Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Distributed: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, January 10, 1936
Production: August 26 to September 21, 1935
Copyright: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, January 10, 1936; LP6049
Opened: Roxy, New York, N.Y., the week of January 17, 1936
Sound: Western Electric Noiseless Recording
Film: Black and white
Length: 8 reels; 6,500 feet
Running Time: 71 minutes
Production Code Administration Certificate Number: 1587
Source: “Based on the character ‘Charlie Chan’ created by Earl Derr Biggers”
Associate Producer: John Stone
Director: Gordon Wiles
Screenplay: Robert Ellis and Helen Logan, in collaboration with Joseph Hoffman
Original Story: Robert Ellis and Helen Logan
Photography: Rudolph Mate
Sound: Al Protzman
Film Editor: Nick DeMaggio
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer and Albert Hogsett
Gowns: Helen Myron
Musical Director: Samuel Kaylin
Sid Jordan: Expert Marksman (not credited)
CAST (as credited):
Warner Oland: Charlie Chan
Rosina Lawrence: Alice Lowell
Charles Quigley: Dick Williams
Henrietta Crosman: Henrietta Lowell
Edward Trevor: Fred Gage
Astrid Allwyn: Janice Gage
Herbert Mundin: Baxter
Jonathan Hale: Warren T. Phelps
Egon Brecher: Ulrich
Gloria Roy: Carlotta
Ivan Miller: Morton
Arthur Edmund Carew: Professor [Alfred] Bowan
UNCREDITED CAST (alphabetical):
Charles Ernest: Salvage Diver
Francis Ford: Salvage Boat Captain
Bud Geary: Police Officer
Chuck Hamilton: Police Officer
Jerry Miley: Allen Colby
William Norton Bailey: Harris
James T. Mack: Fingerprint Man
Landers Stevens: Coroner
Brick Sullivan: Police Officer
During the search for bodies among the wreckage of a boat lost in a storm near Hawaii, Charlie Chan finds a diary belonging to Allen Colby, heir to his father’s fortune that has been brought up from the sunken ship. The diary offers proof that Colby had been aboard the vessel, and what is written inside the book reveals that attempts had recently been made on his life.
Chan sends a cable to Henrietta Lowell, the matriarch of the family, an acquaintance of the detective, and the sister of Allen’s deceased father. In his message, Chan states that Allen Colby’s fate is uncertain. He flies to San Francisco where Mrs. Lowell, a devoted believer in “psychic research,” schedules a séance.
Allen Colby secretly returns to the estate, but, upon entering, he is hit by a thrown dagger.
Later, Chan arrives at the Colby Estate. He has found that, seven years before, Allen had joined the French Foreign Legion. During hostilities, Colby had been captured by Rifs and was held prisoner, but had eventually escaped. All of that time, he had been out of contact with his family.
That evening, the séance is conducted by Carlotta, a medium, and is attended by Professor Bowan, whom Mrs. Lowell supports financially. Also at the séance are Mrs. Lowell’s two daughters, Alice and Janice; Alice’s boyfriend, newspaper reporter Dick Williams; Janice’s husband, Fred Gage; Ulrich, a disgruntled caretaker, who blames his daughter’s suicide seven years earlier on Allen Colby, who had broken his engagement with her; and Chan. During the séance, Allen Colby, whose face is strangely illuminated, appears on the stairway leading to the darkened room. The figure of Colby suddenly falls, and, when the lights are turned back on, Chan discovers that Allen has been murdered.
Chan, hoping to begin his investigation of Allen Colby’s murder, arranges with Mrs. Lowell to allow him to spend the night in the unoccupied Colby House, a mysterious place that has many secret panels and passages. Mrs. Lowell leaves the detective to do his work, but, curious about the murder and its connection with the séance, she returns to join Chan in his search for clues.
While exploring the room where the séance was held, Chan finds a radio receiver that, he determines, probably accounts for the eerie music that was heard during that evening’s séance. Chan also finds that Allen’s face appeared to glow in the darkness because of a hidden ultraviolet light that had been projected toward it. Allen’s face, Chan finds, had been covered with quinine sulfate, a solution that glows under ultraviolet light.
Greatly upset over what has been discovered, Mrs. Lowell reveals that Professor Bowan knew that if Allen were to return, her patronage of his “research” would come to an end. As she agrees with Chan’s suggestion that she immediately revise her will, now that she is the legal heir, a shot is fired at her from a hidden doorway. However, Chan had seen the reflection of the assailant’s gun in a mirror, and, acting quickly, had pushed Mrs. Lowell out of harm’s way. Just then, Gage enters the house, saying that he had become concerned for his mother-in-law’s safety.
