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Case Number 14542

Buy Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 5 at Amazon

Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 5

Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum
1940 // 64 Minutes // Not Rated
Charlie Chan In Panama
1940 // 68 Minutes // Not Rated
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise
1940 // 76 Minutes // Not Rated
Murder Over New York
1940 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Charlie Chan In Rio
1941 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
Dead Men Tell
1941 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Castle In The Desert
1942 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Fox
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // September 18th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Dylan Charles once sold Susquehanna hats.

The Charge

"Truth, like oil, will in time rise to surface."—Charlie Chan, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise

Opening Statement

In the 1920s, Earl Derr Biggers wrote five Charlie Chan novels, certainly not realizing that his character eventually would be featured in over three dozen movies. Between 1940 and 1942 alone, seven Charlie Chan films were produced by 20th Century Fox, all of which are included in Charlie Chan Collection: Vol. 5.

Facts of the Case

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is a Chinese-American detective on the Honolulu police force. With his Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), he battles murderers, thieves, a pirate's ghost, and Axis agents:

• In Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Charlie Chan's old friend from the Scotland Yard stops by to discuss a new case, but is shortly after murdered. Chan must take passage aboard a cruise ship to pursue his friend's murderer, knowing that one of the passengers is the killer.

• With Charlie Chan in Panama, Charlie Chan takes on a job for the government, working undercover as a hat maker in exotic Panama and hoping to stop nefarious Axis agent Reiner before he can sabotage the Panama Canal.

• Charlie Chan is in New York for a police convention when he uncovers a plot to sabotage bombers in Murder Over New York. Can he find out who the saboteur is before the war effort is further hindered by those damn dirty Nazis?

• Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum borrows a feather from Vincent Price's cap as Charlie Chan tries to find out the connection between presumably dead mobsters and a plot to murder him in the wax museum.

• Things take a turn toward the supernatural when Charlie Chan meets a pirate's ghost in Dead Men Tell. With a buried treasure and the lives of the treasure hunters on the line, Chan must hurry to find out who the ghost really is before it's too late.

• Charlie Chan returns to South America in Charlie Chan in Rio. This time he's here to bring a killer to justice. The only problem is someone beats him to the punch, and it's up to him to find out who murdered the murderer.

• In Castle in the Desert, Charlie Chan gets embroiled in family matters when a descendant of the poisonous Borgias is accused of murder. He and the suspects are stranded in a desert castle straight out of the Middle Ages.

The Evidence

We should perhaps get something out of the way now, so I don't get tangled up in it later. The Charlie Chan films illustrate a not-so-charming tendency of Old Hollywood to use white actors in minority roles. While Asian actors like Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung played the secondary roles of Chan's sons, Charlie Chan himself was almost always played by an old white guy wearing makeup. However, as contemporary actress Anna May Wong pointed out:

"Most Chinese actors at some time or other portray hatchet men or criminals. This is objectionable to the Chinese people who feel they are not presented in a very attractive light in motion pictures. But Toler's characterization of Chan is genteel and learned, and emphasizes some of the finer points of the Chinese race."

So while Charlie Chan is offensive nowadays, he was actually progressive back in the day. Sort of.

That quote, as well as most of the Charlie Chan facts in this review, is brought to you courtesy of Charlie Chan Collection: Vol. 5. Thanks, Fox!

The films in this collection represent what I would call the Second Wave of Charlie Chan. With Warner Oland's death in 1938, the studio heads replaced him with Sidney Toler. I can't really compare Toler to Oland, as this set was my introduction to the series. But Toler fit the part well and I had minimal trouble believing him to be the clever but quiet detective Chan.

Keye Luke, who played the Number One Son in Oland's films, left the franchise and so his role needed to be filled as well. Number Two Son Jimmy was created and was played by Victor Sen Yung.

Jimmy Chan was a more comedic character than his predecessor and played the part of hapless sidekick. Often, Charlie Chan solved the case in spite of Jimmy's help, rather than because of it. His endless enthusiasm, while occasionally annoying, helped to liven what could otherwise be a grim and gloomy proceeding. Although the occasion is rare, Jimmy does actually help find a clue or two. Yung bounces around, often acting as though he was in a screwball comedy, which both complements and clashes with Sydney Toler's quiet and reserved Charlie.

