DVD Talk (dvdtalk.com) (reformatted), June 23, 2006
New DVD’s: Charlie Chan
By Ian Jane
Finally following in the wake of MGM’s Charlie Chan Chanthology is another somewhat controversial release, despite the fact that at their core, these five Charlie Chan films are, like the rest of the films in the series, 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 the films in this set. Warner Oland, who sadly passed away a couple of years after these films were made in 1938, plays Charlie Chan, the world’s greatest detective. In a nutshell, he’s a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. After Oland passed away, he was replaced for a few years by Sidney Toler, who also did well in the part.
The issue with this release, at least as far as Fox was concerned, was racism. 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 and it was for this reason that it has taken so long for Fox to release these films despite the fact that they did play on TV a few years ago in these restored versions. This is made more evident when Chan is 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. Taken in the somewhat ignorant context of the times, and looked at as mystery movies and not as political or racial statements, the films are good, clean fun.
So what’s in here? Well, the first volume in Fox’s collection, aptly titled The Charlie Chan Collection – Volume One contains the earliest remaining entries from the series that Fox owns the rights to – Charlie Chan In London from 1934, Charlie Chan In Paris from 1935, Charlie Chan In Egypt also from 1935 and finally, Charlie Chan In Shanghai, also made in 1935. Although the original version of 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries appears to be gone for good, Fox has included (as an extra feature on the fourth disc) the Spanish remake, Eran Trece made that same year for Spanish speaking markets with a completely different cast though shot on the same sets and telling the same story. The Black Camel, a Fox-owned Charlie Chan film from 1931, is available from various bootleg dealers so it obviously exists in some form no matter how haggard it might be, has unfortunately not been included in this set. Likewise, 1929’s Behind The Curtain which also features Chan in a very small role, hasn’t been included despite the fact that it was restored with the rest of the Fox Chan properties and shown on television around the same time as the other titles.
Charlie Chan In London:
When the film begins, a man named Paul Gray is announced in the newspaper as being guilty of murder and is therefore sentenced to death by hanging! Pamela, Paul’s sister, knows that her brother hasn’t killed anyone and eventually she’s able to convince Charlie Chan to help her out. Pamela’s husband-to-be, Neil (a young Ray Milland), tells Chan that although he thinks Paul to be guilty despite the fact that he took his case to court for him, a lot of the case was built around some very circumstantial evidence which gets the gears turning in Charlie’s head as well as in Pamela’s as she calls off her engagement to Neil over the whole affair.
Sometime later, Pamela goes off to visit a wealthy man named Geoffrey Richmond who has gathered together some guests for a fox hunt. Chan decides to try and talk to Pamela there but the butler won’t let him into the house so he in through the window where he confronts some of the guests to gather evidence. After hearing a few different versions of what happened the night of the murder, he tries to reenact the crime at the stable where the man was killed but in doing so manages to upset the horse and the man who runs the stable, Mr. Lake. When Lake turns up dead, the cops proclaim it a suicide but Chan knows better, he knows that the murderer is still on the loose and that it can’t be Paul because he’s in jail. It’s not going to be easy to convince the authorities that Paul didn’t do it, but Chan knows that someone close to Pamela has more knowledge of this alleged foul play than they’re letting on and he aims to prove it.
Not one of the best Chan films, Charlie Chan In London is never the less a fun mystery movie with a couple of decent twists and a fine performance from Warner Oland. The story manages to build some nice, thick tension towards the end as the clock starts ticking closer and closer to the hour of Paul’s execution, with Chan remaining as calm and collected as ever but cutting the timing of his explanation rather close.
Charlie Chan In Paris:
Made right on the heels of Charlie Chan In London, this later film shares a few similarities, plot-wise, to the earlier film but manages to have enough going for it to make it worth a look for fans of the series as it’s a tight and enjoyable little mystery film.
After the events of London, Chan flies across the pond to Paris, France where he gets off the plane and plans to go visit his old friend, Victor DeCartier. He meets a beggar on the way to get in his cab and just as he’s to head off to his destination a rock flies through the window with a note attached to it that warns him to get out of France. Someone somewhere knows the purpose of his visit and doesn’t want him snooping around.
Chan, being Chan, isn’t put off by the ominous warning and off he goes into the heart of Paris where he meets up with Victor and a few other friends he meets along the way. While out at a café one night, Chan sees a woman, a secret agent masquerading as a dancer, murdered. After the murder, Chan runs into the beggar from the airport again and soon realizes that the woman’s killing might be linked to this man, but how? He returns to his hotel room that night, alarmed to find an intruder but relieved soon after when he finds out that it’s his son, Lee (Keye Luke), who has shown up to help him crack the case.
While the plot twists aren’t as rampant here as in some of the other Chan films, Charlie Chan In Paris works well thanks to the chemistry between Orland and Luke as the father and son detective team. Adding to the charm of the film are the backdrops substituting for actual Parisian locations (the stock footage opening montage notwithstanding) – they’re not real, we know that, but they still look great and have a nice, if somewhat stagy, feel to them.
