on July 1, 2008
Sidney Toler's Chan was nothing like Warner Oland's characterization. But if the truth be told, it's Toler who comes through in the pages of Earl Derr Biggers novels, not Oland. I know because as an inveterate Oland fan, I tried very hard to see my hero in the six Chan novels but, alas, it was Toler who showed up in my mind's eyes and ears. As for the Toler films, it took Fox awhile to reposition the series to capture Toler's strengths. If Oland's Chan was like a stately mandarin, Toler's was more of a gritty, Sam Spade-like characterization.
By late 1940, Fox had tailored the scripts to suit Toler's personality and replaced the globe-trotting Oland formula ("At the Race Track," "At the Olympics," "On Broadway") with a compact film noir-like mystery format that was closer stylistically to "The Maltese Falcon" than to "Sherlock Holmes." And it worked too. "Wax Museum" and "Dead Men Tell" are especially adroit little films that benefit from the Fox studio's top technicians, set and costume designers, and superb supporting cast of contract players. Even a pre-Superman George Reeves shows up in "Dead Men Tell." The last of the Fox Chans, "Castle in the Desert" ended the series on a high level of quality. Presumably, the coming of World War II cut off the overseas markets and cut deeply into the potential revenues of these films, thus ending the series.
My favorite Toler is included in the set, CHARLIE CHAN IN PANAMA. The story is surprisingly timely with spies (today we call them terrorists) plotting to blow up the Panama Canal as the U.S. Naval Fleet is going through it. Charlie is working undercover in this one as a shopkeeper but considering how well known he was supposed to be, wouldn't he stand out like a sore thumb? (Maybe the bad guys are still looking for Warner Oland) The plot takes its time to get going but the climax is as suspenseful as any of the higher-rated Chans. The killer is exceptionally well hidden and the writers exploit our subconscious biases so we keep the individual off our suspect list without even realizing it.
While the earlier Tolers of 1939 only served to emphasize that the "real" Charlie Chan was gone, these last entries show a successful evolution in format and are quite enjoyable if you can just let Toler be Toler, forget (albeit momentarily) about Oland, and ironically see the Chan that Earl Derr Biggers probably had in mind when he wrote his stories. I am sure (this is a pre-release review)that the print quality of these films is excellent if the short-lived Fox Movie Channel airings of a few years back were any indication - they offer stunning b/w photography when the studio system was at its peak.
You could almost feel the gentle trade winds of Hawaii during the 1920's in the first Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers. Romantic and full of atmosphere, Biggers was always a great romance writer who simply incorporated mystery into his books to propel the story forward. His detective was wise and humorous, his take on American life sometimes a riot. Nothing got by Chan, however, and it was his intelligence which always brought justice in the end.
The adaptations to film lost some of the more romantic aspects of the early Chan novels, centering more on Chan as a detective, as to be expected. Enough humor and atmosphere remained, however, to propel Chan into the top tier of film detectives. Warner Oland's Chan was more refined and subtle, Sidney Toler's more outgoing and amused. Both were excellent. This set features Toler in the final "A" Charlie Chan mysteries before it became a "B" series which, while enjoyable at times, did not have the production values or stories to live up to previous pictures.
Fox liked to put Chan in exotic locations and settings. Charlie was in Panama, or on a cruise, or in Rio, one of his many offspring always in tow trying to play detective and generally getting in the way. By the time Castle in the Desert was filmed, it almost felt like a high end "B" rather than the classy mystery series it had been. All are great fun, however, some not having been available in studio approved fashion before. Three in particular from this set stand out.
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a terrific entry and one of the most atmospheric of the original series. This one is centered around a live radio broadcast from the Museum of Crime, where notorious criminals have been immortalized in wax. Chan's second son, Jimmy (Sen Yung), is on hand to help pop solve an old crime and avoid becoming a victim himself. Jimmy accepts the challenge for his pop to appear on the Crime League's weekly broadcast to clear the name of Joe Rocke, a man Chan has long believed was unfairly executed for a crime he did not commit.