The next day, after seeing a radio transmitter in Ulrich’s cottage on the grounds of Colby House, Chan visits Carlotta. She admits to the use of the transmitter, but she is shocked to learn of the other deceptive methods that were employed by Professor Bowan. As Chan inspects the coil of the short wave transmitter at Carlotta and Professor Bowan’s residence, Bowan, who is hidden, switches on the current. Chan receives a strong electric shock and passes out. Bowan tries to convince Carlotta to flee with him, but she refuses. Just then, the police arrive, but Bowan escapes. Inspector Morton arrests Carlotta as Chan is revived.
Later that day, Mrs. Lowell announces to her family that she plans to sign a new will, which her executor, Warren T. Phelps, will bring to her home at 8:30 that evening. As Mrs. Lowell sits at a table near a window with Baxter, her butler, the bell in a nearby tower signals 8:30. At this moment a bullet smashes through the window, hitting her in the head.
Chan later investigates the bell tower and finds a high-powered rifle, which has been set to fire as the bell sounds at the spot where Mrs. Lowell had customarily sat each evening at 8:30.
Bowan is caught, but he does not confess, and Chan calls all of those who were present at the previous séance back as Carlotta, with Professor Bowan, conducts another. During the séance, Mrs. Lowell’s animated body appears. As it begins to speak, saying that the murderer will be revealed, a knife is suddenly thrown at the image, which breaks, as the image had been but a reflection in a mirror. When the lights are turned on, Chan reveals that Mrs. Lowell is alive and that it was a dummy that had been shot earlier. Gage accuses Ulrich, and, as they begin to struggle, Chan grabs Gage’s hand and opens it, revealing dark smudges of graphite that the detective had placed on the knife, the twin of the one that had been used to murder Allen Colby. The detective accuses Gage of murdering Colby to cover evidence of forgery in the Lowell accounts.
After Gage is taken away, Mrs. Lowell refuses to press charges against Carlotta and Professor Bowan. However, Inspector Morton “suggests” that the couple leave town, and they agree to do so.
NOTES: The working title of this film was Charlie Chan in San Francisco. In Hollywood Reporter production charts, George Schneiderman is listed as photographer and Charles McNaughton as a cast member, but their participation in the final film has not been verified. However, Charles McNaughton is pictured in what appears to be butler’s garb in a publicity still for Charlie Chan’s Secret. The actor’s name is absent from the credits on the still while Herbert Mundin, who played Baxter the butler, is among those listed.
Adapted from: AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE CATALOG – Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960
CHARLIE CHAN’S APHORISMS
Must not overlook any possibility.
Greetings at end of journey like refreshing rain after long drought.
Chinese people interested in all things psychic.
Best place for skeleton is in family closet.
Most fortunate gift to be able to cross bridge to dwelling place of honorable ancestors before arriving.
If strength were all, tiger would not fear scorpion.
Fingerprints very valuable – if detective can catch owner of fingers.
Perhaps woman’s intuition, like feather on arrow, may help flight to truth.
Boy Scout knife, like ladies’ hairpin, have many uses.
Necessity mother of invention – but sometimes stepmother of deception.
When pilot unreliable, ship cannot keep true course.
Role of dead man require very little acting.
Finding web of spider does not prove which spider spin web.
Punch in ribs more desirable than shot in back.
Have utmost respect for true believer in psychic things.
Live and learn.
Wheel of fate has many spokes.
When weaving nets, all threads counted.
Unknown danger like summer lightning – strike where least expected.
Though loved one seem to be taken away, remain always near.
Hasty deduction, like ancient egg, look good from outside.
High-powered bullet take shortest distance between three points.
With proper lever, baby’s fingers can move mountain.
OTHER WORTHY STATEMENTS:
(Boat Captain: “I’m afraid you’re on a wild goose chase, Mr. Chan.”) Have sometimes caught wild goose.
(Boat Captain: “A little tough on the Colby heirs if he’s [Allen Colby] alive.”) Tough on Allen Colby, if dead.
(Baxter: “There’s a tinge of the graveyard which positively awes me.”) Yes. Mysterious shadows of night. They cling to old house like moss on tombstone.
(Dick Williams: “Say, you’re Mr. Chan, aren’t you?”) Humbly acknowledge name.
(Morton: “Ah, a headache for the police department. Have you any ideas, Mr. Chan?”) Solve mystery, cure headache.
(Coroner: “Found anything interesting?”) As son Lee would say, “Play hunch.”
(Baxter: “Quiet little place, isn’t it, sir?”) Very restful…like silence in graveyard.
(Baxter: [regarding the sound of a door closing] “Do you think that could be spirits, sir?) Very practical spirit to enter by door.
