Sep 11, 2007

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3

Unlike the previous volume, there are no spies per se to be found in any of the movies in Fox’s third collection of Charlie Chan films starring Warner Oland. But the series remains an undeniable prototype for the spy series to follow in later decades, and thus merits Double O Section coverage.

The notion of the "series spy," or even of the spy as hero, wouldn’t really come along until James Bond (or at least Hammer’s Dick Barton, Special Agent) and is a purely postwar phenomenon, cinematically speaking. In the 30s and 40s, series heroes tended to be detectives or, in the serials, masked avengers. But whereas the detectives of literature tended to stick to a single haunt (Marlowe had LA and Sam Spade San Francisco; Charlie Chan had Honolulu), their early cinematic counterparts quickly drifted farther afield. When you’re delivering a succession of B pictures that all basically offer variations on the same plot, it’s a lot more appealing to audiences (especially depression-era audiences seeking escapism from their own bleak, urban surroundings) if you change the location, and offer them some exotic scenery. Thus the Chan of the movies, while remaining a detective on the Honolulu police force, began to venture out around the world and append destinations like "In Paris," "In London," "In Shanghai," and "In Monte Carlo" to his name for a succession of successful programmers. An argument could certainly be made that these films led directly to the postwar secret agent hero, who had much better reason to travel abroad than a flatfoot, anyway.

Of course, the Chan crew didn’t actually travel the globe. A Charlie Chan movie typically begins with the credits appearing over establishing stock footage of the locale in question, then moves into studio sets and the occasional Southern California exterior dressed to look like wherever. But that, combined with an appropriate cast of accented "locals" (usually including a local police chief), is generally enough. One exception to the rule, however, is The Black Camel, which really was shot on location... in Hawaii. (Black Camel was only Oland’s second performance in the role, and the series was still young enough that Chan’s home turf was exotic enough in and of itself.)

The Black Camel finds the detective investigating the murder of an actress who was shooting a movie in Hawaii, and also that of an actor killed three years earlier in Los Angeles. (As Nancy Drew would sometimes speculate, there just might be a connection!) Bela Lugosi shows up (fresh off his success as Dracula) as a psychic, and Chan wastes no time in debunking his methods. Lugosi’s character, however, sees through Chan’s as well, making their initial confrontation a highlight of the film. Some of the supporting performances are definitely better than others, and there’s a major flaw in the solution if one puts too much thought into it, but this is certainly a fun way to pass seventy minutes. In fact, the location photography and impressive camera movements (atypical for the era), make the picture look more expensive than it no doubt was, and combine to make this one of the better entries in the series. (And probably the best from a purely visual standpoint.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Charlie Chan In Monte Carlo was Oland’s last completed Chan picture. The actor is certainly comfortable in the role, and a joy to watch. But the series has fallen, for better or worse, into a predictable formula by this point, and the direction is a lot more formulaic, too. Still, it’s a formula by which anyone who’s bought and enjoyed Fox’s previous volumes will no doubt be entertained, and the supporting cast is especially good this time out. Harold Huber, who plays a proto-Clouseau police chief (the sort of French caricature who actually exclaims, "Sacrebleu!"), deserves particular mention. Monte Carlo (as portrayed primarily by a casino interior) is always a favorite setting of mine, and Bond fans will probably get a kick out of the (admittedly few) gambling scenes. Maybe it was the stagy casino sets, but I was pleasantly reminded of the Barry Nelson Casino Royale while watching this.

Charlie Chan’s Secret brings the detective to San Francisco, where he unravels an "old, dark house mystery," a staple of 30s and 40s B movies, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. The house itself is a marvel of production design (which the commentators credit to the director, a former art director himself), with oddly-sized doors and crooked angles reminiscent of German expressionism. It’s also loaded with secret passages and hidden panels, and this is exactly the sort of movie that served as the model for classic Avengers episodes like "The Joker" and "The House That Jack Built." Chan debunks a seance by exposing some nifty trickery, and some of the ingenious killing methods also involve inspired gadgetry, making this entry especially appealing to spy fans.

Finally, Charlie Chan On Broadway proves a curious title, for the movie doesn’t involve actors or showgirls (of the big-time variety, anyway) or any of the things one associates with the Great White Way. Instead the tale revolves around newspapermen, gangsters and the goings on at a small nightclub that really could be anywhere. It's another one of those "missing diary" plots, but at least Keye Luke gets some time to shine as Chan's famous #1 Son, Lee. (The only other movie in this set that Luke appears in is Monte Carlo.)