But it is Chan's suspicion that the wax museum and his invitation are tied to the recent escape of a man he helped convict of murder, prompting him to accept, arriving on a rainy night when the creepy fun begins. A botched attempt to electrocute Charlie, and the murder of his scientific rival by poison blow dart, not to mention a wax Charlie Chan, all add up to mystery fun for Charlie Chan fans. Marguerite Chapman as the young radio reporter hoping this night will be a great story and Joan Valerie as the pretty but slightly shady assistant, Lily, stand out from the rest in John Larkin's screenplay. This one's a real kick in the pants!
Charlie Chan in Rio is actually a fun and colorful remake of the very early Chan entry, The Black Camel. We get a big dose of Brazil right from the start with shots of Rio's sunny beaches and the posh nightclub where Lola Dean (Jacqueline Dalya) sings the exotic, "They Met in Rio," written by Mark Gordon and Harry Warren. Chan and his enthusiastic second son, Jimmy (Sen Yung), are there to arrest Lola for a murder which took place on Charlie's turf in Honolulu. But before Lola can slip away to marry Clark Reynolds, she is murdered, leaving Charlie and son Jimmy with a new crime to solve.
Marybeth Huges is the beautiful Joan Reynolds, who did not like Lola in the least. She had much company, however, including Grace Ellis (Cobina Wright Jr.) and an Indian mystic who may have discovered Lola's secret past. Young Jimmy, always ready to jump to the wrong conclusion, is a hoot. There is a very funny scene where Charlie discovers the real reason Jimmy has been missing math classes back home while he is under a spell. Jimmy's affections for Lola's pretty Chinese maid, Lili (Iris Wong), keeps the atmosphere light as Charlie plays a long shot in order to catch a killer.
The mystery is both fun to solve and watch. His interactions with young son Jimmy are priceless, as is his cool demeanor under pressure. Kay Linaker, Victor Jory, and Ted North round out the cast for one of the most entertaining Charlie Chan films.
Murder Over New York finds Charlie Chan knee deep in sabotage and murder at a convention for detectives. Chan's enthusiastic offspring, Jimmy (Sen Yung), arrives in New York just in time to help pop. Chan's bemusement at Jimmy is quite evident in his comment to a fellow detective regarding his involvement in previous cases. A good screenplay from Lester Ziffren and some good pacing from director Harry Lachman makes the mystery as much fun as the look on Chan's face when Jimmy solves the case every five seconds!
Flying to an annual convention of police detectives in New York, Chan meets his old friend Drake from Scotland Yard aboard the plane. Drake is now working for the military, trying to stem a rash of sabotage. Once on land, he turns up dead, the briefcase containing evidence that will help expose the man named Narvo behind it all, missing. Jimmy's nose for chemistry helps uncover a new gas called tetrogene as the method for the murder and Chan goes to work to uncover the killer of an old pal.
Donald MacBride is the New York detective, Inspector Vance, who lets Charlie guide the investigation. A pretty actress named June Preston (Joan Valerie) is missing a pearl from her necklace which turns up at the murder scene. A chemist named David Elliot (Robert Lowery) and a lovely girl named Patricia (Marjorie Weaver) trying to prove his innocence also figure into the mystery as Chan sifts through the clues. Stooge Shemp Howard has a funny bit as a fake Hindu along the way.
