started out as a Charlie Chan picture and only switched lead detectives when original Chan actor Warner Oland died). ...in the Secret Service sees our hero solving the murder of a top scientist, and ...in the Chinese Cat the death of a wealthy socialite, in doing so dispensing with his Confucian wisdom (“Expert is man who merely makes quick decision”) as he whittles down the suspects in a Holmesian manner.
Of the two Secret Service is perhaps the more satisfying as it placed this Sherlock type within an Agatha Christie setting (all the suspects gathered in one enclosed setting whilst the murders still occur), but otherwise each has the same successes and failings. Director Phil Rosen attacks both with a pace and verve which perhaps falls back on clichés (guns are only ever fired in close-up; when people enter a room we see only their feet at first) but also gets straight to the point. Indeed, his ability to keep to the essentials is often a wonder to behold: in Secret Service the murder is immediately followed by a string of close-ups, each one detailing a suspect; Chinese Cat tells of a failed court case that could easily occupy an entire episode of Law & Order using only a handful of headlines.
Yet there’s also a curious tension between this headlong rush and Sidney Toler’s interpretation of the Chan character. Quite blatantly a white actor in what is now quite shoddy make-up, each line is delivered in a deliberate, arrhythmic manner that is both frustrating to concentrate on and borderline racist. It’s an aspect echoed in the performance of Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, the black butler/cab driver who answers to every stereotype of the time: eye rolling, cowardly and libidinous to name just three. Yet on the other hand Chan’s children (“We’re hep cats of the young generation”) are played by Marianne Quon (in Secret Service only) and Benson Fong (both entries), a pair of genuine - and unpatronising - Asian actors. So, a pair of creaky and dated efforts then, but also despite their problems huge fun and almost guaranteed to raise the occasional smile.
No extras to accompany these two titles and also a sadly poor presentation quality. Thankfully not colorized, but otherwise the prints are often scratchy, grainy or soft, if reasonably watchable. That said, the soundtracks are in worse condition, with levels wavering throughout making the dialogue indiscernible at times. Thankfully both features comes with optional English (as well as Swedish) subtitles which goes some way to alleviating this problem, though they offer no genuine substitute.