Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 5 (Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum/Murder Over New York/Dead Men Tell/Charlie Chan In Rio/Charlie Chan In Panama/Murder Cruise/Castle in the Desert)
Disc 1: Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum Disc 2: Murder Over New York Disc 3: Dead Men Tell Disc 4: Charlie Chan in Rio Disc 5: Charlie Chan in Panama Disc 6: Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise Disc 7: Castle in the Desert Disc 8: Charlie Chan: The Fox Years
The Charlie Chan Collection Volume 5 brings Fox's series of film mysteries based on Earl Derr Biggers' Chinese-Hawaiian detective to a conclusion with the studio's final seven features with Caucasian actor Sidney Toler in the lead. Budget restraints forced these latter Chan features to reduce the quality of their productions, and more often than not, the films took place on limited sets and without the scope or atmosphere of the earlier films. Plots were also reduced in running time and ambition; though hinged on a fun plot involving a plastic surgeon who creates new identities for crooks on the lam, Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum clocks in at barely over an hour, and suffers from bare sets and some highly predictable plot twists. Likewise, Dead Men Tell never leaves its claustrophobic pirate ship location, and Castle in the Desert, the final Chan film for Fox, is a confused hodgepodge of pulp thriller and horror tropes. Despite these drawbacks, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from Volume 5, especially in Charlie Chan in Rio, a remake of 1931's The Black Camel (with Warner Oland as Chan) that brims with an energy lacking from the later Toler efforts (there's also a nice bit involving Toler and Victor Sen Young's Number Two Son Jimmy conversing in Chinese with subtitles). Cinematography is also superlative in all of the Chan pictures included here, which lends a great deal of atmosphere to the modestly budgeted features. But the key pleasure of the Charlie Chan films is watching the detective unravel the case (no matter how convoluted) in his deliberate and patient manner, and Toler's performance (who would bring the character to Monogram and continue to play him until his death in 1947, after which Chan was essayed by Roland Winters) remains a distinct pleasure. Sen Young, though occasionally forced to mug furiously as Jimmy, lends likable support as Jimmy. There are also a host of Hollywood names on hand in supporting roles, including Lionel Atwill, Leo G. Carroll, Flash Gordon vets Jean Rogers and Frank Middleton, George Reeves, and even future Stooge Shemp Howard as a faux Hindu! Trailers for each film are included in the set, as well as still galleries and a 35-minute featurette which discusses, among other details, the impact of World War II on Fox's decision to bring the Chan series to a close. --Paul Gaita
- Aspect Ratio : 1.33:1
- Is Discontinued By Manufacturer : No
- MPAA rating : s_medNotRated NR (Not Rated)
- Product Dimensions : 7.75 x 5.5 x 2.75 inches; 13.76 Ounces
- Item model number : 2253197
- Media Format : Color, NTSC, Black & White, Full Screen
- Run time : 7 hours and 31 minutes
- Release date : September 16, 2008
- Actors : Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Young
- Dubbed: : French, Spanish
- Subtitles: : English, French, Spanish
- Language : Unqualified, English (Mono)
- Studio : 20th Century Fox
- ASIN : B001ARDBXK
- Number of discs : 4
- Best Sellers Rank: #35,482 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
- Customer Reviews:
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"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.
Between 1931 and 1938 Chan was played by noted character actor Warner Oland. When Oland died, 20th Century Fox scrambled to find a new actor for the role--and ultimately assigned the part to Sidney Toler, who was well-regarded on stage but little known through films. In Toler's hands the character became less formal and the films began to emphasize comedy to a degree not previously seen. Some fans rebelled at the change, and even today fans continue to argue the merits of Oland vs. Toler. Even so, most fans would agree they enjoy both actors in the role.
The 5th collection of Chan DVDs released by 20th Century Fox includes several of the best films in the series. But sadly, 20th Century does not give this set the same loving touch earlier sets received: not only are the films released on the much-hated double-sided DVDs, the bonus material is either non-descript or simply not there at all, and it seems to me that the release was rushed through on the cheap. Even so, the films themselves are welcome and have received a reasonable restoration--and that is enough to make them welcome inclusions in any Chan fan's collection.
All five of the titles offered in the collection were released between 1940 and 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led the studio to discontinue the series, fearing audiences would become antagonistic toward its Asian characters. (This proved a mistake--actor Sidney Toler bought the screen rights and took them to poverty row Monogram Studio, where in spite of third and forth-rate scripts and supporting casts Chan films remained popular through 1949.) The titles included are: CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE; CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM; CHARLIE CHAN IN PANAMA; MURDER OVER NEW YORK; DEAD MEN TELL; CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO; and CASTLE IN THE DESERT. All feature Sidney Toler as Chan and Victor Sen Yung as number two son Jimmy Chan.
MURDER CRUISE seems to be a remake of CHARLIE CHAN'S CHANCE, a lost film, and it is among my favorites in the series, presenting us with a memorable cast including Lionel Atwill, Leo G. Carrol, Claire du Brey, and a truly winning turn from character actress Cora Witherspoon. This is easily among the most entertaining of the Toler films and a personal favorite. WAX MUSEUM offers a particularly improbable plot, but is no less the entertaining for that, and again the performers make the show quite a bit of fun--in this case including C. Henry Gordon, Marc Lawrence, and Joan Valerie, among others.
IN PANAMA is generally considered one of the best Toler films, and I have to agree. Although the United States had not entered World War II at this point, the war informs everything about the film, which concerns an attempt to destroy the Panama Canal. Again the supporting cast--especially Mary Nash and Lionel Atwill--is particularly fine, and the film ends on an unexpectedly somber note in anticipation of the war to come. Released in 1941, MURDER OVER NEW YORK seems to borrow from a number of earlier Chan films, as well as a Mr. Wong film, and is similar to PANAMA in the sense that it has an "anticipating war" quality in its tale of military sabatoge; although I would not include it among the best of the series, a strong cast and quick pace makes it enjoyable.
DEAD MEN TELL tends to be a film that divides Chan films: you either like or you don't, and I fall among the latter, for I find it lacks the light touch that makes Chan movies so entertaining. Set aboard a ship about to set sale on a treasure search, the film does offer an enjoyable turn by noted character actress Ethel Griffries and some atmospheric photography, but beyond this it holds not great interest for me. IN RIO, however, is easily the weakest of the films in this collection, a sub-par remake of the 1931 Chan THE BLACK CAMEL that fails to click in spite of the always welcome presence of Kay Linaker.
Perhaps the single most prized film in this collection is the final Chan film to be released by 20th Century Fox, the seldom-seen CASTLE IN THE DESERT. The plot is particularly far-fetched and wild, but it plays with a great deal of atmosphere, at a fast clip, and with a light touch--and includes what may be Ethel Griffries single most memorable performance in a long career of memorable character portraits.
It is true that 20th Century Fox gave these final films in the series the short end of the stick in their release, but even so the films themselves are essential for anyone who enjoys the series--and I give the collection five stars on that basis. As Chan himself would say, "Thank you so much!"
GFT, Amazon Reviewer