Judge Paul Corupe vs. Boris Karloff? Not quite, but it did get your attention.
"Small things sometimes tell large story"—Charlie Chan (Walter Oland)
Though almost forgotten today, Charlie Chan was Hollywood's most popular sleuth of all time, appearing in almost 50 films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Standing out against copycat screen competitors like Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong and Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto, Warner Oland's inscrutable Far East crime-solver thrilled audiences with brilliant deductions and a seemingly unlimited supply of pithy Chinese proverbs. Following Fox's long-awaited Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 1 release comes this whole new volume of Chan-tastic mysteries for fans of classic B-thrillers.
Facts of the Case
Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 2 packs in four more fun whodunits for Honolulu's foremost police detective:
• Charlie Chan at the Circus
Charlie Chan (Warner Oland, Werewolf of London) and his family are invited to attend a local circus, but their vacation is cut short when murder strikes during the big-top show. One of the circus owners is discovered dead in his office with the door bolted from the inside, prompting the investigating police officers and "Number One Son" Lee (Keye Luke, Mad Love) to blame the death on a escaped ape, but Charlie thinks the animal may have been purposely let out of its cage. Following a tip on a possibly phony marriage certificate, Charlie and Lee manage to uncover the killer, in addition to solving an earlier murder in El Paso.
• Charlie Chan at the Race Track
A mysterious death in a horse stable has Charlie convinced that a corrupt gambling ring has switched Avalanche, a champion horse, for a broken down steed. The gang's plans to cash in on the 20-1 odds are derailed when Charlie and Lee figure out who has been sending threatening letters to Avalanche's owners. It all comes down to the final race, where a secret device hidden in the photo-finish equipment may prove who the assassin is.
• Charlie Chan at the Opera
Gravelle (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein), an amnesiac and talented singer, escapes from a sanitarium and heads to the local opera house. The police are hot on his trail, and when bodies start piling up in the dressing rooms, Gravelle is fingered as the prime suspect. With the help of Lee, Charlie arrives to lend a hand, and uncovers a long-forgotten tragedy that may clear Gravelle of these grievous charges and reunite him with his lost daughter.
• Charlie Chan at the Olympics
On the eve of the start of the Olympic Games in Berlin, an experimental automatic pilot device is stolen from U.S. soil and the pilot is found dead. Lee, who is swimming for the American Olympic team, heads to Europe on a boat that Charlie theorizes is being used by the spies to transport the device to the Nazis. Arriving on the Hindenburg blimp, Charlie continues his investigation in Germany and manages to recover the priceless gadget, but when Lee is kidnapped before his swimming match, the wise detective may have to hand over the invention.
The definitive Charlie Chan, Swedish actor Warner Oland, donned the white hat and dropped Confucius-like pearls of wisdom in 16 films for Twentieth Century Fox in the 1930s, right up until his death in 1938. The four films in this set, appearing at the tail end of Oland's career, are fan favorites and great examples of why the series was so popular. While they're light whodunit fare, they benefit greatly from well-written and elaborate plots, above-average B-production values, and spot-on performances by leads Oland and Luke.
First up, Charlie Chan at the Circus is a really entertaining little film that really pulls out all the stops. Beginning with a rare glimpse of Charlie's 12 children (!), the story really packs in the twists and turns, presenting viewers with a nice twist on the old "locked room" murder plot. The fast-paced story is also supplemented with some good comedic relief from Keye Luke, who becomes obsessed with a female sideshow contortionist, much to his pop's dismay. Featuring real sets and performers filmed at the Al G. Barnes Circus during the winter off-season, there's a real authenticity to this entry of the Chan canon, making it one of the more memorable films included in the set, as the detective is assisted in his investigation by a couple of little people, watches a flying trapeze artist, and comes face to face with wild animals. Despite a somewhat preposterous solution, this is a very solid Chan entry, undoubtedly one of the franchise's best.
By contrast, Charlie Chan at the Race Track is a bit slow at times, probably because the gambling ring is clearly established at the beginning, making this more of a thriller with a murder mystery tacked on rather than a straight-up whodunit. Director H. Bruce Humberstone, who handled the last three films on the set, was a man who liked to play the ponies himself, and he fleshes out this entry with some exciting stock footage from a local California race track. According to the extras, Oland used to drink on set to achieve Chan's patient demeanor, but the bottle appears to take a slight toll on him this time, as he seems a little off his game. Luckily, Luke picks up the slack this time out, and puts in one of his best performances as the eager Number One Son, going undercover as a laundry truck driver to provide the perfect distraction for his dad to slip into the track stable without notice. Despite some fun moments, Charlie Chan at the Race Track is a more or less average Chan film, and probably the least interesting on the set.
