Study: Video Reviews, Etc. (VR004)

Home Theater Forum (, June 17, 2004

The Charlie Chan Chanthology

Review by Jason Perez 

Studio: MGM
Year: 1944-1945
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: Various – See Below
Aspect Ratio: Full Frame (1.33:1) – All Films
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Monaural (All Films)

Release Date:
July 6th, 2004

Oriental super-detective Charlie Chan, the creation of author Earl Derr Biggers, had one of the lengthiest runs in film history, as the lead character in forty-four films over 18 years (1931-1949)! Interestingly, Chan’s earliest appearances in films (in the late 1920’s) were as more of a supporting player, but due to his popularity, Fox wasted little time moving the sleuth to the forefront of his own series, and actor Warner Oland stepped up, playing the part with great enthusiasm, despite the fact he was not Asian (all of the actors to play Charlie were non-Asians).

The films in the series were pretty formulaic, usually involving Mr. Chan, a celebrity detective with the Honolulu Police Department, becoming involved in a homicide investigation. Oddly enough, although Chan was a Honolulu detective, his cases were almost always elsewhere. It kind of makes me wonder why they kept him on the payroll! Maybe it was because they loved the interesting Chinese proverbs that Chan would come up with!

In most cases, one or more of Charlie’s many offspring, identified in chronological order as “number one son”, “number three daughter”, etc., would also show up to offer their “pop” unwanted aid. Typically, they would do more harm to his investigations than good, and provide comic relief until Charlie somehow managed to crack the case in spite of their interference. In addition to Charlie’s plethora of sons and daughters, Fox’s entries in the Chan series featured a wealth of talented supporting players. Among the more notable guest stars were Lionel Atwill, Boris Karloff, and Cesar Romero (who would play the Joker in Batman: TOS).

Like the James Bond franchise, the Charlie Chan films also endured changes in the lead role. For example, when Warner Oland passed away in 1938, Fox began an exhaustive search for a new Charlie Chan. After auditioning many potential candidates, the studio eventually settled on Sidney Toler, who began work on his first Chan adventure, Charlie Chan in Honolulu only a week later. Toler was not the only change though, as Victor Sen Yung came aboard to play “number two son” Jimmy Chan, while the previous Chan films, beginning with Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) featured Keye Luke as “number one son”, Lee Chan.

Sidney Toler’s portrayal of Charlie Chan was not only very well received by audiences, but he also brought about some interesting changes to the character, instead of simply aping what Warner Oland had done. One of the biggest changes was the willingness of Charlie to direct sarcastic barbs at his son Jimmy, whenever he was fouling things up (which was almost always). This was done with subtlety though, so there was never any doubt that their relationship was a close-knit one.

The relationship between Toler and 20th Century Fox lasted for four years and eleven Charlie Chan films, but the series was shelved by Fox in 1942, as the escalation of World War II decimated the foreign markets that had made the films profitable. However, if there is one thing Charlie Chan is, it is resilient, and after a very brief hiatus, Sidney Toler returned to his signature role in a series of low-budget movies produced by Monogram Pictures. Interestingly, Sidney Toler initially attempted to acquire the rights to the Chan character from creator Earl Derr Biggers’ widow, and hoped that Fox would distribute new Chan flicks if he could line up the financing for them. Ultimately, however, his efforts proved to be unsuccessful, but a small company called Monogram Pictures, Incorporated later picked up the series.

The first Monogram release was Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, which debuted in 1944. Unfortunately, the greatly reduced production budget had a significant impact on the series, and the quality of the writing was also much weaker than it was in Chan’s 20th Century Fox films. Monogram also placed its own stamp on the series, by bringing in Benson Fong to play Chan’s “number three son” Tommy, and adding an African-American character named Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) to the series to supply both comic relief and garner new fans. Despite the lower production values and tweaks to the series, people kept going to see Charlie Chan films, and Monogram made enough money on them to keep the series alive.

As it turns out, Sidney Toler starred in just as many Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures as he did for 20th Century Fox – eleven. And although these films are generally considered to be inferior films than their Fox counterparts, they do contain some memorable moments, and a few, like The Shanghai Cobra (1945) are pretty good films in their own right. Sadly, by late 1946, Sidney Toler had become very ill. Indeed, he was so sick during the production of Dark Alibi that he could barely walk. Though he was somehow able to complete his last Charlie Chan film, The Trap in late 1946, the great Sidney Toler died in February 1947.

When Sidney Toler passed away, Roland Winters was brought in as Charlie Chan, but the series did not last very long, with the end finally coming in 1949, only two years after Sidney’s death.

Well, that is a brief overview of the Charlie Chan series, particularly the Monogram Pictures releases that make up this box set, so let’s take a closer look at the six films in it.