Charlie Chan was bright and funny, and audiences loved him. If anything, his character helped elevate and give distinction to the perspective at the time of Chan's race in general. These were fun mysteries with great appeal, so much so, that we are still watching and talking about them today. Sidney Toler happens to be my personal favorite to have portrayed the sleuth, though he was not Chinese. These films are a fabulous time at the movies for detective and mystery fans.
on July 12, 2008
With the release of Volume Five, the great Charlie Chan series from 20th Century Fox is at last complete. For those interested in watching these classic Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan films in their original order of release, "Charlie Chan In Panama" (1940) is a well crafted , tightly scripted visit to the world famous Panama Canal directed by series veteran Norman Foster. Much of the credit for keeping the suspense high in this cautionary tale regarding the welfare of our fleet goes to the superb supporting cast to include the lovely Jean Rogers along with the very reliable Lionel Atwill and Mary Nash. Another all star supporting cast highlights "Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise" (1940) featuring the great character actor Charles Middleton along with Chan series regulars Robert Lowery and Lionel Atwill with Cora Witherspoon and Leo G. Carroll. Considered something of a rewrite of creator Earl Derr Biggers orginal story,"Charlie Chan Carries On," Murder Cruise manages a few surprises of its own all within the confines of a not so luxurious liner. "Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum" is the third release for year (1940) with no sign of routine obvious - a tribute in part to the organized creativity of the studio system of film production. Here credit for the shooting style of longer takes goes to one time Chan film director Lynn Shores who's theatrical approach to story telling works very well as Wax Museum is essentially a story confined to a single locale. Starting with volume four's "City in Darkness", the Chan series uses as a continuing underlining theme, the growing danger of a world at war. With the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor about one year away, "Murder Over New York" (1940) uses as a central theme the reality of sabotage happening even in the isolationist and still neutral confines of "The Big Apple." Chan regulars Marjorie Weaver and Robert Lowery are joined by Ricardo Cortez, the great Clarence Muse, (still playing memorable roles as late as 1979's classic film, "The Black Stallion") and Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges fame working as a one man scam artist all help keep "Murder Over New York" both interesting and amusing. In "Dead Men Tell" (1941), director Harry Lachman returns to the series with newcomers Truman Bradley, Ethel Griffes and post "Gone With The Wind" Tarleton Twin pre Superman, George Reeves among others. Again the theme of dangerous waters in Dead Men only served to underscore the true dangers of crossing the U-Boat infested Atlantic Ocean. "Charlie Chan in Rio" (1941), the last production from 20th Century Fox to feature the Chan name in the film title, is a remake of "The Black Camel" but as some ten years has elapsed, the freshened up story is, (IMO,) most enjoyable. Featuring another alumnus from "Gone With The Wind" Victor Jory as Alfredo Marana, "Charlie Chan in Rio" conjures up all sorts of mind expanding experiences to help or hinder series veteran Harold Huber and Truman Bradley in a clever tale designed in part to suggest one more carnival before World War draws the country into its abyss as evidenced by Number Two Son Jimmy receiving his draft notice in the film's closing scene. The concluding Charlie Chan movie in this series from 20th Century Fox is the mysterious "Castle In The Desert." (1942) With Number Two Son Jimmy Chan on leave from the Army, Manderley Castle beckons the Chans to the remote reaches of California's Mojave Desert as someone is trying to incriminate a member of the famous Borgia family or worse. "The poisoner?" Jimmy asks. "She's dead." To which Charlie Chan answers completely dead pan, "This lady uses a typewriter." And she isn't the only quirky character what with Paul Manderley, (nicely played by Douglass Dumbrille,) conducting his historical research wearing a mask to hide scars from an earlier accident or as the Mojave Wells hotel owner says he "goes around with only half a face." Soon we have Ethel Griffes, described as "stargazer" Madame Saturnia and Henry Daniell as Watson King motoring to the isolated castle with no telephone and ..... well you get the set up. After the release of "Castle In The Desert", for reasons known only to company executives, 20th Century Fox decided to give the Charlie Chan series an unlimited vacation. By this time, Sidney Toler had secured the film rights to the character Charlie Chan and was busy shopping ideas for a new series all over Hollywood. Two years would pass before Charlie Chan returned to the big screen - this time from Monogram Studios but that's another story for another time. I hope you enjoy these Charlie Chan films and supplementary material as much as I do. Many thanks to 20th Century Fox for sharing them with us again. Best regards, Hal Owen.
