Judge Paul Corupe really doesn't want you to find his secret weather-creation lab.
"When in strange laboratories, don't poke nose into strange machines."—Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)
Charlie Chan is to detective films what James Bond is to spy films. Created by pulp writer Earl Derr Biggers, the levelheaded Chinese Inspector has proven himself even more popular on screen than the printed page. Although the racial stereotyping found in the films is no longer considered appropriate today, the Chan films are an otherwise enjoyable series that should please fans of classic mysteries-and that's just what MGM aims to do with their release of the first six Chan films made at Monogram Studios, collected into a box set called the Chanthology.
The fifth film in the set, The Scarlet Clue, is another solid entry that is available both on its own and as part of the set. Where there's a murder, Chan knows that foreign spies can't be far behind, and this installment is another successful wartime whodunit that combines an intricate conspiracy with a generous smattering of action. Mantan Moreland gets his usual chance to shine as he teams up with his vaudeville partner Ben Carter, and Sidney Toler turns in another dependable performance as the Inspector.
Facts of the Case
After a killer escapes the scene of the crime in a stolen car, Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) tracks down a radio play actress who reported her vehicle missing. There's little to suggest a connection between the murder and the radio studio until Chan notices a scarlet clue—a bloody footprint in the lobby that matches one he spotted near the body. Chan's chauffer, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby), and "Number Three Son" Tommy (Benson Fong, Kung Fu) arrive to offer their less polished skills of deduction, but even they are unable to prevent the suspicious death of another radio actress with blackmail on her mind. Chan begins to think that the matching footprint is no mere coincidence—and neither is the presence of a top-secret radar laboratory just a few floors above the studio. Could the murders have some far more sinister purpose? It's up to Charlie Chan to figure this one out.
Charlie Chan first rose to stardom as played by Warner Oland (Werewolf of London), who appeared in 16 Twentieth Century Fox Chan films right up until his death in 1938. His replacement, Sidney Toler, was embraced by fans of the series, but only played the detective for four short years before Fox pulled the plug in 1942. Later, he managed to convince poverty row studio Monogram to resurrect the character in a new series of modestly-budgeted films. But because Monogram couldn't compete with Fox's budget for exciting locations, Toler's charismatic portrayal of the detective, offset by Mantan Moreland's comedic talents, became more important than ever.
Still, while the Monogram Charlie Chan films have never been fan favorites, they are usually good enough to satisfy mystery fans. That's certainly true of The Scarlet Clue, which belies its engaging plot with a generic title. After his reinvention as a government agent-cum-detective, Charlie Chan often found his murder mysteries had hidden angles of international intrigue. The Scarlet Clue ends up with a plot akin to the first Monogram film, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, which had him tracking down a spy after top secret torpedo plans. This time, the innovation is a new radar technology that has foreign agents planning late-night raids at the laboratory.
Directing his fifth and final Charlie Chan film, Phil Rosen (Youth on Parole) has a much stronger sense of the series, and despite the obvious similarities to Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, this film is by comparison a great improvement. The mystery itself is well-plotted, but Rosen propels this film more with action, and has Chan running around to different floors of the office building chasing a master spy disguised Phantom of the Opera-style with a mask and cape. This all might seem a bit corny today, but it helps overcome the lack of budget and injects a little excitement to the sometimes-staid Chan series.
Those who have seen other Chan films will probably easily spot the conclusion of this film, as it employs one of the trademark surprises that pop up in several other installments. There's enough going on to forgive this, though, including an ingenious elevator trap door and a strange radar lab walk-in weather machine that amounts to little more than a convenient place for Chan and his assistants to encounter the unknown spy behind this sinister plot.
As usual, Mantan Moreland shows off his strong repartee with Benson Fong, and the two actors work well off each other to give some comic relief to Chan's adventure. The highlight of The Scarlet Clue is Moreland's teaming up with his real life stage partner Ben Carter to put on an entertaining vaudeville routine in which they cut off each other's questions with readily supplied answers. Sadly, Carter, who never played more than bit parts in Hollywood, died the following year.
Another average transfer can be found on The Scarlet Clue. Like the other releases collected in the Chanthology, this film looks a shade fuzzy; perhaps a little below average for a 60-year-old film on DVD. Grain and source artifacts can be seen throughout, although they aren't particularly distracting. I wasn't terribly disappointed with the way this film looked, although I definitely felt it would have benefited from a little restoration work. An audible hiss can be heard throughout the mono soundtrack, but dialogue comes through with reasonable clarity. The volume seems a little low, and distortion can sometimes creep through in high frequencies. There are no extras included, although some have speculated that trailers were never even made for these films. All in all, this is a merely adequate presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I doubt there are many fans that enjoy the racist caricatures found in the Charlie Chan series, but the obvious stereotyping is a valid issue. MGM does rationalize Toler's portrayal in their liner notes, stating that the films were created at a time when it was acceptable to cast Caucasians in minority roles. Strangely, no such apology appears for Mantan Moreland's perpetually terrified African American character of Birmingham Brown, who is at least as potentially offensive as Charlie Chan. It's unfortunate that Toler's pinned-back eyes, toothy grins, and faux-Confucius wisdom have been a source of disgrace for this otherwise fine series.
While this is a solid entry in the set, MGM's entire Chanthology is a better bang for your buck, since each bare bones disc runs barely over an hour, and the prints are far from pristine. Charlie Chan fans have waited a long time for these films to show up on DVD, and while these discs could have been a little better, it's a relief to see them released at all.
Like the killer who left the shoe print, MGM could have gotten away with it if they had just remembered to clean up the evidence a little better.
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