Charlie Chan In The Secret Service (1944)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 Minutes

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, Monogram’s first Charlie Chan effort, is a fairly entertaining entry into the series, but as I mentioned earlier, the decrease in production budget (from 20th Century Fox) is readily apparent. The film is also noteworthy introducing the wild-eyed Mantan Moreland into the series as Birmingham Brown, and Benson Fong as “number three son” Tommy Chan.

In terms of its storyline, this film features Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) looking into the mysterious demise of an inventor named George Melton, and the theft of his plans for a torpedo system. Apparently, the United States government had a keen interest in this weapons system, as Secret Service agents were guarding the inventor at the time of his murder. To solve the puzzling crime and recover the plans, Chan is enlisted, and he is made an agent of the U.S. government.

When Charlie arrives at the crime scene, he finds reason to suspect all of the inventor’s houseguests, and even the housekeeper, Mrs. Hargue (Sarah Edwards). For instance, Paul Aranto (George Lewis) is in a wheelchair, but Chan later discovers he can walk.

Aranto’s sister Inez (Gwen Kenyon) is also a suspect, as she was supposedly the first to find the body, but Mrs. Hargue alleges that she was searching poor fellow’s pockets. These are but two examples, and the entire lot of Mr. Melton’s guests are all strange in their own way, which keeps viewers guessing who the killer could be.

As Charlie gets closer to uncovering the killer’s identity, he is the target of two failed assassination attempts, which ultimately provides more clues to Mr. Melton’s murder. Unfortunately, even as Charlie collects additional evidence, he must also overcome the unwanted “assistance” of his “number two daughter” Iris (Marianne Quon), and “number three son” Tommy, to pare the list of suspects down. In turn, Chan’s offspring are aided by wisecracking chauffeur Birmingham Brown, who assists with the recovery of the missing torpedo plans.

Overall, the film is slow-paced, a little uneven, and perhaps too predictable, but it still had its share of good moments. In addition, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is a must-see for fans, because it introduces recurring characters like Birmingham Brown and Tommy Chan. Of course, it also contains plenty of the fortune cookie philosophizing that will forever be associated with the Charlie Chan character!

Charlie Chan and the Chinese Cat (1944)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 Minutes

In The Chinese Cat, Charlie takes on a long unsolved murder case for a woman whose mother has been unjustly accused of the crime in a novel by renowned criminologist Dr. Paul Retnik (Ian Keith). As always, Charlie has some help, this time in the form of “number three son” Tommy, and Birmingham Brown, both of whom add some light-hearted fun to the proceedings! In this instance, Mr. Chan just happens to hop into a cab that is being driven by Birmingham, who ends up shuttling Charlie around for the rest of the film.

To be more specific though, the events in the film unfold in San Francisco, where jewel thieves are attempting to gain possession of a feline figurine with a secret compartment containing stolen jewels. As the film begins, the statue is in the possession of Tom Manning (Sam Flint), who is murdered as he plays a game of chess in his stately home. Before he expires, however, Manning is able to leave a sole bishop on the chessboard, as a clue to the identity of his murderer.

Getting back to Dr. Retnik’s book, the inflammatory claim is made that Mrs. Manning (Betty Blythe) was responsible for her husband’s death. He goes on to say that she was never implicated in the crime because the detective investigating Thomas’ murder, Harvey Dennis (Weldon Heyburn), was enamored with her beautiful daughter Leah (Joan Woodbury). And as mentioned earlier, it is Leah who requests the assistance of the illustrious Mr. Chan, whom she hopes will be able to clear her mother’s good name. Will he be able to come through?

Unfortunately, though the acting (particularly by Toler and Moreland) is good, this Charlie Chan adventure is neither suspenseful nor particularly well written. Sure, Charlie must endure poison gas and survive a ride in a cab containing explosives, but there is never any sense that things will turn out bad for him. The lower production values of Monogram were also evident throughout, in the extremely limited number of camera moves, and extremely basic set design, among other things. In the end, however, a rather exciting action sequence in a funhouse is used to bring about a resolution to Charlie’s case.

Charlie Chan and the Meeting at Midnight (1944)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 Minutes

NOTE: This film was originally released as Charlie Chan in Black Magic.

As Meeting at Midnight opens, would-be psychic William Bonner (Richard Gordon) is murdered while holding a séance at his home, apparently from a single gunshot to the chest. As William’s widow Justine (Jaqueline deWit), notifies the police, Bonner’s co-conspirators, Tom and Vera Starkey (Charles Jordan and Claudia Dell), are seen preparing to flee the estate in a panic. Could they be suspects?