Starring Sidney Toler, Volume 5 includes the final seven Charlie Chan films from 20th Century Fox. They are: Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum (1940), Murder Over New York (1940), Dead Men Tell (1941), Charlie Chan In Rio (1941), Charlie Chan In Panama, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (1940) and Castle In The Desert (1942). Toler would continue to play Chan in subsequent films for other studios, but those films were of lower quality in plot and production values than the Fox Chan films. The following is the press release for this set of seldom seen films:
The films are presented in the original full screen format with English Mono and Spanish and French subtitles. All titles included in the collection feature original theatrical trailers as well as still and advertising galleries. Also included is The Era of Chan, a 30 minute documentary celebrating the legacy of the Chan series at Fox. Focusing on the series' final seven films and the talents behind them, this piece gives an overview of the series' success and how the Chan character rose to the status of icon, influencing many screen detectives to come.
If you are accustomed to Warner Oland's Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler's interpretation is a less gentle one. In fact, Toler can seem impatient and even angry at times. However, Toler does manage to make the role work and these films are worth the time of any fan of the series.
on June 7, 2009
Hey! Has anyone actually watched all of the movies in these five FOX sets? I have and I can tell you that the films in Volume 5 were not restored as the ones in the 4 previous sets!
Notice that there is no mention of the meticulous restoration as in the previous volumes and no restoration comparisons presented as bonus material as well! Look closely at the films: many scenes in the films have obvious deterioration in them with heaps of scratches and flashes in many of the scenes!
Notice that a mysterious statement at the beginning of 4 of the films states: We have brought this film to DVD using the best surviving source material available". This is a very sneaky and confusing way to say they were not were restored!
Overall, the films are of fairly decent video quality with "Murder Cruise", "In Panama", "In Rio", and "Castle" having the best of the lot. "Murder Over NY", "Dead Men Tell", and "Wax Museum" have the most deterioration and blemishes.
These films are wonderful classics and should have got the "full treatment" that the previous ones did! This should have been a 5 star rating but I'm taking off one for the lack of restoration and one for the double-sided disc compromise! All in all, this set should not be missed by "Chan" and mystery film aficionados!!!
FINALLY! Now we can have "Castle in the Desert" on DVD! This is the best Charlie Chan entry ever (5+ stars) although I do miss Mantan Moreland who is regrettably absent from this great film. Here's the low-down:
Not one of the other Charlie Chan films can touch this this 1942 Sidney Toler entry. The casting is brilliant, the acting is superior, the cinematography is dramatic and, the location is PERFECT. Imagine that! A castle in the desert! This is a poisoning case, (the Borgia family curse!), and Charlie is summoned to help solve it. He's warned from going from the moment he's invited and, of course, one of his numerous sons (not quite so goofy as some others we've seen) tags along to watch out for his dear old dad.
Dark characters are everywhere and the sub-plots are above average. Fans of Charlie Chan films will drool over this one but the average viewer can enjoy this light mystery as well. Henry Danielle co-stars in this one -- you'll recognize him from many great old mystery films but here is one of his very best: Sherlock Holmes - The Woman in Green -- Danielle plays the infamous and nefarious Professor Moriarty in this well-known Sherlock Holmes film. Getting back to "Castle in the Desert," the desert town, old vehicles, the landscapes, the castle, (and it's creepy accoutrements) are all about the coolest things you'll ever view in a black and white old-timey mystery film.
There are SIX other great entries in this set too. The next best one (5 stars) is "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum," which is a great venue for a murder mystery. In this 1940 film, an arch-villian is hiding out and a nefarious doctor is performing plastic surgery to help him escape justice. This is a Toler entry and Number Two Son provides some comic relief.
"Charlie Chan in Panama" (1940) doesn't exactly race with action but it's still a great story (4+ stars) and a fine Sidney Toler vehicle as well. This is an espionage mystery -- the bad faction is out to wreck the Panama Canal, messing up U.S. Navy maneuvers if it happens. Charlie is right in style with his trademark Panama hat!
