Sep 17, 2008

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 5

The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 5 sadly brings to a close Fox’s epic run of box sets preserving these highly entertaining staples of 30s and 40s theatrical programming. But it does so in style, offering terrific presentation, informative bonus features, and–most crucially–seven top-shelf Charlie Chan adventures. Two of the seven are legitimate spy movies: Charlie Chan In Panama and Murder Over New York.

Charlie Chan In Panama is one of the best movies of the series. It’s action-packed, and heavy on international intrigue. The action includes more gunplay than usual, and even an exciting leap from a second story balcony. That’s serious stunt work for a Chan movie! The feature starts with the disclaimer, “We have brought this film to DVD using the best surviving source material available,” but Fox needn’t have bothered. It looks great, even the copious stock footage of battleships and aircraft carriers on the move, always to the theme of “Anchors Aweigh.”

The movie starts out with lots of setup, introducing us to a plethora of potential suspects and victims, even for a Chan movie. Panama is presented as a mysterious, bustling Casablanca-like tropical oasis of agents and intrigue. There’s good footage of the canal spliced in, as well as lots and lots (and lots) of Panama hats just to hammer home the idea that we’re in Panama. In fact, when we first meet Charlie, he’s working undercover for the U.S. government posing as a purveyor of Panama hats! It’s never explained why a Hawaiian police detective is on assignment overseas for Uncle Sam, but that doesn’t matter. No sooner does Charlie meet his contact than that contact dies, the victim of an ingeniously poisoned cigarette. His murder was no doubt the work of the notorious enemy agent Reiner, and it’s up to Charlie and his ever-present Number Two Son Jimmy (Sen Yung) to uncover which of the many suspects that is, and stop him before he can sabotage the U.S. fleet. Is Reiner the doctor with the suspicious beard who’s been injecting lab rats with bubonic plague? The shady Egyptian with the suspicious fez? The shady club owner with the suspicious accent? Or the beautiful (and shady) ingenue with a mysterious past who’s performing at his venue? Or is it the ubiquitous Kane Richmond, who seems to turn up somewhere in every single Chan movie? Those are but a few of the options.

Jimmy gets to be really effective for once, pitching a heavy urn at a hand with gun and saving his dad’s life with precise accuracy honed on the college baseball team. But no sooner has he enjoyed this moment of heroism than he is set up with the old, “I don’t miss a thing!” line followed immediately by opening a closet and having a dead body fall out. Whether he’s pitching in or providing comic relief, Sen Yung remains a welcome presence in these movies and, in my opinion, a worthy successor to Keye Luke’s Number One Son in the Warner Oland Chan films.

Things culminate in a secret chamber accessed from a tomb through a hidden passageway. It’s a set that could turn up in any Chan movie, not Panama-specific in any way, but it’s still just what we look for in this kind of flick. And as for Panama-specific, did I mention the hats? How much more specific do you want? Charlie Chan In Panama is the place to start in this set, and a great intro to the Chan series in general.

Murder Over New York doesn’t need to be specific, because Charlie Chan has been to New York before (Charlie Chan On Broadway, one of the lost ones). There’s a twist this time, though in that the murder happens over the city! Oh, wait a minute; no there’s not. The murder does, indeed, occur on the ground, and in New York rather than over it. But the title still serves to evoke the movie’s topic: airplanes, specifically bombers–and the sabotage thereof. With war on everyone’s lips, sabotage at aircraft plants and naval yards was surely on everyone’s mind in 1940, and it’s clearly reflected in the entertainment of the era–including in these two Chan pictures.

The movie opens on an airplane, where Charlie runs into an old Scotland Yard detective pal who’s now working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a ruthless saboteur who the script never connects with any specific country. The two part ways at the airport, as Charlie heads off to yet another policemen’s convention to accept another key to another city. Even Jimmy cracks a joke about how many keys to how many cities his dad has accumulated over the years. The Honolulu Police Department must have a limitless budget to send its star detective all over the world so often to collect medals and awards! Anyway, after picking up his latest big brass key, Charlie goes to meet his friend, only to find that the British agent has been murdered. It’s dangerous to be Charlie Chan’s friend; they have a habit of getting bumped off in the first reel.

The NYPD naturally has no problem with letting Charlie run the investigation, and soon he and Jimmy are collecting clues instead of awards. Even though the trappings this time are quite cloak and dagger and political in nature, the structure is very much a classic Chan murder mystery. The killing happened at a party hosted by the owner of an aerospace firm; all the guests are naturally suspects. They include the usual sorts: an actress, a butler, some mysterious foreigners, at least one guy with a mustache, and, of course, Kane Richmond.