Brilliantly advertised as "Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff," Charlie Chan at the Opera surely impressed fans by featuring the series' biggest guest star to date. It's not very surprising that Karloff is simply a red herring, but the mystery is still well-crafted, giving viewers a still-impressive rogue's gallery to select from. There's even an in-joke that references Frankenstein. The opera sequences, created especially for the film, are the clear highlight here. While all of the Chan films were well-crafted, making the most out of sets left over from Fox's A-productions and a few reels of stock footage, the featured opera is lush and detailed, clear evidence that Charlie Chan's success at Fox had convinced producers to throw a little more money in his direction. While not the most engaging mystery in the set, Charlie Chan at the Opera is certainly the high point of Oland's run at Fox, and it remains a quintessential Chan film.
After Oland's death and the approaching war, Fox sold the Charlie Chan series to Poverty Row outfit Monogram, who cast Sydney Toler as the polite but persistent detective. Under Monogram, however, Charlie would be reinvented as an almost spy-like figure himself, a transition you can see the roots of in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Oland's third-from-last outing as the detective. As with Charlie Chan at the Race Track, the murder mystery takes second billing to Charlie's clashes with a group of criminals—in this case, German spies. While the term "Nazi" is never used and swastikas are blocked out from the expertly-integrated stock footage from the '36 games, it's obvious that this film plays heavily on pre-war tensions, making it a very timely thriller that's unlike almost all the other films in the series. Perhaps spurred by the success of the action-packed Mr. Moto films, which were also produced by Fox, Chan dabbles a little in espionage, switching out devices and double-crossing the spies at every turn. Because Lee Chan is busy dealing with his own trouble as he prepares to compete, this film also saw the introduction of Charlie Chan Jr. (Layne Tom Jr., The Hurricane), another of Charlie"s precocious wannabe-detective offspring, assisting his humble Pop. A great way to end this set, this intriguing mystery takes many of the elements of Charlie Chan at the Race Track that didn't work and gives them new life, pushed along by one of Chan's most fast-paced scripts yet.
As with their earlier box sets of both Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, Fox's Charlie Chan, Vol. 2 looks pretty impressive for a collection of 70-year-old films. The prints are occasionally a little bit fuzzy, and nicks and scratches crop up throughout, but Fox has again worked wonders on the transfers, and they are significantly better than the prints shown in the restoration comparisons in each disc. The mono soundtracks are nothing particularly special, though—they get the job done, but little more. In a welcome surprise, Fox continues to load these "throwaway" films full of informative extras. Each disc contains a 15-minute featurette—"Layne Tom Jr.: The Adventures of Charlie Chan Jr.," "Number One Son: The Life of Keye Luke," "Charlie Chan's Lucky Director: H. Bruce Humberstone," and a roundup of all the films in the set, "Charlie Chan at the Movies"—that helps give context and importance to these films. There are also the aforementioned split-screen restoration demonstrations throughout the set, but no trailers have been included this time out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No discussion of the Charlie Chan films would be complete without a mention of the series' racial stereotyping. Oland is a Caucasian actor who plays an Asian by donning a phony Fu Manchu moustache, shooting off toothy grins, and dropping the articles from his speech. Likewise, the character of Streamline Jones in Charlie Chan at the Race Track, as played by minor character actor John Henry Allen, also runs against our modern sensitivities as a perpetually scared, lazy African-American. I doubt there are many Chan fans who revel in the racist overtones of the series, but some viewers will no doubt find these portrayals offensive.
Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 2 is a light but enjoyable DVD set that offers viewers a glimpse of one of the big screen's greatest detective characters in some of the most consistently entertaining B-movies of their time. The four mysteries included this time out may be formulaic, but they still rank as some of Chan's most memorable adventures, making this release a must for fans of vintage sleuthing. Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long for the remaining eight Chan films residing in Fox's vaults.
Illustrious ancestor once say, hunch not sufficient evidence to convince jury of guilt. Free to go.
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• "Charlie Chan at the Movies"
Scales of Justice, Charlie Chan At The Opera
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• "Charlie Chan's Lucky Director: H. Bruce Humberstone"
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• "Number One Son: The Life of Keye Luke"
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• "Layne Tom Jr.: The Adventures of Charlie Chan Jr."
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