Anther good one is "Dead Man Tell" (1941, 4 stars) where an older lady, Miss Nodbury, is scared to death by the ghost of a pirate ancestor just as she's preparing to leave for a treasure hunt. Charlie Chan investigates her family to find the culprit in this murder tale. Along with Sidney Toler, you'll see two other great old stars including George Reeves (Adventures of Superman - The Complete First Season) and Kay Aldridge, who starred as Nyoka in an awesome Republic Pictures serial, Nyoka and the Tigermen (a.k.a., "Nyoka and the Lost Secrets of Hippocrates".)
A pretty good film (3+ stars) is "Charlie Chan in Rio," where Charlie (Sidney Toler) has to help out the local police by untangling a pair of murders. This one (like many others) was directed by Harry Lachman and was released in 1941.
"Murder over New York" Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is out to collar pre-war spies. These nefarious devils are responsible for slowing down the line in aircraft production. Filmed in 1940, this one is pretty good at 3+ stars. A piece of trivia here -- although he is uncredited, Shemp Howard ("The Three Stooges") plays Shorty McCoy (The Canarsie Kid). Here is Shemp's best Three Stooges entry: Malice in the Palace (1949)
"Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise" (1940) is hardly the least of these great Charlie Chan films -- I give it four stars. Here, Charlie (Sidney Toler) is on a cruise from Hawaii to San Francisco and a total of five murders take place. One of the unfortunates is Charlie's Scotland Yard pal! One of my favorite serial actors, Charles Middleton, appears in this fun mystery film. I think he was probably best known as "Ming the Merciless" in the great old Flash Gordon serial but he also shines as the local Sheriff (Middleton almost always played the bad guy but this was a rare exception) in The Black Raven, a superb old mystery starring George Zucco.
Of course, all these films are in black-and-white and the aspect is full-frame. This is a really superb set of Charlie Chan films, the best yet in fact. I say its a steal at any price, especially for Chan fans.
on August 28, 2008
This set is packed with wonderful films for the Chan lover. Wax Museum is probably the best of the Toler films, with Castle in the Desert a close second. Both films have the mysterious atmosphere which made me a life-long fan of the genre. Murder over New York is a favorite of mine. Watch closely and you'll spot one of the Stooges in a bit part. This film has two of the best unintentionally funny scenes in the whole series. Dead Men Tell was my favorite film as a child - the ghost walks to creepy music. And Rio is notable for the terrific cast of actors - Marybeth Hughes as the tipsy jealous wife is my favorite here. These restored sets have come with crisp quality pictures and sound and I assume this one will be the same. If you want to turn someone into a Chan fan, this is certainly the set to start with. I can't wait to get my set.
Fox's fifth and final collection of Charlie Chan films covers the final batch of Sidney Toler films from the studio, and a very mixed bag they are - some great fun, some sluggish.
"Bad alibi like dead fish - cannot stand test of time."
After the striking City in Darkness saw Charlie in a Paris riven with rumours of impending war, 1940's Charlie Chan in Panama is a more conventional flagwaver that sees Charlie undercover in Panama amid mysterious spies, nightclub owners, displaced refugee singers, mystery writers, holidaying spinsters, Egyptian cigarette dealers and a shifty looking scientist injecting rats with bubonic plague. Our hero makes a surprisingly late entry into the story and as usual it's not too much of a stretch to guess who the murderous nazi agent out to sabotage the Panama Canal is, and, despite the word Nazi never being used, it's just as obvious which party is throwing the party. Substituting the palpable fear and panic of City in Darkness for an atmosphere of mistrust as America's involvement in the war looks increasingly inevitable, it's not quite as effective but is still a very decent little entry in he series, benefiting from a decent supporting cast including Lionel Atwill, Frank Puglia, Mary Nash and Flash Gordon's squeeze Jean Rogers, with Victor Sen-Yung finally getting out of Keye Luke's shadow and making the role of Number Two Son his own while director Norman Foster manages to keep things fairly fresh despite already having helped Mr. Moto foil a similar plot to sabotage the Suez Canal in Mr. Moto's Last Warning only the previous year. In fact, this was originally intended as a Mr. Moto film until anti-Japanese feeling killed off that series, offering a neat bit of symmetry with the earlier Mr. Moto's Gamble, which had originally been intended as a Charlie Chan film.
