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Among the Best of the Monogram Chan Films
on October 31, 2006
Loosely based on novels by Earl Derr Biggers, 20th Century Fox's Charlie Chan series proved an audience favorite--but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the studio feared audiences would turn against its Asian hero. This was a miscalculation: actor Sidney Toler took the role to "poverty row" Monogram Studios, where he continued to portray the character in eleven more films made between 1944 and his death in 1947.
20th Century Fox had regarded the Chan films as inexpensive "B" movies, but even so the studio took considerable care with them: the plots were often silly, but the pace was sharp, the dialogue witty, and the casts (which featured the likes of Bela Lugosi and Ray Milland) always expert. The result was a kindly charm which has stood the test of time. Monogram was a different matter: Chan films were "B" movies plain and simple. Little care was taken with scripts or cast and resulting films were flat, usually mediocre at best, virtually unwatchable at worst.
Released in 1945, THE JADE MASK is one of the very few Monograms that approaches the quality level of the 20th Century Fox series. This largely due to the expert cast and witty script, both of which are a bit unusual for Monogram. In this particular tale, Chan--who now works for the government during World War II--is called upon to investigate the murder of a scientist working with potentially beneficial but distinctly deadly gasses. Sidney Toler's Chan is always enjoyable, and he is aided in this by the local sheriff (Alan Bridge, who has the best lines in the film) and the inevitable Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland.)
Fans of the 20th Century Fox series are likely to find Monogram's Chan a significant disappointment and newcomers who like the Monogram films will probably consider them third-rate after encountering the Fox films. Even so, THE JADE MASK is unexpectly good, and I think most Chan fans will find it enjoyable.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer