Feb 13, 2008

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4

"Startling international intrigue becomes the weirdest case in the annals of crime!" boasts the trailer when Charlie Chan takes on a prewar Nazi spy ring operating in Paris in 1939's Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (the final entry in Fox’s superb new Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 4). From then on (with the outbreak of WWII), pretty much all his cases had something to do with espionage. Eventually he’d even officially work for the U.S. Secret Service. But in City in Darkness, he’s still following his usual, well-established routine: on vacation in an exotic port of call (Paris), Chan becomes embroiled in a murder mystery and helps out his local law enforcement colleagues by solving their case. What’s extraordinary this time around, though, is the setting. Not merely the location, mind you, but the geopolitical setting.

As the stellar special features (produced, again, by John Cork’s Cloverland) go to great lengths to point out, this is a surprisingly political Chan film. I’d actually go so far as to say that the viewing experience isn’t complete with the movie itself; one must watch the featurettes to have it appropriately historically situated. Yes, we all know what was going on in Europe at that time. But I, for one, was unaware that the Hayes Code forbade Hollywood movies from "maligning" a nation, effectively preventing filmmakers from directly commenting on the rise of Nazism. Nor did I know that the script was adapted from a play written by recent European emigres who had just been through the events it portrays. The facts one learns from "The Making of City In Darkness" greatly enhance the viewing experience. (They also spoil the film, so be sure not to watch it beforehand!)

Charlie himself is considerably different from when we saw him last, in Fox’s Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 3; he’s now played by Sidney Toler, stepping in for the late Warner Oland. By City in Darkness, Toler has had three films to get used to the part, and he’s essentially made it his own. Unfortunately, he finds himself without his amiable comic-relief sidekick, Number 2 Son, and instead saddled with Harold Huber as a somewhat lacking substitute, the dim-witted, proto-Clouseau cop nephew of Charlie’s friend, the Prefect of Police. Huber, a reliable character actor who made appearances in various roles throughout the Chan series, isn’t bad, and some of his antics are amusing, but a little goes a long way. His best gag is one of the most surprising aspects of the film: every time planes are heard overhead, he runs off camera and comes rushing back in panic, loaded down with gas masks. It’s rather startling that the filmmakers were comfortable making jokes about this at a time when Paris–and the world–were gripped with fears of war and air raids! The real joke, of course, is slyer than the sight gag of seeing Huber weighed down by clumsy contraptions; it’s a comment on the ultimate futility of these hysteria-inducing "duck and cover" responses (to borrow an anachronistic term from the atom age). Which, frankly, isn’t the sort of joke one expects in a B-mystery programmer! Air raids, it bears mentioning, are also the reason that the titular city is bathed in darkness, as a precaution against German bombers and, as the Prefect fears, providing a field day for crooks.

The cloud of war (represented by the prevailing darkness) hangs over all the events of the movie, and lends a darker undercurrent to the typical comic mystery goings on of a Chan film. Similarly, there’s a more dangerous edge to City in Darkness than to some of the entries that preceded it most directly. Charlie Chan finds himself in real, mortal danger at the hands of future U.N.C.L.E. boss Leo G. Carroll, and it requires all of his ingenuity to escape. Reflecting the new espionage angle, all of the motives are murkier as well, even that of the murderer. There is more gray in a spy film than a typical mystery film, and Chan films especially tended to be clear-cut black and white. City in Darkness takes a while to get underway, but its historical setting–and particularly its finale, and Charlie’s final epitaph–make it compulsory viewing for fans of spy films of this era, particularly in conjunction with the short documentaries included on the disc.

Fox has really outdone themselves with the special features on their Charlie Chan collections, and they alone would make these sets appealing even if the films weren’t as enjoyable as they are. Each film in Vol. 4 is accompanied by several relevant featurettes that shed light on both the period in which the film was made and they key players involved in its making. Despite their smaller budget (which Cork manages to stretch impressively), they remind me of the incredible documentaries on the Young Indiana Jones DVDs, and serve a similar function. For me, movies like this are even more fun to watch when situated in the context of their times. In addition to the fascinating "Making of City in Darkness," this disc includes a featurette on the writing team of Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, reliable and prolific Fox scribes who churned out a wide array of Charlie Chan, "Jones Family" and Shirley Temple pictures before moving on to a number of "A" musicals. While it’s a little frustrating that the documentary raises more questions than it answers (implying, for instance, that his partnership with Logan may have been responsible for the dissolution of Ellis’ marriage to movie star Vera Reynolds), it’s fantastic that time and money are being devoted to long-forgotten writers at all!