The way that the beggar is worked into the storyline is quite clever and the dialogue contains plenty of the trademark humor that the Charlie Chan series has always been known for. It’s interesting to see how the character of Lee Chan is played completely straight here, as opposed to his later appearances in the sequels where his appearances are more for comic relief than anything else.
Charlie Chan In Egypt:
Someone has stolen some irreplaceable artifacts from the tomb of Amete in Egypt, so who do the officials call in to investigate? Charlie Chan, of course! He lands in Egypt and soon Carol Arnold, the daughter of a Professor who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. When Professor Arnold’s lifeless corpse is found stashed inside a sarcophagus, Chan finds himself having to catch a murderer.
Thankfully for Charlie, there are a few helpful types around he can depend on, including an archeologist friend of Carol’s named Tom Evans. Together Chan and Evans start snooping around and they figure out that the person who killed Carol’s father probably did so because he had stumbled upon the massive stash of treasure that lay within the confines of Amete’s tomb. Things get even more mysterious when Carol’s brother, Barry, also turns up dead.
Soon enough, Tom starts closing in on the whereabouts of the very same treasure and as you’d guess, someone makes an attempt on his life. He’s shot, but thankfully the bullet isn’t fatal and he’s whisked off to recover while Chan tries to piece all of this together. When someone shows up to try and finish Tom off, his acts provide the pieces of the puzzle that Chan needs to finger the real killer.
Charlie Chan In Egypt is a strong film from start to finish. The cast are all quite good in their roles, Orland and Thomas Beck (who plays Evans) in particular, and if you pay attention you’ll even notice a young Rita Hayworth popping up in a brief supporting role (look for her when Chan is investigating Barry’s murder). It isn’t particularly difficult to figure out who the killer is if you pay close attention but that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t a lot of fun regardless. The sets are great, there’s some nice, macabre atmosphere in a few spots, and once again Chan has some witty, clever dialogue. That being said, Stephen Fetchit’s performance as ‘Snowshoes’ will more than likely turn some viewers off from what is otherwise a fine film. He’s playing a character not too far removed from the one that Mantan Moreland did in some of the Monogram entries, but much of the humor is ineffective and he just feels out of place in the movie existing more as a racial stereotype than an effective character or plot device. Regardless, the rest of the movie works really well, and Orland is as good here as he’s ever been.
Charlie Chan In Shanghai:
In the only Charlie Chan film to ever take place in Asia, Chan takes a steamboat trip to his homeland of China only to get another ominous warning note soon after he sets his feet on dry land. Later that night, and old friend of his, Sir Stanley Woodland, is killed when a trap that was meant for Chan backfires and of course, Chan takes it upon himself to try and figure out who set this trap and what their real motives were.
As Chan goes about his sleuthing, a couple of further attempts are made on his life and he soon starts to tie things into an opium ring operating in the area, an operation that an American secret agent named Andrews had hoped Chan would help him end. Luckily for Chan, he runs into his son who just happens to be in the area on business, and off they go to solve the mystery together though Lee is periodically distracted by the lovely Sun Wong.
Keye Luke is once again quite good in his role of Chan’s Number One Son, and it’s amusing to see Chan singing to a few of the small kids on the steamboat ride and interestingly enough, at one point Chan actually tells the captain of the ship his age (the first time it was revealed in one of his films). The mystery in the film unravels nicely, with a few clever red herrings keeping viewers on their toes and everything is tied up neatly at the end of the film.
While the fact that Chan and son are really the only Asian character in the movie despite the fact that it is supposed to unfold in Shanghai is kind of an oddity, Charlie Chan In Shanghai has the distinction of bringing Chan to his birthplace for the first and only time in the series which gives it some significance in the history of the franchise. It’s also fun to see Lee show off his kung fu skills and his disguise skills here as well.
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. Fox has put some time and effort into digitally spicing up these old movies, but there is still some print damage present here and there and unfortunately you’ll probably pick up on some minor MPEG compression artifacts in the darker scenes. Expect to see a thin coat of grain evident from pretty much start to finish but none of it seems unnatural at all and the movies are perfectly watchable, they’re just not pristine. Contrast isn’t bad, the blacks are black and the whites are white and everything in between looks decent, and it’s nice to have good copies of these films available on DVD.
All six films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono with optional subtitles available in English, 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 and at times they fluctuate slightly. Most of the time dialogue comes through well enough and sound effects and background music levels seem to be set appropriately.
All fours discs are housed in an attractive box adorned with Oland as Chan. Additionally, inside the box are some liner notes that explain the origins of the film and the character and put them into some historical perspective, which is a nice touch. The rest of the extra features are on the individual discs, each of which comes in its own keepcase. Stylish menus and chapter selection are included across the board. Each disc also includes a full color insert with poster art reproduction on one side and the chapter listing for its respective film on the other.
