DVD Talk (reformatted), June 16, 2004
Charlie Chan Chanthology
Review by Ian Jane
MGM’s Charlie Chan Chanthology is a somewhat controversial release, despite the fact that at their core, the films are basically simple, wholesome detective stories. The series is the product of an era in Hollywood where it was considered socially acceptable for a Caucasian actor to be cast as an Asian lead – which is exactly the case with these six films in this set. Sidney Toler, who sadly fell to cancer a couple of years after these films were made, plays Charlie Chan, the world’s greatest detective. In a nutshell, he’s a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Toler’s background as a stage and screen performer made him an admirable replacement for the first Charlie Chan, Swedish born Warner ‘Jack’ Oland.
While the stories and ideas may not be racist in and of themselves, the tendency for a white man made up to look Chinese does have the possibility to offend certain minority groups. This is made more evident when he’s constantly spouting Chinese wisdom that sounds like it was culled from a fortune cookie. That being said, Chan is always the hero and never the villain and he and his family are always painted in a positive light, even if it is a very skewed one. He’s a force for good in the world and almost always outsmarts everyone else in the films.
With that out of the way, when you look past the political issues surrounding the film that don’t bode so well in this day and age, the movies are a lot of fun and mystery fans will find much to love about the series. Even if they are dated in their portrayal of minority groups, sweeping them under the rug and pretending that they were never made won’t change history. With that in mind, it is to MGM’s credit that they are the first North American studio to release any of the Charlie Chan films onto DVD. Despite the fact that 20th Century Fox went to the trouble of re-mastering seven of the films they own the rights to for television broadcast, they have still yet to put any of their titles out on DVD – a shame since they’re markedly better films than the Monogram entries which MGM owns and has released on this set.
The Secret Service (1944)
The first of the series from Monogram was one of many to feature Sidney Toler in the titular role. In this film, Chan is an agent of the American government, employed to help the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a scientist. The scientist, who was working on some military projects, is killed at his country house when he has some guests over for a party. Chan uses his insurmountable wit to one by one eliminate the guests off of the suspect list until he finally concludes who the killer really was.
Mantan Moreland plays a stereotypical black character in one of the most non-politically correct roles in recent memory – his Birmingham Brown, Chan’s faithful companion, is easily frightened, and often confused. He does provide some comic relief with his manic facial expressions and inspired physical comedy however. His is simply a case of a good actor being given bad material. Toler is reliable as usual in the lead, even if, once again, he plays to stereotypes common in these types of films at the time.
While there isn’t a lot of action in this one, despite a beginning that tricks us into thinking there will be, the detective work and procedurals that Chan leads us on are clever and fun to play along with.
The Chinese Cat (1944)
Chess maestro Thomas Manning is found murdered, holding some chess pieces in his cold dead hands, in a locked room. The police investigate but quickly give up, stumped and unable to solve the case. When the late Mr. Manning’s daughter, Leah, discovers a trashy book has been written about the case she hires Charlie Chan to investigate her father’s death and set the record straight. Number Three Son is along to help him out, and Chan’s going to need that help as a few more bodies start showing up when he starts poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong.
Slightly faster in pace than The Secret Service, this second outing from Monogram contains a great climax in an eerie abandoned funhouse where Chan, Number Three Son, and Birmingham Brown all help to expose the killer’s true identity. Philip Rosen, who also directed the first film in the set, brings a little more panache to this entry, resulting in a tighter film with a slightly more interesting (if less plausible) mystery.
The Meeting At Midnight (1944)
The third Monogram directed film by Philip Rosen finds Toler in the lead and once again joined by Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown. This time out, Frances Chan plays the detective’s daughter, appropriately named Frances Chan.The story begins when a man is shot at a séance with Frances in attendance, but mysteriously, no trace of the bullet or the gun can be found. The police, baffled once again, call Charlie in to solve the crime. It’s not as easy as he had hoped, but of course he ultimately puts it all together and points the police in the right direction.
The weakest of the first three films in the set gets off to a nice, bizarre start with an atmospheric séance and an interesting premise, but fails after that because of some flat characters and bad acting. Frances Chan is extremely wooden in her role as the daughter and the film, quite honestly, could have been better without her in it. She adds nothing to the story and while she makes for some nice eye candy, doesn’t really do much in the film or with the material. The ending has some suspense, but by the time we get there, it’s hard to care about the whodunnit aspects of the case. This film is also commonly known as
Black Magic.The Jade Mask (1945)
Once again, Rosen directs Toler in his most famous role in this fourth outing from Monogram studios. By this point in the series, the low budgets are becoming more apparent (the jade mask seen in this movie looks like it’s made of wet paper and glue) and the plots are getting thinner. That doesn’t stop Toler from shining in the role, but the Fox glory days start seeming farther and farther away from here on out.