The DVD includes the original trailer and stills galleries.
"When Chinese Emperor have eight suspects of murder, he solve problem very quickly."
"Chop off eight head. Always sure of getting one criminal."
Charlie Chan Carries On may have been the film that introduced Warner Oland as the titular Chinese sleuth and spawned one of Hollywood's longest running series of movies, but it's a particular irony that despite its huge popularity in 1931, it's long been lost while the simultaneously filmed Spanish version, Eran Trece, and the 1940 Sidney Toler remake Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, are still in fine shape. The latter at least offers a structural improvement on the earlier version, which was nearly half over before Charlie was even introduced. This time round the backstory is quickly covered in the opening scene before another of Charlie's old friends meets an unfortunate end and the detective is joining the last leg of a world cruise to find out which of the passengers is a strangler out for revenge. And, with Lionel Atwill organising the tour and its passengers including Leo G. Carroll and Charles Middleton, there should be enough for a decent mystery, yet this marks the series' descent into B-movie territory in the worst way: where the original broke off the voyage for backlot excursions, this is confined almost entirely to its cabins, and it's definitely travelling second class. As if the limited and bland sets aren't enough of a problem, it's all executed with the minimum of imagination and enthusiasm by the screenwriters and director Eugene Ford, constantly getting becalmed by the routine and the predictable. You're better off sticking with the Spanish version (available as an extra on Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 1 (Charlie Chan in London / Charlie Chan in Paris / Charlie Chan in Egypt / Charlie Chan in Shanghai / Eran Trece)), and that's not particularly good either.
The DVD includes the original trailer and stills galleries.
"Only very foolish mouse makes nest in cat's ear."
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum gets off to a great start with hoodlum Marc Lawrence sentenced to death on the week of December 9th and sneering "Thank you, judge. I won't have to do any Christmas shopping." It's not long before he's escaped and is out for revenge on the Chan who put him away, hiding out in C. Henry Gordon's lurid waterfront wax museum offering `24 sermons in wax' and conveniently also location of a weekly radio show, "The Crime League, brought to you through the courtesy of the Murphy Arms Company," which just happens to have a certain Oriental detective on this week's broadcast in a challenge to prove the guilt or innocence of a man convicted of murder. But Lawrence isn't the only one with murder on his mind, the museum harbouring a killer with a new face and a serious grudge...
Despite throwing in a cockamamie electrocution murder, blow darts, plastic surgery, mechanical chessmen and hidden chambers as well as the usual unwanted comic relief from Number Two Son Victor Sen-Yung, this never manages to live up to its opening promise. Confining the action to a few characters in a few rooms in the wax museum, it looks more like an attempt to save money than to build up some claustrophobic tension, and some very lazy writing sees one gatecrasher's identity never explained as he goes from suspect to romantic interest in the blink of an eye. Not the best of Toler's Fox Chans by a long shot, but certainly better than some of the weaker later Monogram entries.
The DVD includes the trailer, albeit without sound for the opening section, as well as a stills gallery with some nice shots of the very convincing wax head of Sidney Toler as well as a misplaced still from another film in the series.
"Coincidence like ancient egg, leave unpleasant odour."