Dead Men Tell and Castle in the Desert both show Jimmy pushed too far into comedic territory. A running gag in Dead Men Tell features Jimmy falling into the water. A lot. This, of course, serves no real purpose except to show that Jimmy bungles everything. Castle in the Desert finds Jimmy spending most of the last act in a suit of armor. One wonders if Yung was tired of the series by this point and had done everything in his power to minimize his screen time.

The Second Wave of Charlie Chan is also characterized by a strong emphasis on the war effort. Rather than just bringing in the more mundane and humdrum criminals, Chan goes after threats to national security. Surely this change in tone had nothing to do with the war looming over the United States. Charlie Chan in Panama and Murder over New York both feature Chan fighting foreign agents. These agents apparently have no political affiliation. They're just foreign. It's a little odd that the producers and writers would be so vague and not just pin a big Nazi button on the spies. Perhaps they were going for a timeless quality.

Charlie Chan in Panama's setup is also a little odd. With no explanation, Charlie Chan has taken up camp under an alias running a hat shop. Why he's there and who he's working for is never really explained. Originally the script was supposed to be for a Mr. Moto picture, but after the United States entered the war, the Japanese Mr. Moto suddenly became unpopular with the studio head. So the script was turned in a Charlie Chan picture, resulting in the bizarre change in his character. Aside from that, though, this is a strong entry in the series, with a clever villain actually worthy of Chan. The rest of the cast also provides plenty of red herrings as Chan tries to figure out which of the eclectic characters is the notorious spy Reiner.

Murder over New York is a more seamless transition into the world of war for Chan. He's just Charlie in New York, working on a case to help an old friend. And once again, Jimmy actually helps in addition to his usual bouts of tomfoolery. Surprise, it's actually better if a character has some kind of depth instead of just being a one note, one joke caricature. At one point, I giggled with delight as a fake Indian mystic was revealed to be none other than Shemp Howard. I also noted the colossal irony in a Charlie Chan movie of stripping the face paint off a white guy pretending to be an ethnic character.

All the Chan movies contain a surprising number of appearances by actors well-known from B-movies and serials of the time. People like Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials), Victor Jory (The Shadow), Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher), and a whole bunch more. It made a fun game while watching, trying to figure out who was who: "Look! There's Billy Batson from The Adventures of Captain Marvel!" Unless you're not a colossal dork.

There's a surprising amount of artistry to the cinematography for some of the films, most notably in any directed by Harry Lachman. Dead Men Tell, for instance, is especially atmospheric, as any ghost story oughtta be. There's a strong sense of film noir with all of them, making them look more than their B-movie status.

Really, in spite of my whining about Jimmy and the potentially racially offensive casting, Charlie Chan is great, if light, entertainment. From the little moments like Chan's great smile as he puffs on a supposedly drugged cigarette to Charlie and Jimmy speaking in Chinese. This prompts someone to ask the Chinese-American maid, "What are they saying?" Her reply, "I don't know, it's all Chinese to me! I'm from San Francisco," had me laughing. All of Chan's little traps tangle up the criminal in the end. Whether he uses glass balls filled with gas or ticking time bombs, Chan knows how to sweat out the guilty, and it's always enjoyable to see if your guesses about who was guilty turn out to be right.

Closing Statement

You don't watch Charlie Chan movies for their mastery of the cinematic arts and, for all my nitpickery, the series remains a fun bit of entertainment; a good way to kill an afternoon. I recommend this set for any fan of the series and for anyone who wants to get to know the character.

The Verdict

Charlie Chan has been of great service to the court and this judge salutes his efforts. Jimmy will be sent to a correctional school where hopefully he'll straighten up.

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Scales of Justice, Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 80
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile, Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 64 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum

• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Charlie Chan In Panama

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Charlie Chan In Panama

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Charlie Chan In Panama

• Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise

• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Murder Over New York

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Murder Over New York

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Murder Over New York

• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Charlie Chan In Rio

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, Charlie Chan In Rio

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Charlie Chan In Rio

• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Dead Men Tell

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Dead Men Tell

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Dead Men Tell

• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries

Scales of Justice, Castle In The Desert

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 90
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Castle In The Desert

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Castle In The Desert

• "The Era of Chan" Featurette
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Still Galleries








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