A scientist named Dr. Harper lives in a creaky old house with a secret laboratory and plenty of secret passageways. He also lives with a sinister butler and plenty of gold digging relatives. Considering he’s an inventor in a Chan film and that he lives with an evil butler and greedy relatives, it probably won’t shock you when Harper turns up dead. Chan and Number Four Son are on the case and out to solve the crime, even though the body has yet to be found and Harper’s corpse seems to be back and wandering around the mansion according to some of the help.
While it is more atmospheric than The Meeting At Midnight this entry suffers from an ending that, although it should be the highlight of any Chan film, comes off as contrived and thrown together at the last minute. Some interesting sets and solid efforts from Toler and Moreland make this one more than watchable though, and you could do a lot worse, and at the same time a lot better.
The Scarlet Clue (1945)
Charlie Chan enlists the aide of faithful Number Three Son and friend Birmingham Brown to track down the rotters behind the theft of some plans that the government was going to use to build a radar. Things get more complicated when a dead body turns up at a building that is not only a radio station but also a secret laboratory, but when Chan is on the case you know that the resolution can’t be more than sixty-five minutes or so away.
Despite the fact that radar was being fairly widely used in 1945 and thus not really a secret anymore, The Scarlet Clue is a decent entry in the Monogram films, even if it does drag in a few spots (which is something, considering the short running time). The biggest flaw comes when Chan denounces the killer but fails to give one of his trademark explanations as to how he figured it all out, which makes the last few minutes of the movie somewhat disappointing.
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
In this, the only film in the set not directed by Phil Rosen (Phil Karlson handles the duties on this one), some dastardly fiend is out to steal some radium from a high security bank vault. A few murders occur and it seems the killer is using cobra venom to do his dirty work for him. An unconventional technique to say the least and one that baffles police inspector Davis. Of course, Charlie Chan is called in, once again accompanied by Number Three Son and Birmingham Brown, and you just know he’s going to crack the case wide open and save the day.
Far slicker looking than the lackluster visuals of The Scarlet Clue, this six film in the set has a much stronger noir element running through it visually than the earlier films and plays closer to the Fox films than the others in this set. Director Phil Karlson would go on to helm such crime noir classics as Kansas City Confidential and one can really see his potential here, even if it is a little rough around the edges and hindered by the low budget. Toler and Moreland are their usually reliable selves here and Benson Fong as Tommy Chan (Number Three Son) does an above average job as one of Chan’s clumsy offspring, displaying some great comedic timing.
As a whole, these films are a lot of fun despite their shortcomings. They are low budget, they are horribly politically incorrect, and they are obviously thrown together very quickly. But Chan and his bumbling offspring make for good entertainment and its fun to come along with them on their cases just to see what the celebrity detective will be able to pull off. While the Fox films had better sets, creepier atmosphere and more interesting stories, these six Monogram films are fun little b-movies worth revisiting if you’re able to set aside the fact that they are, for better or worse, very much products of their time.
The films are presented as they were intended to be seen, in their original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio, and are completely in glorious black and white once the United Artists logo passes. These may be the same transfers that were used on the laserdiscs a few years ago, though I can’t confirm that. Even if they are recycled though, for films fast approaching their sixtieth birthdays, they look quite good on these DVDs. There is minor print damage present throughout as well as a thin coat of grain evident from pretty much start to finish but none of it seems unnatural at all and the prints used here are in surprisingly good shape. Blacks remain stable and solid and don’t break up at all and edge enhancement and aliasing, while present, is minimal.
All six films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles available in English, French, and Spanish. There is slight hiss throughout but it isn’t too distracting and aside from the occasional pop here and there, these are fairly clean tracks, especially when you consider their age. One thing worth noting however is that the levels on these discs seemed a little bit low, though this was easily fixed by turning the volume up a bit to compensate for that. Most of the time dialogue comes through well enough and sound effects and background music levels seem to be set appropriately.
Aside from chapter selection, these discs are completely barebones. No text pieces, no interviews, no commentaries – nothing of the sort. This is the most disappointing aspect of this set. There are plenty of people around well versed enough in the history of the character that it should have been possible to at least get some commentary tracks down on a few of the films. You would also think that there has to be some promotional material laying around that could have been compiled for a still gallery. But sadly, we don’t get anything of the sort. On the plus side, the packaging is very nice, as are the covers to the individual DVDs inside the box.
MGM’s The Charlie Chan Chanthology is the first in what will hopefully be a slew of Chan releases on DVD. I’d hope that Fox will follow suit as they do own the rights to the best films in the series and those are ideally where you’d want to start. That being said, if you’re one with a taste for Chan’s adventures, you could do a lot worse than pick up this set. Audio and video quality is pretty decent and despite the abhorrent lack of any extra features at all, The Charlie Chan Chanthology comes recommended.