American author Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) created the fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the 1925 novel "The House Without a Key." The Honolulu police detective with the fortune-cookie aphorisms for all occasions became so successful and so famous that Biggers brought him back for half a dozen Chan books. But more important than the novels, now largely forgotten, are the Charlie Chan movies, the first of which appeared as a serial in 1926.
Although several of the early Charlie Chan films starred Asian Americans, the ones that caught on with the public were the ones made by 20th Century Fox in the Thirties with Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan. When Oland died in 1938, Fox continued the series with an excellent replacement, American-born Sidney Toler, starting with the movie "Charlie Chan in Honolulu." Toler plays Chan in three of the four films in the collection under review.
The "however" is that Fox ended the film series in 1942, feeling it had run its course. Then, several years later, Monogram Pictures carried on, with Toler again in the lead. Unfortunately, Monogram was a low-budget studio and never gave the movies their due. As Warner Bros. now own the pictures, the four we have here are among those later Monogram products. Then, when Toler died in 1947, Roland Winters stepped in to fill his shoes, continuing in the role for six more pictures until the series finally ended in 1949. Here, we see Winters in his first outing in the part.
Of course, there have been other Charlie Chan films since 1949, most notably with J. Carrol Naish in the TV series "The New Adventures of Charlie Chan" (1957-58), Peter Ustinov in the 1981 comedy "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," and Peter Sellers in the parody role of Sidney Wang in Neil Simon's "Murder by Death," 1976. But most true fans don't count them.
So, basically, what we get in the "TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection" is a set of four low-budget Charlie Chan movies made by Monogram at the end of the main series. We also get to see two of the three non-Asian actors who portrayed the main character in the series, much to the delight of most movie audiences and the general chagrin of Asians and others who felt a real Chinese actor should have played the part. Be that as it may, we have what we have, and Toler, at least, does a good job.
Supporting Charlie in his sleuthing job are several primary recurring characters, his sons and his chauffeurs. In the Warner Oland Chan movies, Keye Luke soon joined the cast as Chan's #1 Son, Lee. When Luke left the series after Oland's death, Benson Fong and Victor Sen Yung stepped in as sons, both of whom we see in this collection. In addition, there was always a chauffeur as comic relief, played alternately by Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown and Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown, both of whom we also see in this collection (Stepin Fetchit was also in one of the Chan movies, "Charlie Chan in Egypt," 1935, but we don't find him or the film in this set). Critics then and now berated all three actors for playing demeaning black caricatures, yet they have always been audience favorites. You take them or leave them, as you do all such unflattering stereotypes, and today viewers are more apt to forgive and forget, remembering them as products of their times.
Anyway, the four films we get in this box are not among the best of the Charlie Chan series. They are cheaply made, formulaic to the letter, very brief, and, frankly, not a little boring. Still, there is a certain charm about them, a quaint naïveté that is kind of appealing. While there probably still isn't any excuse for the studios insisting upon non-Asian actors in the lead role and black stereotypes in supporting parts, things we wouldn't tolerate these days, there is no denying that Oland and Toler, especially, were tailor-made for the character of Charlie Chan, and, after all, that's why we call it "acting."
Warners present the films in the order Monogram made them, starting on disc one with Charlie Chan in "Dark Alibi" from 1946. Directed by Phil Karlson, it stars Sidney Toler as Chan, with Benson Fong as Charlie's son Tommy and Mantan Moreland as chauffeur and assistant Birmingham Brown.
"Dark Alibi" is probably the least-effective of the four Chan films in the collection in terms of plot and character. Monogram made it on the cheap, and it shows. They limited the story to two main settings, a boarding house and a prison, and not even they show much set decoration.
The plot, involving Charlie trying to free a man accused of murder because the police found his fingerprints at the scene of the crime, seems mundane at best, and Toler seems bored by it all. Benson Fong was never quite up to replacing Keye Luke and falls somewhat flat. Worse, the supporting cast are hardly visible.
About the only highlights of the film are several exchanges between Mantan Moreland's character and his brother in the film played by Ben Carter, a man who had performed with Moreland on the stage and in at least one previous movie. In these comic exchanges, the two actors finish each other's sentences, as though mind reading what the other is about to say. It's fast, snappy, clever, and often funny. But when a few humorous conversations that have literally nothing to do with the story are the bright spots in a movie, you know the movie is pretty low on entertainment value.
The next film in the set is Charlie Chan in "Dangerous Money," also from 1946, directed by Terry O. Morse and starring Sidney Toler as Chan. This time out, however, Victor Sen Yung plays his son, Jimmy (he would later play the son Tommy, and Keye Luke would return as Lee; go figure), and Willie Best plays Chan's chauffeur, Chattanuga Brown, behaving much the same as Mantan Moreland did in the similar role of comic relief.
The improvement in this release in the series over the previous entry is that its settings are more exotic: an ocean liner and a South Seas island. So we get plenty of fog to provide creepy atmosphere and plenty of murky spaces to provide thrills. Unfortunately, that's about all we get.