After arriving at the crime scene, Sergeant Matthews (Joseph Crehan) orders everyone present, including Mrs. Bonner, Harriett Green (Geraldine Wall), Paul Hamlin (Frank Jaquet), Charles Edwards (Harry Depp), Nancy Woods/Norma Duncan (Helen Beverly), Frances Chan (Frances Chan), Charlie Chan’s daughter (who is not referred to by a number), and Birmingham Brown, who is now a butler to the Bonners, to police headquarters for interrogation.

Unfortunately, Sergeant Matthews’ questioning does not yield results, and the investigation hits an even bigger roadblock when the coroner’s office informs him that no bullet was found in Bonner’s body! At a loss, the Sergeant is able to coerce renowned detective Charlie Chan into assisting with the case, by implying that his daughter Frances will be held as a suspect unless he cooperates.

As Chan’s investigation proceeds, and he gets closer to the unmasking the killer, he once again becomes a target. Indeed, after entering another hotel room to follow up on a lead, Charlie is assaulted, restrained, and drugged by an unknown individual. After he goes missing, Frances becomes concerned, and notifies the police. Together they retrace Charlie’s footsteps, and try to prevent him from meeting an untimely death. Will they succeed, or will Charlie’s progress in the case forever remain a secret?

Charlie Chan and the Jade Mask (1945)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 66 Minutes

Jade Mask is an entertaining Charlie Chan mystery that intermingles both science fiction and elements of old school mystery with the typical Charlie Chan comic relief and fortune cookie philosophy. In this installment of the series, the world famous Chinese sleuth is tasked with locating a scientist named Harper (Frank Reicher), who is developing a formula that will transform wood into steel.

If you have seen a few Chan films, you probably already know that Harper turns up dead, and that his home is filled with various potential killers. Interestingly, it seems that Mr. Harper was none too popular, even among his houseguests…

Once Chan arrives, he has to work his way through the deceased’s sister (Edith Evanson), a mute chauffeur (Lester Dorr), and a butler (Cyril Delevanti), among others, to get to the bottom of the murder. In the interim, some more folks turn up dead, and as the case gets more complex, Charlie must also overcome the usual interference from his pal Birmingham Brown and incredibly inept “number four son” (Edwin Luke).

All in all, this is an enjoyable Charlie Chan mystery, with a good performance by Toler and some genuinely funny comic relief provided by both Mantan Moreland and Edwin Luke.

Charlie Chan and the Scarlet Clue (1945)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 Minutes

In The Scarlet Clue, Charlie is trailing a secret agent, and has enlisted the help of Captain Flynn (Robert E. Homans), who is to track the spy until he can reach the West Coast. When Charlie finally shows up, all he finds is the Captain’s corpse on a boat, and the only evidence is a bloody footprint! While working over the crime scene, he notices a car leaving the area, and traces it back to a radio personality named Diane Hall (Helen Deveraux), who works at the Cosmo Radio Center.

As the investigation continues, Charlie once again receives “assistance” from his offspring, “number three son” Tommy in this case, and the ever-present Birmingham Brown. While tracking down leads, the trio ends up meeting other employees of the radio show, all of whom become suspects. In typical Chan style, he must discover which of these suspicious persons is actually responsible for committing murder!

Charlie Chan and the Shanghai Cobra (1945)
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 64 Minutes

In my honest opinion, the Shanghai Cobra is the most suspenseful and well-written Monogram Charlie Chan film! The acting is also very good across the board, and the comic elements of the film are genuinely funny. The outcome of the case is also not as easily predicted as in some of the other Chan whodunits.

Joining the story, we find that after Samuel Black (Stephan Gregory), the third victim in a string of mysterious deaths, is killed by what appears to be cobra venom, Inspector Harry Davis (Walter Fenner) of the homicide unit sends a message to his old friend Charlie Chan, requesting help on the case. Davis is hoping to tap into Chan’s knowledge of an earlier case involving accused murderer Jan Van Horn (Addision Richards), who escaped from police custody and was never recaptured.

Chan, who is continuing his work for the federal government, agrees to help, and quickly discovers that the same bank employed all three victims. With the usual aid/hindrance from his “number three son” Tommy, and assistant Birmingham Brown, Charlie continues to track down the leads that might crack the case.

Meanwhile, Larkin (Cyril Delevanti), an undercover police officer working at Sixth National Bank, is discovered dead – also poisoned by cobra venom. This unfortunate event, and some legwork from Tommy and Birmingham Brown, leads Chan to conclude that there is a passageway leading into the bank. Theorizing that criminals are attempting to remove the valuable stores of radium from the bank, Chan tries to force their hand by having the newspapers publish a fabricated story about the radium being removed the next day. The question is: will this sneaky ploy will help the authorities apprehend the criminals?

