Judge Paul Corupe was once hypnotized into admitting he liked listening to Menudo. It's taken him years to recover from the harrowing experience.
"Very low spirits in Bonner séances—all come from basement."—Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)
In the 1930s and '40s, silver screen audiences thrilled to the deductive skills of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong, a trio of Asian detectives that each had their own series of feature films. Chan, created for the printed page by Earl Derr Biggers, was easily the most popular of the bunch, staring in close to 50 films over the course of twenty-odd years. Although his profile is no longer as prestigious as it once was, MGM has finally released the Chanthology, a box set collecting the first six Charlie Chan films made at Monogram after Fox gave up on the series.
Found either on its own or as part of the aforementioned box set, fan favorite Meeting at Midnight is the third Monogram Chan film. In this particularly spooky entry, the mysteries of the spirit world take precedence over Chan's more pressing government agent work, as his daughter winds up a suspect in a strange murder plot at a séance.
Facts of the Case
Ever-present Chan assistant Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby) is hired as a butler by William (Dick Gordon, X Marks the Spot) and Justine (Jacqueline deWit, Twice Told Tales) Bonner, phony psychics whose suspicious séances use all manner of crowd-fooling tricks, including a couple of actors hiding in the basement with a trunk full of masks and costumes. When Charlie Chan's numberless, but "most beautiful" daughter Frances Chan (played by her namesake, Frances Chan, God Is My Co-Pilot) is dabbling in the spirit world at one of the Bonner's hokum shows, William inexplicably slumps over, murdered by some unseen force. As his daughter comes under suspicion, Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) takes the case and immediately starts questioning Justine. But when he spots the fairer half of the clairvoyant couple calmly walking off the roof of a nearby high-rise, Chan knows that his real suspect is some sort of master hypnotist.
It's a testament to the detective's popularity and longevity that fans still flocked to Charlie Chan's films after a new actor and later, a different studio took over the character's adventures. Chan first became a famous cinema sleuth under Warner Oland (Werewolf of London), who donned the white hat to solve murder cases while dropping Confucius-like pearls of truth in 16 films for Twentieth Century Fox in the 1930s. Oland's death in 1938 put the coveted role in Sidney Toler's hands, who played the Inspector until Fox halted production in 1942. Toler was interested in seeing Chan live on, however, and he soon had poverty row studio Monogram signed on to resurrect the character in a second series of films with a decidedly wartime twist. The Inspector would now be a government agent after foreign spies and infidels, although one with enough free time to solve a few domestic murders on the side.
The only downside was that the cheaper Monogram Chan cycle of films really showed their low budgets. The action is always confined to three or four sets, locations that would pop up in many of the other entries. For instance, the office building seen in this film is also featured quite heavily in The Scarlet Clue—the lone noticeable difference being that different room numbers have been stuck on the doors. But despite an overall feeling of shoddiness, Meeting at Midnight is one of the best Chan films released in MGM's new set, a popular choice that had a second life as a revival house print. Moreland is given his most screen time yet, and the usually stoic Chan almost becomes a victim of the mad hypnotist, the first time the Monogram films placed him in any real danger.
Although the solution to the murder mystery will no doubt seem a little far fetched for some, Meeting at Midnight has a better-than-average script, which has Chan not only going around collecting clues, but also debunking the séance by exposing the mechanical trickery used by the phony mediums. When Charlie Chan gets too close to the answer (which is literally handed to him in a Scotland Yard telegram), the hypnotist kidnaps him and tries to make Chan follow Justine's spellbound trip off the roof. This leads to one of the few moments of real, palpable suspense in the whole series, as Frances races after her pop to stop his death.
Birmingham Brown is all over this film, actually playing an integral role in the plot instead of simply being thrust into the action by his mere proximity to the mystery. His performance is great as usual, but the material seems a bit off this time—one ongoing gag has Brown trying to snap his fingers to make himself vanish, as instructed by a dime book of magic tricks. It's moderately funny, but I can't help feeling Brown would have been better used if he had a solid straight man to play off of. He certainly can't look to Chan's offspring this time—like Marianne Quon's portrayal of Iris in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, Frances Chan is played by a non-actress who contributes nothing to the adventure. Oddly enough, Chan actually praises her assistance in his detective work—a far cry from the insults and derision and heaps on every other member of his family.
Here we have another Charlie Chan film with yet another average technical presentation. MGM should cross their fingers that Chan doesn't show up in their vaults to solve the "Mystery of the Soft Transfer" or "The Secret of the Hissing Audio Track." Gathering the traces of grain, dirt, and specks from the print and making special note of the limited high frequencies on the mono soundtrack, Chan would no doubt gather the studio heads in one room before announcing that this DVD probably looks only slightly better than previous VHS releases. But one mystery would remain—where are the special features on this bare bones release?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Racial stereotyping is a valid issue in these films, and I can't let a Charlie Chan DVD get away without addressing this concern. Toler is a Caucasian actor who plays an Asian by pinning back his eyes, donning a phony Fu Manchu moustache, shooting off toothy grins, and dropping the articles from his speech. Birmingham Brown, as played by Mantan Moreland, also runs against our modern sensitivities as a perpetually scared, subservient African American. If you find any of these descriptions extremely offensive, you probably won't enjoy these films. If you're made uncomfortable by them, proceed with due caution.
Short running times and no extras don't go very far in justifying MGM's seemingly high price tag for these releases. Until the cost drops, I advise buying MGM's entire Chanthology over picking up the individual films. Still, if you're just in the market for a rental to test your Chan threshold, Meeting at Midnight would be a fine choice.
Thanks to the evidence gathered by Chan himself, MGM is guilty of overlooking opportunities for restoration and extras. Why not tack on a short documentary overview of the Monogram years? The studio is sentenced to take a long walk off a tall building.
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