In the course of his inquiries, Charlie learns that the saboteur traveled in Britain with a Hindu companion. He shares this information with the New York police captain, who promptly orders his men to “round up all the Hindus in the city.” On seeing the lineup, the surprised captain comments, “I had no idea there were so many Hindus!” (Examine them closely; one is Stooge Shemp Howard!) Things get even more cringe-worthy as Jimmy misidentifies a few of the suspects, complaining that they all look alike, but in a victory for ethnic profiling, they do net the real suspect in their haul.

There are a few good bursts of action (some of it surprisingly violent) amidst Charlie’s sleuthing: Charlie himself gets shot at while investigating a secret lab, and Jimmy gets himself conked on the head. They learn that the saboteur has altered his face; he doesn’t look like any of their suspects, but fingerprints will still identify him... unfortunately, they’re stolen before they have the chance for that, thanks to Jimmy’s head conking.

In a good wartime variation on the usual Charlie Chan/Thin Man “gather all the suspects in the drawing room” ending, Charlie eventually convenes all the suspects at the airfield to go aboard the new bomber. They pile in for their ostensible tour... and then it takes off! The plane starts to dive, a dive that will send a glass orb of deadly gas falling, killing everyone on board. Only Charlie and whoever placed that orb know this. At the last minute the killer reveals himself to prevent his own death... but it’s still not the final villain! He wasn’t working alone... All this adds up to one of the best finales in the series, and it keeps you guessing till the last minute as to the identity of the physically altered saboteur.

The other movies in this set are all equally enjoyable, standard-issue Chan mystery stories, with little spying, but lots of exciting detecting. The atmospheric Castle In the Desert is the most fun. It plays like a Fox version of a Universal horror entry of the period, including the titular castle, filled with all sorts of medieval weapons, poisons, passageways and even living Borgias. Charlie Chan At the Wax Museum (which features a future Bond baddie and a wax dummy of Charlie, used to similar effect as 007's wax dummy in The Man With the Golden Gun) and Dead Men Tell also deserve mention. Charlie Chan In Rio is the slowest, but still worth a watch. Strangely, three of the seven movies included in this set feature solutions that hinge on plastic surgery and facial reconstruction. Were the writers lazy, or was that a big deal at the time?

As usual with these sets, the first thing I did was look for the special features. Previous volumes have offered a wide array of fantastic documentaries on all sorts of fascinating subjects in some way tangential to Chan, thanks to documentarian John Cork. Due to all the extra Chan movies packed into this set (three of the four discs are double features), there is sadly only one documentary this time around, “The Era of Chan.” Luckily, though, it covers a lot of ground–and it’s as good as ever, and a bit longer than past ones at thirty-four minutes. Beware, though, that it does contain spoilers for a few of the movies in the set, so you may not want to watch it first.

“The Era of Chan” serves as a fairly comprehensive overview of the character, paying quick lip service to the Warner Oland films (more coverage would be unnecessary, as they were well covered in previous instalments) and focusing–naturally–on the movies represented in this set, all made in the early Forties, when war seemed inevitable. Cork uses the overview format to seamlessly fit in some good nuggets on the history of Fox that may not have made it into previous documentaries, such as the merger of 20th Century Pictures and Fox, which resulted in Daryl F. Zanuck overseeing the studio’s prestige pictures and Sol Wurtzel shepherding the lower budget ones, such as the Chans. After that, the bulk of the documentary focuses on the films, ultimately providing the same coverage they would have gotten had they had individual featurettes, as previous collections allowed.

Charlie Chan In Panama gets a bit more screentime, which is appropriate as it’s the best of the lot and seems to be generally regarded as such. We learn that it began life as a Mr. Moto picture, but became a Chan when escalating hostilities in the Pacific rendered a Japanese hero no longer viable. The film, more action-packed than the average Chan, belies that origin, and various talking head experts (all of whom have very distinctive hair, oddly enough) tell us that’s largely because of director Norman Foster, imported from the Moto series. The experts also nicely contextualize the story, something that (as with past sets) enhances the viewing experience immeasurably. They cite the strategic importance of Panama, where, apparently, most Americans feared an attack against our fleet would come.

Nearly all the key behind-the-scenes personalities are profiled, most interestingly co-writer Lester Ziffrin, who turns out to have been a real-life spy himself! Ziffrin accompanied Wurtzel on a tour of South America, ostensibly scouting Chan locations... but this featurette reveals a surprising ulterior motive for Ziffrin, who reported to a higher authority than 20th Century Fox in Washington, D.C.

