The question Judge Paul Corupe doesn't address: Would Charlie Chan take bullet for President?
"Detective without curiosity like glass eye at keyhole: no good."—Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)
Based on a character originated by novelist Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan was an enormously popular fictional detective whose on-screen career spanned nearly 50 films. Today, Chan is all but forgotten because of the outdated cultural stereotypes presented in his films, which is a shame, since many of the films were quite good and deserve to be seen by a wider audience. To help Chan regain his place in detective cinema history, MGM has released Chanthology, a box set collecting the first six Charlie Chan films made at Monogram studios in the mid-1940s.
Available on its own or as part of the Chanthology, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is chronologically the first film made at Monogram after Twentieth Century Fox ended the series. Although not as polished or well-written as the subsequent Monograms, this film is nonetheless teeming with intrigue and wartime paranoia that establishes some of the conventions that the studio would put to better use in later entries in the cycle.
Facts of the Case
Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) is been asked to join the American Secret Service, a new challenge which sees him using his skills of deduction for patriotic purposes. Just as his "Number Three Son" Tommy (Benson Fong, Kung Fu), and "Number Two Daughter" Iris (Marianne Quon, China) come to visit their father at his job, Chan receives his first government case. The Secret Service is anxious to keep the work of an American inventor (Eddy Chandler, Brute Force) under wraps. But during a cocktail party in his home, the scientist is mysteriously murdered and his top secret torpedo plans go missing. Chan believes that an international spy named Manlich is after the confidential information, and arrives on the scene to detain and interrogate those in the house. One of the guest's chauffeurs, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby), assists the famous detective, but ultimately it's Chan alone who has to dodge multiple assassination attempts while unraveling this mystery.
After a two-year hiatus, Charlie Chan made his return to film in 1944's Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. Lead actor Sidney Toler, who played the Asian sleuth at Fox after the original Chan, Warner Oland (Werewolf of London), died in 1938, convinced poverty row outfit Monogram Studios to resurrect the Asian sleuth for a new series of adventures. Toler continued to play the Inspector at Monogram until his own death in 1947, upon which the role was re-cast once again, this time to Roland Winters (Blue Hawaii).
Although the second coming of Charlie Chan carried on the traditions established in the Fox series, with the Inspector brilliantly solving a mystery while dropping Confucius-like pearls of truth, the new entries in the Chan canon noticeably lacked in budget. Monogram was only able to spend half of what a big studio like Fox could on this kind of a film, and as a result, the Monograms are usually considered an inferior cycle. Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is particularly threadbare, rarely venturing outside the three or four sets that make up the manor, adding an unintended sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings.
Fox reportedly dropped the Charlie Chan series because World War II had broken out, so it's interesting that Monogram's first production, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, reinvents the character to solve crimes and battle spies; an unflappable G-Man with superior powers of deduction. Retaining Chan's popularity in this new series proves a bit of a tightrope walk, as these films play on audience fears about the war—specifically evil foreigners on homeland soil—while still portraying the Chinese detective as a patriot and hero. A few speeches have been tossed in to justify Chan's role with the Secret Service and confirm his allegiance to America. At one telling point he picks up a replica of the Statue of Liberty and claims that not only is it beautiful, but "what it stand for, beautiful too."
The weakest aspect of this installment is the mystery plot, which is not particularly notable even by the standards of this series—strictly a parlor-room whodunit. The lights flicker out just before any heinous crime takes place, and the rest of the time is spent watching a host of shady characters sit around in comfy chairs sipping tea, flatly denying any kind of guilt. Although one nice twist is incorporated at the end, the plot is for the most part predictable, and most viewers should have a pretty strong handle on the outcome of the film early on.
Instead, it's better to concentrate on the direction that Monogram was trying to take with Chan. Their first handling of the character is a little unsure, but viewers can find the seeds of later, better Monogram films here. The addition of Chan's relatives as assistants was an idea used in the Fox series, but the son and daughter don't have much chemistry or purpose here. Marianne Quon's portrayal of the daughter is particularly weak, and it's no wonder she was dropped from subsequent films. The comedy relief, provided by Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, is one of the highlights of the film. Although the character shows up in all of the films in Chanthology, at this point, there's little to indicate that Monogram intended to make him a recurring character. Subsequent installments put Brown in the employ of Chan, ostensibly teaming him up with Tommy Chan, who operates as his straight man.
Although it still looks acceptable, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service probably fares the worst in the box set. It's a little bit scratchier and softer than the other transfers, and in turn, fares a little below average for a film of this age. As with MGM's other Chan releases, the soundtrack is in mono, but generally doesn't come across too badly. Dialogue is always understandable, but high frequencies tend to be a little distorted and an underlying hiss is audible throughout. These DVDs run just over an hour and feature no extras, so their relatively high price tag will probably be a disappointment for Charlie Chan fans. Still, it's nice to have these films to show up on DVD at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although MGM has added a warning on the back of their DVDs that the racial stereotyping found in these films was socially acceptable at the time of their release, the Charlie Chan films are still controversial and bound to upset some people. Like Oland before him, Sidney Toler is essentially playacting at being Chinese, complete with pinned-back eyes, a phony Fu Manchu moustache, and toothy grins. Also, Birmingham Brown is a Stepin Fetchit-style character who might offend viewers with overblown superstitious beliefs and his perpetual state of wide-eyed fright. While I won't rationalize or apologize for MGM, it is a shame that the ethnic caricatures in the Chan films have prevented audiences from giving them the respect they would otherwise deserve.
Overall, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service isn't a bad entry in the Monogram series, just a rather ordinary one. I advise buying MGM's entire Chanthology over picking up the individual discs, as films like this will be rather unsatisfying when taken on their own. Now that MGM has exhausted their vault, hopefully, this will convince other studios to release their Charlie Chan films as well.
Monogram Charlie Chan film without good mystery like DVD with no special features: missing something.
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