Again, the characters are betrayed by an unimaginative script, this one dealing with the death of a government agent aboard the ship. Interestingly, the death occurs when the victim gets a knife in the back while sitting right next to Charlie! We also get to see how formulaic it all became as Willie Best stumbles around scared in a dark room, chattering to himself, bumping into objects, getting entangled in other things, and generally performing the same routine Mantan Moreland had done in countless Charlie Chan films before him.
"The Trap," again from 1946, would mark Sidney Toler's final screen appearance before dying of cancer. He was apparently so weak at the time of filming, he could hardly walk or talk. Howard Bretherton directed the movie, with Victor Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland back as Jimmy Chan and Birmingham Brown.
The plot involves the death of a showgirl in a Malibu beach house. The joy here is that the victim was but one of many pretty girls in a stage revue, all of them staying at the beach house and all of them on display in various flimsy garments.
The only real treat: Seeing Kirk Alyn in a supporting role as a police sergeant. Kirk Alyn a couple of years later would appear as the cinema's very first live-action Superman in a low-budget "Superman" serial. Intriguingly, the sergeant, a motorcycle cop, seems to be the only investigating officer in the murder case, an odd circumstance considering the seriousness of the crime.
We also get to see in this film how Charlie Chan, when called upon to help with an investigation, pretty much takes it over with ultimate authority. After his retirement from the Honolulu Police Department, Chan is only a private detective after all. Still, when he demands that suspects not leave the scene of a crime, in this case the Malibu beach house, they darned well better not leave. Or else. Or else what, I can't imagine, since Chan has no real authority to detain any of them. Maybe he's hoping for the sergeant to back him up. Leave it to the movies.
THE CHINESE RING
The primary interest in "The Chinese Ring," 1947, is that it was the first film to star Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. Directed by William Beaudine, it costars regulars Victor Sen Yung (now as Tommy Chan) and Mantan Moreland.
How you take to American-born Winters as Chan may vary. He seems less comfortable than either Oland or Toler in the role, and his pigeon-English accent is even less-convincing than with the others. I kept thinking of the line in "Murder by Death" where Lionel Twain says to Sidney Wang, "... tell me why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can't say his prepositions or articles!" It was bad enough when Oland and Toler did their pigeon-English acts, but Winters makes it seem positively cruel.
This time the murderer commits his crime right in Charlie Chan's own home in San Francisco. A Chinese princess comes to visit Chan, hands him a ring, and is promptly shot in the back with a poison dart. Don't you hate it when that happens?
The supporting cast is actually pretty good, considering.... It includes Warren Douglas as Sgt. Bill Davidson, the investigating officer, and Louise Currie as Peggy Cartright, a cute, perky newspaper reporter, the two of them sharing a romantic interest in one another despite their interfering in one another's business lives. Then there are Philip Ahn and Thayer Roberts as a pair of shady types, and Bryon Foulger stealing the show as a squirrelly banker.
Moreland does very little in this entry except roll his eyes occasionally, and Yung is practically missing in action. For his part, Chan seems to do some serious detective work rather than just hang around setting traps to expose the killer, but it doesn't elevate the movie much beyond the merest level of bearability.
Apparently, writer W. Scott Darling based his script for "The Chinese Ring" on his own previous screenplay for the movie "Mr. Wong in Chinatown," 1939, starring Boris Karloff as a noted Chinese detective living in San Francisco who has a client killed by a poison dart while the client is in his living room. Hollywood was never very original.
The picture quality in these 1.33.1 ratio, black-and-white films varies slightly. In the first film, "Dark Alibi," the quality is average for an older film. In the second film, "Dangerous Money," the picture is excellent, sharp, clean, and well contrasted. In the third film, "The Trap," we see not only more grain than in the other pictures but more print damage as well. In the fourth film, we get probably the best picture of all, which still is only average.
The sound in all four films is reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. Like it or not, it, too, is only average, even by monaural standards. Not only does it sound limited in frequency range and dynamics, there is a small degree of background noise accompanying some scenes. So don't play it too loudly.
Warners have boxed the four movies rather lavishly, providing a separate disc for each of the four movies. When you consider that each movie is only a little over an hour and that the studio could easily have fit two films on a single disc, you see what I mean. Also, curiously, there is nothing else on any of the discs except the movie, not even a scene-selections menu. So there's a lot of space left over here. There is only one spoken language involved, English, but there are French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The four discs come housed in an attractive Digipak foldout package, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcase.
Insofar as assigning film ratings to these movies, at best they are no more than low-average (5/10) and at worst at least tolerable (4/10). Although we may regret non-Asian actors playing the Chinese lead and the supporting black actors playing unfortunate stereotypes, but there is nothing we can do about that now, except, perhaps, to avoid watching the films altogether. But that would be to deprive ourselves of a bit of film history. Let's just say this set may appeal primarily to die-hard Charlie Chan fans, Charlie Chan completests, and film-history buffs, and leave it at that.