Another Charlie Chan film falls under the watchful gaze of Judge Paul Corupe.
"Murder know no law of relativity."—Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)
After Earl Derr Biggers's famed screen detective Charlie Chan was unceremoniously dumped by Fox at the beginning of the 1940s, it was up to poverty row studio Monogram Pictures to reinvent the character and keep him in the public eye during the war years. Luckily, Chan still had popularity to burn even after more than 15 films at Fox, and his legend only continued to grow throughout the decade under the guidance of shoestring director Phil Rosen. Now recognized as one of the most legendary cinema sleuths, the Inspector finally has his digital debut courtesy of MGM's new box set, which comprises the first six Charlie Chan films made at Monogram.
Available on its own or as part of the cleverly named Chanthology, The Jade Mask is another Charlie Chan film that mixes dangerous spies and deadly murder into a potent conspiracy for the master detective to unravel. Although far from the best film in the set, this entry still uses many of the classic Chan formulas to admirable effect—lots of action, an atmospheric old house that holds many secrets, and a gaggle of equally suspicious subjects.
Facts of the Case
American scientist Dr. Harper (Frank Reicher, House of Frankenstein) is working on a top government assignment—developing an improbable gas that can turn wood into metal. Outside his mansion, an unknown spy lurks in the darkness, waiting for an opportunity to steal the formula. Despite all sorts of precautionary measures, including a booby-trapped room where the secret information is kept, the secret agent breaks in and murders the good doctor. Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) arrives to find Sheriff Mack (Al Bridge, Buck Rodgers) has already gathered the relatives and assistants of the inventor for questioning. Eddie Chan (Edwin Luke) and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby) arrive to supply the comedy while Chan attempts to find the mole before more bodies start piling up.
It was actor Warner Oland (Werewolf of London) who made Charlie Chan a hot property at Twentieth Century Fox, but his replacement, Sidney Toler, solidified the Chan films as one of the longest standing franchises in cinema history. The character outlived both Oland and Toler, who died in 1938 and 1947 respectively. Roland Winters (Blue Hawaii) was the final actor to play Chan until the character's resurrection as in Hanna Barbera's 1970s cartoon Amazing Chan & the Chan Clan. Incidentally, this was the first show to have Chan portrayed by an Asian actor.
The Jade Mask was the fourth Charlie Chan mystery that Monogram
cranked out in just over a year since picking up the abandoned series. Even
though the budgets were modest compared to what Fox spent taking Chan to lavish
locations around the world, later Chan films like this one generally work as fun
time-wasters. Most of this is due to Toler, who was still in top form as the
unflappable Inspector Chan, a Confucius-like detective who always got his man,
or more likely in the Monogram films, his spy.
What doesn't work is much easier to single out. Edwin Luke takes over the assistant role from Benson Fong, appearing as "Number Four Son" Eddie Chan. The gag here is that he's an egghead that likes to be called Edward, and is fond of using big words. Unlike Fong's wide-eyed exuberance as Tommy Chan, these traits don't mix well with Moreland's always excellent portrayal of Birmingham Brown, and Luke proves a terrible actor. The results even reflect poorly on Moreland, who has far less opportunities to break up the tension with his comic relief. One unexpected bright spot is the animated Sheriff Mack, played by Al Bridge, who is much better than the most of the no-name actors that usually make up the supporting casts in the Chan films.
The biggest problem with The Jade Mask is undoubtedly the strange solution to the mystery, which is just an unbelievable and far fetched as a gas that turns wood into metal. The film awkwardly sets up all kinds of clues for the final culprit's exposition, including Dr. Harper's mostly unexplained interest in ventriloquism and most curious wall decorations—plaster masks of all the house guests. Taken within the context of the whole plot, these are completely unnatural story elements that serve no other purpose but to provide a convoluted solution that is obscured from the viewer until the last five minutes. Although the mystery itself clips along at a suspenseful pace, the finale of the film is easily the biggest disappointment in the set.
The Jade Mask falls into line with the rest of the Chanthology in terms of the presentation quality. The moderately soft picture is occasionally speckled with source artifacts, and while contrast is good, black levels can be a little inconsistent. Again, like the others, The Jade Mask is probably just slightly below average for a film of this age. Sound is a passable mono track limited in high frequencies and suffering from a narrow soundstage that betrays Monogram's limited production values. Dialogue is understandable, even through an underlying hiss is always audible. No extras are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The controversial Charlie Chan films have something of a social stigma attached because a Caucasian plays the Asian detective. Toler pins back his eyes, shoots off toothy grins, and drops the articles from his speech, creating a plausibly racist Asian caricature. Birmingham Brown, as played by Mantan Moreland, is also troublesome—a subservient African American chauffer afraid of his own shadow. Although MGM does apologize in the liner notes for Toler's depiction, and I doubt many Charlie Chan fans delight in the racist overtones of the series, some viewers will find these portrayals offensive, and should consider this a warning.
It's a shame that the ethnic caricatures contained in the Chan films have kept them locked away for so long, however the release of the Chanthology should be celebrated by fans of the series everywhere. A lack of extras and a run-of-the-mill technical presentation will probably be a disappointment for many, but even having these films on disc is something to shout about. Because of the middling storyline and short running time of The Jade Mask, I recommend buying MGM's entire Chanthology over picking up the individual films, this one included.
I was about to let this film off, until I realized that The Jade Mask actually featured no masks made of jade, and this was yet another attempt to cash in on the "Chinese" angle. This film is guilty of perjury.
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