While the movies themselves don’t go in order in the set, the documentary does, covering each one chronologically. As with Cork’s previous Chan documentaries, it proves to be a riveting ethnography of the Hollywood community of the era, all filtered through Charlie Chan. A number of high- and low-profile actors and producers are covered, including Marc Lawrence, the actor who made a career out of playing gangsters owing to his undeniable “gangster face,” familiar to Bond fans from his performances in Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With the Golden Gun. Lawrence portrays the main heavy in Charlie Chan At the Wax Museum, looking younger than I’ve ever seen him, yet still exactly the same.

At the end, “The Era of Chan” rather abruptly sums up the rest of Chan’s screen career, including an aborted pilot starring Number One Son (dropped because ABC “decided they don’t want any ethnic characters in anything”) and a Saturday morning cartoon called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. I was certainly intrigued to learn about these Chan incarnations, but a bit perplexed as to why the documentary skipped over the Monogram era (with Toler and Roland Winters) completely. To watch it, you would thank that Sidney Toler never played the role again once the Fox series ended, when in reality he went on to make eleven more movies for Monogram (six of them previously released on DVD by MGM). Whatever the reasons for that omission, it’s still another fine production from Cork & Co., and serves as a perfect companion to the films included in this set.

One final “special feature” that I’d be remiss not to mention (even though it’s not mentioned on the box itself!) is the booklet the collection comes with. Not many DVD releases include booklets at all anymore, and while the Chan ones are brief, they do manage to compile a good amount of facts and trivia, often complementing the featurettes with information not focused on there. I really like that Fox has gone to the trouble of creating these pamphlets for each of their Chan releases.

Ultimately, The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 5 is a great way to go out, though I’m genuinely saddened that we’ve reached the end of the road with Chan at Fox. The studio has done an amazing job with these releases, treating B-pictures like A-pictures and giving them the respect they deserve, not only with impressive picture restorations, but also with the special features I’ve talked about, even going so far (on previous sets) as to recreate lost Chan features out of stills and surviving elements. I feared that the series would decline rapidly at the end, but all seven of these entries are decent examples of Chan at his best; fans of the series will find nothing to scoff at. I only wish that Fox would go back and give the same treatment to the Toler titles previously released by MGM (since they’re all part of the same catalog)–or better still acquire the unreleased Winters ones–but neither of those possibilities seems likely to happen. So we’re left with a swan song–but a damn good one. If you’re a Chan fan, you’ll definitely need this set to compete your collection. And if you’re not yet, Charlie Chan In Panama is a good place for a spy aficionado to begin.


Delmo said...

I watched "The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan" as a child on Saturday mornings. I also remember hearing rumors of a film with a new take on Chan starring B.D.Wong, and a rumor concerning Lucy Liu as "Charli Chan". Did the docu mention the '58 tv series starring J.Carrol Naish, and the tv movies starring Ross Martin and Peter Ustinov?

Tanner said...

No, unfortunately it doesn't cover any of those incarnations. I wish it did; I've been especially interested in the Ross Martin version, which I've been able to find very little information about. But that's not really the focus of the feature. Its primary purpose is to cover the films included in this set, and it does a fantastic, in-depth job of that.

I remember thos Lucy Liu rumors. And Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan at various points, too. I'm all for a new version of Chan, and it would be great if he were played by a real Asian for once. But wouldn't it be just as racist as casting a white actor in the role to cast an Asian and then force upon him (or her?) the stereotype that he must know martial arts? That was never Charlie Chan's thing; he's a thinker, a rationalist. I'd love to see a movie with an actual Chinese actor playing the character as he's meant to be.

Christopher Mills said...

Trivia note: The Ustinov film (Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen) was actually a theatrical release, not a TV film (tho it looks like one), and its poor reception led to the downfall of the studio that released it (American Cinema).

Thanks for the review, Tanner. My set showed up this morning. It was supposed to have been here Tuesday (I'd pre-ordered it), but shipping was delayed by hurricane Ike. Can't wait to start spinning the discs...!

Delmo said...

So, who has the rights to the Monogram films?

Tanner said...

MGM has the rights to the Monogram films. And Fox releases MGM, so it's concievable that they might one day appear in some sort of combined Fox/MGM megaset, like the recent Hitchcock set that combined MGM titles with Fox's Lifeboat... Let's hope!