Judge Paul Corupe kindly asks you to avoid making jokes about cats missing near Chinese restaurants.
"Every time I meet a Chan, I meet trouble."—Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland)
There's no trouble here—MGM's new six disc Chanthology is great news for Charlie Chan fans, as it represents the first time that the popular detective has been available on DVD. Despite appearing in almost 50 films, modern concerns over the racist nature of a Caucasian playing Earl Derr Biggers's Asian sleuth have delayed his appearance on DVD racks. Although the Chan films in MGM's vault only represent only a small portion of the long-lived series, the studio has seen fit to release their entire Chan holdings—the first six films made at Monogram studios-for audiences to enjoy.
Charlie Chan's second Monogram adventure in The Chinese Cat is available on its own or as part of the Chanthology. While most of the Monogram films are concerned with wartime intrigue, this entry takes a break from the spies to get back to the basics, delivering a solid mystery with a killer spooky ending.
Facts of the Case
When businessman Thomas P. Manning (Sam Flint) is inexplicably murdered in his locked study, the police and the DA are completely baffled. The case is all but forgotten when expert criminologist Dr. Paul Rebnik (Ian Keith, It Came from Beneath the Sea) writes a thinly veiled mystery novel on the case that accuses Manning's wife of the dirty deed. Knowing that his accusation of her mother is a filthy lie, Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury, The Ten Commandments) contacts Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) to take the case. Along for the ride are assistants Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby) and "Number Three Son" Tommy (Benson Fong, Kung Fu) who discover that a jewel smuggling ring is somehow involved in this twisted plot. But what does it have to do with the mysterious Chinese statutes found in Manning's office, and where is the most prized piece of his collection, a large porcelain cat?
Twentieth Century Fox's original Charlie Chan, Warner Oland (Werewolf of London), died in 1938, just two years after the character reached the height of his popularity in Charlie Chan at the Opera, the film widely regarded as the best in the series. Not ones to let a hot property die, Fox recast the role to Sidney Toler, a capable actor who continued to play the Confucius-like Inspector until Fox finally dropped the series four years later-reportedly because World War II had broken out. After a two-year hiatus, Toler made his return to the role in when poverty row outfit Monogram agreed to give Chan a second chance. The main traditions established in the Fox series were carried forth, including a comedic sidekick and the appearance of Chan's often-bumbling children, but in this case they were used to draw the viewer's attention away from the obvious lack of budget. Monogram was only able to spend half of what Fox could on this kind of a film, and as a result, the Monograms that began appearing in 1944 are usually considered an inferior cycle. Still, many didn't turn out too badly.
Count The Chinese Cat among the better ones. While it still has some problems, the second Monogram Charlie Chan film is a definite improvement over the first, the ultra-cheap Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. The story drags a bit in the middle as Chan runs around town trying to piece together fragmented clues, but the engrossing "locked room" murder plot and a pair of murderous twins, gives this entry enough legs to make it stand out as an interesting Chan chapter.
Most won't mind that the mystery turns out to be virtually unsolvable by the viewer, since the emphasis here is on action and doesn't bother to go for unnatural and outlandish plot elements like Monogram's later Chan-tastrophe, The Jade Mask. The finale inside an abandoned carnival funhouse is worth the price of admission itself, an inventive ending that features not only an eerie set, but some of the toughest action in the entire box-Tommy gets seriously worked over by the jewel gang to make Charlie reveal the whereabouts of a valuable gem! Although Brown should really be terrified at the thought of the spookhouse, he manages to calm himself down and squeeze in a few entertaining moments playing with the morbid trimmings as he evades the crooks.
Later films would put Birmingham Brown in the employ of Chan as his chauffeur, but here he is a taxi driver who has to drive the famous detective around town while trying to remember to collect his fare. One interesting point is that The Chinese Cat represents the first time Birmingham Brown was teamed directly with Tommy Chan, and the two get a chance to show off their fine chemistry in a number of good natured scenes. Although Toler is usually good enough to carry any Chan film by himself, the entries that feature a teaming of Birmingham and Tommy to assist in their bumbling capacity are usually the most enjoyable.
The Chinese Cat looks perhaps a little below average for a 60-year-old film, but it is certainly acceptable. Like most of the DVDs in the box set, it's a little bit fuzzy, and nicks and scratches crop up throughout the running time. This is about what I expected, so no surprises here. The same can be said about the mono soundtrack, which gets the job done but little more. Underlying hiss and distorted high frequencies are the only factors that detract from the dialogue, which is always clear and understandable. Unfortunately, these DVDs feature no extras, not even a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Created at a time when casting Caucasians in minority roles was considered acceptable, the Charlie Chan films continue to spark debate to this day," or at least according to MGM's copy on the back of the DVD case. Hidden beneath a phony Fu Manchu moustache and pinned back eyes, Toler's portrayal of Chan will surely offend some viewers today, and those sensitive to these issues should probably avoid this set. Birmingham Brown, as played by Mantan Moreland, also runs against our modern sensitivities as a Stepin Fetchit-style African American character. Although Moreland is not as broad an actor as Fetchit, who actually appeared in the earlier Fox film Charlie Chan in Egypt, the racist overtones of his character can be troublesome. Regardless, it's truly a shame that the ethnic caricatures have given this otherwise resilient series a black mark.
The Chinese Cat falls somewhere in the middle of this set-not a great film, but enjoyable nonetheless. If you're considering picking up this film, do yourself a favor and ignore the individual releases for the Chanthology box set. Now that MGM has exhausted their vault, hopefully, this will convince other studios to release their Charlie Chan films and some of the other non-politically correct detectives seen in the 1930s and '40s: Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong.
Every time I meet a Charlie Chan DVD, I meet b-movie indulgence. Not guilty.
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