Charlie Chan’s wartime Monogram Pictures adventures are offered in their Full Frame (1.33:1) aspect ratios, and although the results of MGM’s efforts are not exactly impressive, they certainly could be much worse. To begin with, a layer of moderate film grain is visible during each picture, although it is neither inconsistent with 60-year-old films nor terribly distracting.

However, the image is usually quite soft, sometimes to the point of being slightly blurry, and this does present a minor distraction. There is also a distracting flicker present in each of the six Chan films in this set, with some scenes looking almost as though they were lit by campfire. Minor print damage (e.g. specks and scratches) is also visible throughout the films, although the prints were certainly much cleaner than I expected them to be.

On the plus side, blacks are deep and fairly well defined, so shadow delineation is pretty good – indeed detail is only obscured in the very darkest environments. Further, although edge enhancement is visible on occasion, its application is so minimal that it should not pose too much of a problem for most viewers.

Since the source material was probably not in the best of shape, and these films were produced on shoestring budgets, it is difficult to imagine that these films could look too much better without a very extensive (and costly) restoration. Therefore, even though they contain their share of image flaws, I believe these Monogram Chan flicks look better than they ever have on home video, and that has to count for something. Just don’t expect a feast for the eyes…

Each of the six Charlie Chan adventures in the “Chanthology” is offered in monaural by MGM, and though the source material is likely the culprit, they just don’t sound that good.

Since most of the audio information in each of these movies consists of dialogue, let’s begin there. Undoubtedly, the most important factor is whether or not characters’ speech can be understood, and in that area, these monaural soundtracks accomplish their mission. Unfortunately, the quality of the dialogue reproduction leaves much to be desired. Specifically, the higher frequencies (e.g. female speech) sound brittle, and though it is always audible, much of the dialogue sounds a bit distorted, and even abrasive at times. A very faint hiss can be heard at times as well, but there is no cracking, popping, or other disturbing audio anomalies that interfere with dialogue.

The fidelity of the small amount of music in these films is also nothing to write home about. Specifically, the confined monaural soundstage does not allow individual instruments to ring through clearly, and during louder passages, distortion is evident. Strings and brass instruments, as reproduced by these discs, can also be slightly fatiguing to listen to.

Lastly, infrequent sound effects, especially gunshots, are extremely muddy and lacking in impact. In particular, the lower frequencies are “boomy” and undefined. For all of these reasons, I would have to rate these soundtracks as disappointing, even though the recording techniques used at the time and condition of the source material undoubtedly had a significant effect on how the final product sounds.

NOTE: Although this did not impact my assessment of these discs’ sound quality, I must tell you that once the films begin, you will probably have to turn the volume up considerably to hear what is going on, as the volume levels seem to be pretty low on all six discs.

You won’t be buying this set (or the individual titles) for the extras, because there are none. Unless you count the “Chanthology” box that holds all of the titles that is…

(on a five-point scale)
Films: ****
Video: ***
Audio: ***
Overall: ***

While the six Monogram Pictures’ Charlie Chan films in this set are certainly not the best the series has to offer, there are a couple of standouts, like The Jade Mask and The Shanghai Cobra. Some may find the noticeably lower production values of these films to be bothersome, but I think the additions of Birmingham Brown and Benson Fong more than made up for whatever was lacking in production value. Sidney Toler (my favorite Chan) was also excellent in all six films in the set.

As for presentation, I cannot say I am terribly impressed. It is highly likely that the production techniques of the time and condition of the source material was largely to blame for most of A/V issues, so I am hesitant to hurl thunderbolts at MGM, but the fact is that these films just do not look or sound that great. Indeed, there are much older films, like Universal’s original “Classic Monster” films that look better than these six Chan adventures, although the former probably benefited from extensive restorations.

Sadly, there are also NO extras whatsoever in this set! Basically, all you will get is a package price to go along with the classy black “Chanthology” box that houses the six films. These may not be the most popular films out there, but I think a series that spanned 18 years, and contained 44 films, deserved a little more. Even a retrospective by a film historian would have been nice, especially for those that are not really familiar with the series, or just want a little more background on it.

The bottom line is this – if you are a Charlie Chan enthusiast (I am by no means the foremost expert on Chan, but I really like the films), you should pick this set up, in spite of the fairly unimpressive A/V and complete lack of added value material. More casual fans, or the uninitiated, should be aware that the Chan films released by Monogram are generally considered to be “weaker” than their 20th Century Fox counterparts. However, until Fox gets off its rear end, and starts releasing their Chan films on DVD, I will be glad to spin these!

Stay tuned…

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