Even though the budgets shrank over the course of the film series, Charlie Chan was never a cheap detective. Charlie Chan was a staple at Fox with Warner Oland and Sidney Toler playing the Honolulu based police detective in dozens of film. Chan used the most modern of crime fighting techniques and ancient sayings from his Chinese heritage as part of his investigative tools. He was CSI: Confucius. Even though the movies were popular, the outbreak of World War II made Fox leery of distributing a Chinese-American detective. Luckily the smaller Monogram had no qualms in opening their studio gates to Charlie Chan. The cinematic series was part of Fox’s B-movie unit so the transition wasn’t a complete shock fans with Monogram’s small budget ways. The new studio figured out ways to tighten things up including less exotic locations, less elaborate sets and less Chan children on screen. The short running times helped keep production schedules tight. But the effort on the screen didn’t suffer. The cinematography, lighting and editing was as professional as the Fox version of the series. This didn’t resemble the amateur hour cheapie quality found in various Poverty Row productions. The four Monogram titles found on Turner Classic Movies Spotlight Charlie Chan Collection compare favorably with the later Fox titles in the series.
Not every adjustment was a subtraction. Monogram brought the immortal Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies) onto Chan’s team. He played Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver. Besides shuttling Chan between crime scenes, Mantan was perfect comic relief between homicides. He had the greatest scared stare when his eyes opened extra wide in utter fear. He kept a normal chase scene interesting instead of merely a bunch of guys creeping around a warehouse. The four films on this collection give us the final entries from Sidney Toler and the arrival of Roland Winters in the role. Chan at this point is now just a famous crime solver instead of a Honolulu detective or a federal agent busting up spy rings. He’s back to fingering murderers instead of saving the nation.
Dark Alibi (1946 – 61 minutes) makes Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) work extra fast with a client slated to be executed for a murder during a heist. The innocent man claims he was trapped in a theatrical warehouse during the robbery. But his fingerprints were found at the crime scene. Chan has a strange hunch that somebody has figured out how to duplicate fingerprints to frame suspects. Can he prove this theory before his client fries? Number Three Son (Benson Fong) and Birmingham tangle up the case during trips to prison. Dangerous Money (1946 – 66 minutes) returns Number Two Son (Victor Sen Young). Birmingham takes a break as Chattanooga Brown (Willie Best) accompanies Charlie on murderous cruise to Samoa. The action starts quick when Charlie and a pal are quickly marked for death by a fellow passenger. The pal doesn’t survive a second attempt. This case is personal for Chan. This is an unusual entry since Charlie Chan uses a gun during a shoot out and chokes his kid for being a screw up. Willie Best lacks the comic interplay that Moreland brought to the limo driver. Although there’s no much driving for him since they’re on a cruise ship.
The Trap (1946 – 68 minutes) is the final time Toler played Chan before his death. Monogram spices up the movie by having a murder amongst a pack of showgirls vacationing in Malibu. There’s a lot of great bathing suits among the female suspects. When a main attraction drops dead, one of the girls knows exactly who to call: Jimmy Chan (Number Two Son). There’s a bit of confusion when she calls Mantan and can only say murder, the address and Jimmy Chan. Charlie arrives at the crime scene expecting to find his son’s body. He’s relieved to find his kid is not the victim, but he’s still got a killer to uncover. There’s a great reminder that it is traditional for a publicist do foolish things to protect a star. The Chinese Ring (1947 – 67 minutes) is the first time Roland Winters. He’s another white actor made up to appear Chinese. Since Monogram didn’t have much of a budget for make up, Winters doesn’t look too outlandish. He seems to draw off Toler’s approach to the character in accent and attitude. For those who get upset about actors playing outside their race, there are several speaking parts for Asian-Americans in this episode. Winters’ transition is smooth since he still has the supporting cast of Young as Number Two Son and Moreland as Birmingham Brown. They’re not changing everything with the new lead actor. Chinese Ring has quite a bit of excitement and action when a royal guest is killed in Chan’s house. He quickly discovers that her death was tied into an illegal arms deal. Can he find the real criminal so he can clear his good name? Or will he be working with Birminghan’s chauffeur service? It’s a good first outing for the new face under Chan’s hat.
Turner Classic Movies Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection is a fine selection of the Monogram era entries. The mysteries have enough twists in sixty minutes to keep things interesting. There are a few “didn’t see that coming” moments. The switch to the lesser studio hadn’t turned the series into a threadbare joke. It still maintained a certain level of charm. Charlie Chan might no longer be solving crimes in lavish mansions and hoping around the world, but these four films are entertaining. Moreland’s comic antics bring a little levity to the criminal tension. The Sidney Toler era as Charlie Chan didn’t cheapen he series no matter how low the budget got.
Turner Classic Movies Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection gives us the end of Sidney Toler and the entrance of Roland Winters. The Monogram Pictures films aren’t a major drop off from the Fox era Charlie Chan films in mystery and excitement. Mantan Moreland proves to be a dazzling sidekick to the detective with his ability to convey fear and incite comic relief.