In face of present evidence, may be wise to change plans for future. (To Henrietta Lowell)
(Fred Gage: “I know this place, inside and out. It’s a regular honeycomb of passages that start everywhere and end nowhere. You want me to show you?”) No. Will investigate honeycomb later – maybe find bee.
Strange house have more than one skeleton in closet. (To Fred Gage)
(Ulrich: “You can’t catch me on that!”) Only thing Charlie Chan catch is cold in head.
(Morton: “You let the murderer of Allen Colby slip right through your fingers.”) So sorry. Like child who play with matches – get burned.
Mind at present like hangover after misspent evening. (To Dick Williams)
(Morton: [regarding Charlie Chan’s moving a Chinese-style vase and placing it on a table to demonstrate his theory] “What’s it going to be, interior decorating? Why don’t you try a couple of sunflowers in it?”) Atrocious libel on Chinese art quite sufficient.
If tongue in tower bell could speak, would have solution. (To Morton regarding the identity of the murderer)
Voice of professor may tell us more than tongue of silent bell. (To Morton regarding capture of Prof. Bowan)
Motive for recent murders like tangle of many strings, ends of which held by persons in this room. (To gathered suspects)
Telltale fingers sign confession. (To Fred Gage, noting that the fingers of the murderer were covered by graphite that had been placed on a knife)
(Morton: “You’ve done a great job, Charlie. I wish I could make you president of the City Hall.”) If family continue to increase, may consider generous offer.
Variety, January 22, 1936
Warner Oland’s new Charlie Chan story is easily the best of his recent screen efforts. It should more than please the Chan clientele and get satisfactory box office returns. Director and writers never overlooked bet in story development, with Henrietta Crosman and Herbert Mundin heading a well-balanced supporting cast.
As with all detective yarns framed around Earl Derr Biggers’ Oriental sleuth, Chan in this instance sets out to solve a baffling murder and to protect others from threatening doom. It all hinges on the settlement of an estate, with virtually every person in the cast excepting the police and master detective suspected. That’s a highly familiar film formula, but here it is made plausible through faithfulness to detail.
Customary feigned dumbness of Charlie Chan is never forced, though this characteristic is intelligently maintained here. In fact, it is this apparent weakness that brings about the eventual downfall of the murderer.After an apparently ponderous beginning, Chan soon is at work attempting to put his finger on one of several who might have slain the son of a wealthy family. There’s a pair of phoney crystal gazers, the family attorney, the market losing son-in-law, the vengeful caretaker and wife-seeking news scribe – all set to profit from the young man’s demise. Anti-climax of picture is the most powerful to be concocted for Charlie Chan story in some time. Figures as a hair-raiser but logical follow to the main climax.
Warner Oland turns in his customary skillful interpretation of the shrewd detective, but is not permitted to clutter up the action too much with Chinese-American proverbs. Whole film is strengthened by grand trooping job by Henrietta Crosman, Herbert Mundin again is butler. As the frightened involuntary assistant to the super sleuth, he provides his usual quota of rare comedy scenes.
Uniformly fine performances contributed by Rosina Lawrence, Charles Quigley, Edward Trevor, A. Edmund Carew and Gloria Roy. Gordon Wiles’ direction deserves special mention because of the way he handled cast without deviating from central story thread. Highly capable writing done by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan in collab with Joseph Hoffman.
PROBABLE DATE: Fall 1935
DURATION: Four days – beginning in Hawaii two weeks after the sinking of the S.S. Nestor
LOCATIONS: Off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu and San Francisco, California
THE DAILY POST HEADLINE AND STORYLINES:
ACCORDING TO THE SALVAGE BOAT CAPTAIN, WHEN ALLEN COLBY “WALKED OUT ON A FORTUNE”: “…seven years ago.” (1928)
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, THE NUMBER OF PASSENGERS ON THE LIST OF THE S.S. NESTOR: “Passenger list indicate 30 persons on board.”
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, THE NUMBER OF PASSENGERS RESCUED IN LIFEBOATS: “27 rescued by lifeboats…”
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, THE NUMBER OF BODIES RECOVERED “TODAY” BY THE SALVAGE BOAT: “…two recovered today.”
THE IDENTITY OF THE LONE MISSING PERSON: Allen Colby
ACCORDING TO THE SALVAGE BOAT CAPTAIN, THE LENGTH OF TIME SINCE THE SINKING OF THE S.S. NESTOR: “…two weeks…”
THE INITIALS ON THE BRIEFCASE RECOVERED BY SALVAGE DIVERS “ON ONE OF THE BUNKS” ABOARD THE NESTOR: A.C.
THE PASSAGE FROM ALLEN COLBY’S DIARY NOTED BY CHARLIE CHAN:
THE NAME OF ONE OF THE TWO SALVAGE DIVERS: Duke
ACCORDING TO THE SALVAGE BOAT CAPTAIN, THE LENGTH OF TIME UNTIL THEY WILL REACH PORT (HONOLULU): “…a couple of hours.”