Murder Over New York sees Sidney Toler curious bottom billed - albeit in larger type - and Charlie Chan's name removed from the title, but it's a very decent entry in the Fox series that sees him on the trail of the murderer of an old friend from Scotland Yard (if a friend of Chan's dies, it'll usually be one from Scotland Yard) who was on the trail of a German spy ring trying to sabotage a new bomber plane. Being 1940 before America had entered the war, they can't actually call them Germans, but they're not exactly fooling anyone into thinking they aren't. Once again the miracles of plastic surgery are wildly exaggerated as the mastermind behind the saboteurs has been altered so that even his own ex-wife can't recognise him and once again clues are withheld until the final gathering of the suspects that sees the killer unmasked but a few plot holes lingering.
It's certainly not the most original of the series - one of the suspects is Boggs the butler while even the method of the murders had been used by both one of Boris Karloff's Mr Wong films and 1935's Charlie Chan in Egypt - yet it is an entertaining one with a very decent supporting cast including John Sutton, Melville Cooper and Ricardo Cortez, one of many suspects from previous films to make a reappearance in a different role. There's one bizarre plot development that sees the police rounding up every Hindu in town, leading a frazzled Victor Sen-Yung to despairingly cry "They're all starting to look the same to me," but it's hard to take offence at anything here unless you're really trying.
The DVD includes the original trailer and stills galleries.
"Perhaps insane act designed to direct suspicion toward person of unsound mind."
"Which one of us could that be?"
Thanks to Harry Lachman's visually striking direction that makes the most of its shipboard and dockside locations, Dead Men Tell is one of the handsomest looking Chan films. When not tyrannising actors, Lachman was an accomplished painter, and he has a great sense of composition and atmosphere. It helps that it's a pretty decent script as well, with Victor Sen-Yung's Number Two Son trying to work his way onto a treasure cruise in search of buried pirate gold with pop in hot pursuit only to stumble across another murder. It's a cracking little yarn that throws in plenty of clichés, from a pirate's ghosts, various pieces of a treasure map distributed among various suspects/potential victims and the obligatory parrot jokes, but it works so well you won't complain.
Suspects include George Reeves' reporter, who's looking very healthy for someone who reportedly died six months earlier (and this nearly a decade before he became Superman), unlikely "He-Man actor" Paul McGrath and neurotic Milton Parsons ("Perhaps insane act designed to direct suspicion toward person of unsound mind." "Which one of us could that be?"). But the most memorable performance comes from Ethel Griffies as the wonderfully monikered Miss Patience Nodbury: the plot dictates she doesn't get much screen time, but she makes such an impression it's no surprise they wrote a prominent role for her in the last Fox Chan film, Castle in the Desert. There's a running gag with Jimmy falling in the water, on one occasion after inevitably walking the plank, but otherwise the comedy isn't overdone beyond the usual running putdowns ("Hey, pop, you're not gonna swallow that story, are you?" "Swallow much, but digest little."). Great fun
The DVD includes the original trailer and stills galleries.
"The murderer may or may not be a professional. But one thing is sure. He, or she, is extremely cool-headed, cold-blooded -"
"And very stupid."
"But why stupid pop? It's got me puzzled."
"That prove my point very well."
Charlie Chan in Rio is a remake of the early Warner Oland film The Black Camel, then believed lost after a fire destroyed the negative, and even features that version's director Hamilton McFadden in an unflattering supporting role as an amateur Dick Bartonesque Englishman. It's perhaps more solid than inspired, but despite being very obviously shot on a much tighter budget than the original it's not quite as awkward. The plot has seen a substantial reworking as well as a shift from Honolulu: rather than the victim being an actress making a film on location she's now a singer that Charlie has come to Rio to extradite for murder. Bela Lugosi's spiritualist has been replaced by Victor Jory's hypnotist-cum-psychic, who uses his own brand of funny cigarettes to uncover the secrets his clients would rather left uncovered (as Number Two Son Victor Sen-Yung notes, "Watch out, pop, he's oily and slippery!").
Harold Huber is more restrained here than in his previous Chan outing, City in Darkness, allowing our hero a more intelligent sidekick, but unfortunately Jimmy Chan is too much of an irritant here ("Oh listen, pop, what do I have to bring you, a talking picture of the killer knifing Miss Dean? In the back?"). It feels a bit mechanical at times, but it is fun to see Charlie blissfully puffing away on those funny cigarettes of Jory's...