As with all of Fox’s Cinema Classics, there is an abundance of quality bonus material on this set. (The only noticeable omission is original theatrical trailers, but I assume that’s because none survive.) These DVDs are produced by John Cork, and James Bond fans especially know that his association is generally a mark of quality on any DVD release. A half-hour featurette called "The World of Charlie Chan" lends credence to my argument for the Chan movies as a proto-spy series, and also serves as a great primer on the Oland cycle of Chans. A succession of experts in various fields pop up to contribute comments on the historical or sociological significance the locations and events dealt with in all the Oland Chan movies (not just the ones in this set). The best part concerns Charlie Chan At the Olympics, which appeared in the last volume and bursts at the seams with historical curiosities! (Chan flies to Germany on the Hindenberg mere months before its destruction, and stock footage shows brief glimpses of both Adolf Hitler and the man who put his "master race" in its place in ‘36, African-American Olympic great Jesse Owens.)

Equally fascinating is the documentary on Oland himself, "Charlie Chan is Missing." While it never delivers a satisfactory answer to the startling mystery it begins with (why did Oland excuse himself for a drink of water on set one day and then disappear?), it paints a portrait of a very complex and emotionally unbalanced actor. Did you know that Oland and his wife translated the first editions of their friend August Strindberg’s plays into English? Or that he became so enmeshed in his famous character that he would conduct interviews as Chan late in his life, referring to Warner Oland in the third person? These are only a few of the fascinating bits of information to be gleaned from this featurette.

I expected "Chanograms: The Aphorisms of Charlie Chan" to be nothing more than a compilation reel of Chan’s various pithy epithets ("Tongue often hang man quicker than rope!"), but it’s actually more than that, and begs reconsideration of a hallmark of the series which some dismiss as unfortunate, racist "Confucius say" humor at the expense of the Chinese. One film historian points out that these biting remarks are generally terrible insults disguised as polite wisdom, and enable Chan to establish his intellectual dominance over hapless, xenophobic Caucasians in a socially acceptable manner. Perhaps he’s over-thinking it, but the notion appeals to me. I must admit that I have trouble seeing why the series is considered so politically incorrect to begin with. True, the lead Asian character is played by a white man, but is that really so bad? The character is portrayed with great reverence and intelligence. Chan is no bumbler; he is smarter than everyone else and always outwits the white local police and suspects alike.

"Charlie Chan and the Rise of the Modern Detective" firmly establishes the character’s place in the pantheon of crime-fighters. Scholars of the genre compare the detective to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Chan relies on deductive reasoning and forensic investigation to solve cases. They point out that this was in direct opposition to the prevailing trend in the genre at the time, that of the "hard boiled" detective, who relied more on his fists and his gun. Famed forensic investigator Dr. Henry Lee reveals that Chan’s methods are surprisingly accurate, and often prefigured actual investigative techniques that wouldn’t be perfected until much later in the 20th century. Lee, who, like Chan, is Chinese, also stars in the final featurette, "Dr. Henry Lee: The Modern Day Charlie Chan." Based on the title, I was expecting this to be a throw-away feature, drawing a tenuous comparison between the forensic expert and the fictional gumshoe with very broad strokes. It isn’t; it’s merely mis-titled. The documentary doesn’t present Lee as a "real life" Chan, but gives him the opportunity to discuss his own love for the Chan movies and their influence on his life and career, which is interesting and unexpected.

Cork and film historian/Chan expert Ken Hanke contribute informative commentaries to two of the titles; both are worthwhile listens, and information doesn’t overlap. Their track for The Black Camel offers a lot of insight on why it’s so visually superior to the others, giving most of the credit to director Hamilton MacFadden. The track for Charlie Chan’s Secret gives plenty of background on the character and the series, along with an interesting explanation for Chan’s famous broken English. "It isn’t pigeon English," Hanke asserts. (That’s something different, and very specific.) The delivery, he says, came about because Oland wanted it to seem that a non-native speaker was thinking, formulating his sentences in Chinese and then translating them (roughly) to English as he spoke. Cork also throws in a good nugget for Bond fans, revealing that the look for Oddjob was modeled on Oland’s Chan.

But the best special feature of all is the inclusion of two entire bonus movies... almost. One of them, Charlie Chan's Chance, has been lost (apparently destroyed in a fire), but it’s been re-created for DVD via production stills and script pages, read by actors. Bear in mind, the production is mounted with the budget of a DVD feature, and not of a radio play, so it’s not particularly impressive. But it admirably serves its purpose, giving us an idea of what that lost film might have been. The other bonus movie, Behind That Curtain, fortunately survives, but proves a bit disappointing. The 1929 talkie is the first appearance of Charlie Chan in a Fox movie, but the character, played by E.L. Park, barely appears! Still, the transfer on this film is impressive, despite Fox’s dire caveats that it was made from the best vault materials at their disposal, and the studio deserves major credit for including the film. It will prove a curiosity to most, but a treasure to dedicated followers of the series.

The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3 is another impressive set in the Fox Cinema Classics line. Because of the way the movies are distributed between the boxes, you’re guaranteed some really good ones in any of the sets, but this latest one (concluding the Warner Oland cycle) definitely offers the best extras of the batch.

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