Charlie Chan In London:
This disc includes a fifteen-minute documentary entitled The Legacy Of Charlie Chan which features some cool retrospective clips from some of the titles that Fox owns, as well as some interesting interviews and still photographs. Interviewees here include Jon L. Breen, Desoto Brown, Rush Glick, Barbara Gregorich, Ken Hanke, James G. Y. Ho, Sheri Kagimoto, Bob Krauss, Kanoelehua Miller, Jude Narita, Layne Tom and Valeria Yaros. Topics covered include Chan’s origins in literature before making the jump to the big screen, how Chan was one of the earliest fictional American detectives and how he went on to become such a recognizable film icon. There’s a great clip in here of Orland in character addressing the state of Pennsylvania in a PSA of some sort, and some input as to how Chan was intended to be an anti-stereotype as a sort of reverse version of Fu Manchu. This is a great, if a little too brief, overview of the history of the character and fans of the films should really enjoy this retrospective and enjoy the insight that is provided into the various aspects of the movie. It’s also interesting to hear the arguments against the perceived racism in the films, and quite refreshing as well.
Also included on this disc is a Restoration Comparison which uses a split screen to compare the restored versions of the films to the unrestored versions over four minutes of clips with some text pieces superimposed over top explaining the differences and what was done to improve them.
Charlie Chan In Paris:
Included on the second disc is a twenty-minute documentary called In Search Of Charlie Chan. Interviewees for this segment include Howard Berlin, Jon L. Breen, Desoto Brown, Rusty Cundieff, Rush Glick, Barbara Gregorich, Ken Hanke, Erika Kauffman, Bob Krauss, Paul Wurtzel, Carla Winter and Valerie Yaros (some repetition, sure, but there are only so many people involved in ‘Chan-dom’ to interview). The focus of this piece is how Earl Der Biggers, Sol Wurtzel, Warner Oland, Hamilton McFadden and Keye Luke all played a huge part in making the character the phenomena that he grew to be. Biggers is given a brief biographical history and the origins of his books are explained and then from there we move on to the movies, learn how Wurtzel championed the films at Fox, how Oland came to be Chan himself and of the importance of Keye Luke as Number One Son. There’s some great cover art on display here as well as some very nice pictures of places like Digger’s cottage and some of the areas where he lived in addition to some interesting film clips.
The trailer for Charlie Chan In Paris is also included on this disc.
Charlie Chan In Egypt:
The Real Charlie Chan, included on this third disc, is a twenty-minute examination of the man behind the movie character, Chang Apanna. Interviewees on this featurette include Ken Hanke, Bob Krauss, Janis Clapoff, Barbara Gregorich, Officer Eddie Croom, Desoto Brown, James G. Y. Ho, Sheri Kagimoto, Karl Kagimoto, and Nannette Napoleon. Through some archival photos and newspaper clippings this segment examines the reality behind Chang Apanna, how he still holds the records for the most arrests in Honolulu, how he would never back down from a fight and how he was a tall, suave-looking man rather than a shorter, pudgier guy like his cinematic counterpart. This documentary is a really nice companion piece to the two that came before it and it’s a great way to learn about the real Charlie Chan.
For some reason the trailer for Charlie Chan In London is included here but the trailer for Charlie Chan In Egypt is not.
Charlie Chan In Shanghai:
The extra on this disc comes in the form of a second movie, Eran Trece in which Manuel Arbo plays the infamous detective. As previously mentioned, this is the Spanish language version of Charlie Chan Carries On, shot on the same sets as that film but with a different cast and crew. This film was later remade with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise in 1940.
When a tourist on a boat cruise is killed, Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is called in on the case to try and figure out who murdered him and why. Duff gets on board the ship and soon begins getting to know each of the suspects in an attempt to gather some clues and piece it all together but when he gets too close to solving the crime a well-placed bullet ends his life.
When Duff was killed he was on his way to enlist Honolulu-based super detective Charlie Chan’s help in solving the case, and out of a sense of obligation to his departed friend, Chan opts to pick up where the late Duff left off. Charlie Chan comes along and of course manages to finger the killer by tying the deaths into a revenge plot. After promising to solve the mystery before the boat lands or hang up his detective hat for good, Chan exposes the murderer and has him arrested for both killings.
Very valuable as a cinematic curiosity item, Eran Trece offers fans a rare chance to see Manuel Arbó play the part made famous by Orland and later Toler. He’s still a very honorable detective, very straight-laced and quite charming but here he has a more mischievous side that brings a different sort of humor to the movie that actually works surprisingly well. Though it’s unusual to watch a Chan film play out in Spanish, Fox’s subtitles translate everything just fine and this is a great supplement to the four main features in the set.
Once again, the trailer for Charlie Chan In London is included on this disc as well.
With almost an hour’s worth of quality documentaries provided as well as the unusual but completely enjoyable Eran Trece film, Fox gives Chan fans their due with this release. The movies don’t look or sound perfect but if you’re willing to look past the political incorrectness of the era in which they were made they do hold up quite well. They’re charming, funny, suspenseful and quite well-made. Consider The Charlie Chan Collection – Volume One recommended!