Extras are again limited to he original trailer, albeit without the original captions in this case, and a stills gallery.
"Paul, we're waiting for you."
"Coming, dear. I thought I heard someone in the dungeon."
Charlie's tenure as the Number One detective on the Fox lot came to an end with 1942's Castle in the Desert, and thankfully it's a good one. This time he's summoned to a castle in the desert - who saw that coming? - owned by the unfortunately named Lucy Borgia, a direct descendant of the infamous family ("I promise not to poison you") who lives in seclusion with her historian husband Douglas Dumbrille, who wears a silk mask over half his face and doth protest too much that he's as sane as the next man. Only neither of them was responsible for his invitation... Could it be related to the poisoning we saw before his arrival? Is it a scheme to have one or both of them committed? Naturally it's not long before another guest is poisoned, the car that's their only way out is sabotaged and there are no phones to call for help from the police...
On paper this is probably the silliest of all the Fox Chan films, and yet by relocating its gothic horror clichés to a daylight desert setting it works a treat. The castle interiors may be thrown together from bits and pieces of earlier, more expensive Fox pictures, but why complain when it looks so good? The same could be said of the plot: it's formulaic, but the formula works. Chan certainly has to put up with more than his share of racial insults this time round, whether it's the local hotel owner's "You a chop suey salesman? Well don't try and sell me, I hate the stuff" or "You're the new cook or houseboy?" once he reaches the castle, but they tend to make those insulting him look stupid rather than him. Unfortunately Victor Sen Yung's Jimmy Chan is along for the ride, and as usual he doesn't need any racial stereotyping to look stupid, but if he's just there to give Sidney Toler someone to put down, his presence is offset by a decent supporting cast including Henry Daniell and Ethel Griffies and Milburn Stone from Dead Men Tell. Stylishly directed by Harry Lachman with an atmospheric and at times intricate Emil Newman score, it's a fine sendoff for the Fox Charlie Chan series.
While there are no individual documentaries on each film in this final set, there is one excellent roundup of Toler's last films for Fox included with Castle in the Desert. The original trailer and stills galleries are also included.
on October 26, 2013
My late wife was quite surprised to learn that I loved the Charlie Chan movies as much as she did. That was "my bad," I suppose, because I never had told her of how my cousin and I would stretch on on the carpet in front of the old B&W TV set and watch Warner Oland or Sydney Toler portray the good old Hawaiian detective. She was quite pleased that I liked these flicks as much as she did, and we loved to watch them together. Today, as I watch these once more, I could swear that she is still seated beside me and enjoying them yet. Anyway, I sure hope so. These films are indeed classics, and if you like Charlie Chan as much as we did, you'll love them too.
on February 24, 2009
Though these are the final 20th Century Fox (aka "big budget") Charlie Chan films before going to Monogram, they may be the most enjoyable. Sidney Toler did not originate the role of Chan (the wonderful Warner Oland did), but Toler truly made it his own. By this final batch of films, FOX and Toler were no longer trying to make the bulkier films of the Oland era and had moved into the classic breezy detective style of the 1940s. Though thin on budget, these films are rich in characters and Chan-isms (the wisdom Charlie frequently imparts). CHAN IN PANAMA is often referred to as one of the best Chan films, as is WAX MUSEUM. These films are breezy and clever, with plenty of suspicious characters, quick dialogue, lots of corpses and devious murder plots (including poison darts, gas and cigarettes). Only slight downside is that this set does not gives us a seperate case and disc for each movie by doubling up a few. (This is made a bit worse by having some double sided whereas two Chans would easily fit on one side.) Don't let the fact that these are later entries deter you. While some film series go downhill, the FOX Chans kept high standards to the very end. Definitely recommended for Chan fans and fans of mystery films of the 30s & 40s.