Judge Number Three...err, I mean, Judge Paul Corupe reviews this Charlie Chan film. But that sentence for MGM...don't you think that's more of a punishment for the audience?
"I am very smart detective."—Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)
The Charlie Chan films represent one of the longest standing franchises in the history of cinema. Based on a character originated by novelist Earl Derr Biggers, the popular Asian sleuth appeared in almost 50 films during his career, spawning imitators such as Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong. Because of their outdated cultural stereotypes, the Chan films have been slow to make their way to DVD, but MGM has finally released Chanthology, a box set collecting the first six Charlie Chan films made at Monogram studios.
Available on its own or as part of the Chanthology, Charlie Chan's adventure in The Shanghai Cobra stands up with the better Monogram Chan films, and proves itself as one of the best films in this new set. Toler is great a usual, but the film is also helped by a fresh approach from a new director, and a better than average whodunit plot.
Facts of the Case
When three bank employees are found dead with cobra venom flowing in their veins, Inspector Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler, Operator 13) is called in to investigate. Chan remembers this same poisonous tactic was used eight years ago in Shanghai in aiding the escape of the mysterious criminal Jan Van Horn. With legwork from chauffer Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, Spider Baby) and "Number Three Son" Tommy (Benson Fong, Kung Fu), Chan starts to investigate the possibility that Horn is back, and after a government-owned supply of radium housed in the bank vault.
Besides being one of the most prolific fictional detectives ever to appear in films, Charlie Chan has also proved to one of the most versatile, maintaining his success through a studio shuffle and portrayals by several different actors. The character first became a famous cinema sleuth under Warner Oland (Werewolf of London), who played Charlie Chan in 16 films for Twentieth Century Fox in the 1930s. When Oland died in 1938, the role was re-cast to Sidney Toler until Fox shut down the series in 1942. Toler lobbied hard for the character, and poverty row studio Monogram brought the series back to life two years later with a new string of cut-rate Chan films. Toler continued to play the Inspector at Monogram until his own death in 1947.
Because their budgets were barely half of what Fox spent on each installment, the Monogram cycle of Charlie Chan films are usually held as inferior copies. Although Monogram could not compete with the exotic locales of the big studio Chan flicks, these films still had the basic ingredients to satisfy die-hard Chan devotees—a charismatic detective, brief flashes of comedy, and a murder mystery filled with intrigue and danger.
The Shanghai Cobra is the sixth Monogram Charlie Chan film, making it chronologically the last film in MGM's box set. Like most long-running film franchises, Charlie Chan films are quite formulaic, with Chan brilliantly solving a murder case while dropping Confucius-like pearls of truth. But while many of the Chan whodunits had obvious solutions, The Shanghai Cobra benefits from a well-written and elaborate plot, one that could not possibly be unraveled by the audience. Chan's search for a man who has evidently changed his facial appearance since vanishing many years ago keeps the suspense running at a substantial level, and even when the mystery seems to be solved, Chan is still working on veiled angles as yet unknown to the police. When the players are invited into a bank office at the end of the film, the viewer is just as surprised as the crooks when Chan reveals his conclusions.
Also helping to make this one of the best films in the Chanthology is the addition of a new director, Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, Walking Tall), who takes over from poverty row veteran Phil Rosen (Youth on Parole). Karlson gives The Shanghai Cobra palpable film noir feel, which compensates for the low budget and fact that everything takes place on just a few small sets. Also appearing in this film is one of the more interesting props in any of the Chan films, a strange "video jukebox" that appears in a coffee shop. After putting a nickel in the slot, a camera turns on, allowing a woman in a control room to view the music lover on a closed circuit TV and ask for a record selection.
Performances in this film are generally quite good, even though many of the supporting actors were really only bit players at the time the film was made. The best moments are provided by Chan sidekicks and comic relief Birmingham Brown and Tommy Chan, who bring some welcome levity to the proceedings. As in the other films, the joke here is that Tommy is actually hurting Chan's investigation more than helping it, which gives Toler a chance to reel off a few barbs at Tommy's expense. Not every joke works, but the humor has held up surprisingly well after 60 years.
Overall, the quality of this release isn't great, but conforms to what I expected. Although little or no apparent restoration has gone into any of the films in the Chanthology, The Shanghai Cobra is probably just slightly below average for a film of this age. I suspect this print is only slightly better than previous VHS releases—perhaps a little on the soft side, with grain, dirt, and specks occasionally rearing their ugly heads. Additionally, this Chan film has several dark sequences set in a sewer, which can be a little hard to make out. The mono soundtrack is passable, showing both its age and Monogram's limited production values. Dialogue is always understandable, but high frequencies tend to be a little distorted. Like MGM's other Chan releases, an underlying hiss is present in most scenes, although it isn't terribly distracting. Finally, no extras are included, which will probably be a disappointment for Charlie Chan fans who have waited so long for any of these films to show up on DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No discussion of the Charlie Chan films would be complete without a mention of the series's racial stereotyping. Yes, it's all true—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. Likewise, the character of Birmingham Brown, as played by Mantan Moreland, also runs against our modern sensitivities as a perpetually scared, subservient 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. While I won't rationalize or apologize for MGM (they do enough of that in their liner notes), I do think that it's a shame that the ethnic caricatures contained in the Chan films have given this otherwise durable series a black mark and prevented their release for so long.
Because of the short running times for each film and the lack of extras not properly reflected in the price, I advise buying MGM's entire Chanthology over picking up the individual films. However, with noirish touches and a good sense of humor, The Shanghai Cobra is the best of the lot, so if you really only want to check out one Charlie Chan film, this installment makes a great purchase all by itself. While the quality of the release and the lack of extras are just slightly disappointing, it's great to see this film released at all. Now that MGM has exhausted their vault, hopefully, this will convince other studios to release their Charlie Chan films as well.
In a plea bargain with this court, MGM has pled guilty to the lesser charge of disappointing Chan fans. They are sentenced to remake The Shanghai Cobra as a buddy comedy with Sylvester Stallone with Pat Morita.
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