Charlie Chan in Reno boasts equally arresting documentaries. The movie itself is a top-rate Chan mystery that particularly showcases relative newcomer Sen Yung as comic relief Number 2 Son. (Sen Yung joined the series with Toler, replacing Keye Luke who played Number 1 Son to Oland’s Chan.) Boasting a nighttime setpiece in a Western ghost town, the film (unsurprisingly, given its title) plays out against the sin-drenched backdrop of 1930s Reno. My own limited impressions of Reno were of a sort of poor man’s Vegas, but the movie–and the documentaries–provide another context. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Reno was apparently known as a "divorce resort." According to the featurette "Welcome to Reno," the state of Nevada legalized gambling, turned a blind eye to prostitution and made divorces easier in order to remain vital after the gold and the railroads dried up. Divorce was a lengthy–and sticky–process elsewhere, but in Reno it took just six weeks. Women would check into hotels, boarding houses, or "divorce ranches" in order to "take the Reno cure" and end the marriage that ailed them. Meanwhile the city attracted gigolos and Lotharios eager to swoop in on the new divorcees, making it a hotbed of lowlifes and the ideal setting for a Chan picture. One of the contributors to "Welcome to Reno," a dude ranch cowboy named William McGee also shares his memories of the time and place (including dishing on movie stars) for "Reno Memories." It’s a strange subject, and a very strange place to discover it, but I’m glad I did. An interview-based documentary with actress Kay Linaker rounds out the disc, but contains spoilers.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is also fascinating, as are its features. Widely considered one of the very best movies in the whole series, Treasure Island earns its reputation in spades. Set against the backdrop of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, it contains more than its share of exotic flavor (travel by Pan Am clipper, parties with famous magicians) and exotic mysticism (seances, fortune-telling and ESP). Cesar Romero turns in a great performance as the Houdini-like magician/debunker Rhadini, who joins Chan in his attempt to discredit phony spiritualist/suspected blackmailer Dr. Zodiac. The imposing Dr. Zodiac is a masked, egomaniacal criminal who issues written warnings like, "Do not challenge the supernatural unless you are prepared to visit your ancestors." The featurette "Charlie Chan and the Zodiac" explores this and other startling connections between the Chan film and the Zodiac killings that terrorized San Francisco in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Some of them are tenuous, but it certainly makes enough of a case to believe that the infamous Zodiac killer could well have been influenced by Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. These spooky connections will be evident watching the film to anyone who’s seen David Fincher’s Zodiac, but the documentary provides further exploration with testimony from experts. The other major featurette on this disc looks at Treasure Island itself, the location of the World’s Fair. It’s another fascinating chunk of forgotten history, illustrated with interviews with people who went there as children and remarkable color footage of various movie stars and celebrities attending. The disc also offers a commentary track by Cork and Chan historian Ken Hanke which proves every bit as insightful and listenable as their previous commentaries.

The special features on the first disc, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, are also wonderful, focusing on the passing of the torch from Oland to Toler. Oland’s own final days (rife with drink and questionable mental stability) were the subject of a great documentary on the last set; "Reinventing Chan" picks up right where that left off, with the search for Oland’s replacement. "Sidney Toler: The Man Who Became Chan" focuses on Toler himself, and includes a nice montage of his character roles in other Fox films leading up to his most famous part. Like Oland, he came from a very prestigious stage background. Neither of these documentaries speak very favorably about Charlie Chan in Honolulu, though; in fact they were so negative that they dissuaded me from even watching it for now, though I’m sure I’ll go back to it eventually. Apparently Toler required time to grow into the role, but it didn’t take too long because he manages to make it his own in the other films in this collection.

There is only one spy movie in this batch, but Fox deserves a lot of credit for their attention to detail with the entire Chan line; they truly reward fans of genre cinema. The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 4 is another great addition to the series.

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