CHARLIE CHAN’S “DEAR OLD FRIEND”: Mrs. Henrietta Lowell
THE TEXT OF CHARLIE CHAN’S RADIOGRAM MESSAGE AS DICTATED TO THE SALVAGE BOAT CAPTAIN: “To Mrs. Henrietta Lowell, San Francisco: Fate of Allen Colby still uncertain. Leaving Honolulu at once on new Clipper airship to continue investigation on mainland. Signed, Charlie Chan, please.”
THE WORD SPELLED OUT ON A OUIJA BOARD BY HENRIETTA LOWELL AND BAXTER:
“D – E – A – D”
ACCORDING TO THE CLOCK SHOWN IN THE HALL, THE TIME AS HENRIETTA LOWELL TELEPHONED WARREN T. PHELPS’ OFFICE REGARDING CHARLIE CHAN’S ARRIVAL IN SAN FRANCISCO LATER THAT DAY: 11:05 (a.m.)
THE TIME SET FOR THE SEANCE THAT NIGHT AT COLBY HOUSE: 8:30
ACCORDING TO JANICE GAGE, THE NAME OF HER UNCLE, ALLEN COLBY’S FATHER: Bernard
THE BRIDGE, UNDER CONSTRUCTION, SHOWN AS CHARLIE CHAN’S “CLIPPER” ARRIVES IN SAN FRANCISCO: San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This bridge was constructed between 1933 and 1936, officially opening on November 12, 1936, six months before the Golden Gate Bridge.
ALLEN COLBY’S PASSPORT AND PHOTOGRAPH:
THE TIME SHOWN ON THE “ANCIENT CLOCK” INSIDE OF COLBY HOUSE AS ALLEN COLBY ARRIVED BY JUMPING OVER THE WALL NEAR THE ENTRANCE GATE: About 5:05 (p.m.)
THE TIME SHOWING ON THE CLOCK AFTER HAVING BEEN CHANGED BY THE KILLER: 5:25 (p.m.)
THE TIME SHOWN ON THE SAME CLOCK AS ALLEN COLBY ENTERS: 5:30 (p.m.)
THE EXACT TIME ON ALLEN COLBY’S WRISTWATCH AS THE CLOCK INSIDE OF COLBY HOUSE STRIKES 5:30: 5:04:55
THE TIME SHOWN ON DICK WILLIAMS’ WRISTWATCH AS THE CLOCK INSIDE OF COLBY HOUSE STRIKES 6:00: 5:31
THE NAME OF THE BLACK CAT AT COLBY HOUSE: Lucifer
THE UNCLE OF ALICE LOWELL AND JANICE GAGE WHO REBUILT COLBY HOUSE TO BETTER SUIT PSYCHIC RESEARCH: Bernard Colby
ALLEN COLBY’S PASSPORT INFORMATION, ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN: “Passport visaed by French and British consuls.”
THE FAMOUS MILITARY UNIT IN WHICH ALLEN COLBY SERVED: French Foreign Legion
THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE WHO CAPTURED AND HELD ALLEN COLBY CAPTIVE FOR SEVERAL YEARS: Rifs (Pronounced: “Reefs”)
THE CAUSE AND TIME OF ALLEN COLBY’S DEATH, ACCORDING TO THE CORONER: “Knife pierced the right ventricle of the heart. He’s been dead about four hours.” (Thus making the time of the murder investigation about 9:00 p.m.)
THE TIME, ACCORDING TO PROFESSOR BOWAN, AS HE HAD STOPPED BY ULRICH’S COTTAGE: “…about six o’clock (p.m.)…”
THE NEWSPAPER FOR WHICH DICK WILLIAMS WORKED: The Globe
DICK WILLIAMS’ STATED TIME OF HIS ARRIVAL AT COLBY HOUSE: 5:15 p.m.
THE TIME, ACCORDING TO THE CLOCK IN THE HALL, AS DETECTIVE MORTON FINISHED QUESTIONING THOSE WHO HAD ATTENDED THE SEANCE: 9:40 (p.m.)
THE CHEMICAL SUBSTANCE USED BY CHARLIE CHAN TO DETERMINE THE CAUSE OF THE PHOSPHORESCENT GLOW OF ALLEN COLBY’S FACE DURING THE SEANCE: Chlorine water
THE CHEMICAL FOUND BY CHARLIE CHAN ON THE FACE OF ALLEN COLBY: Quinine sulfate
THE NUMBER ON THE DOOR OF THE RESIDENCE OF CARLOTTA AND PROFESSOR BOWAN: 324
THE AMOUNT OF THE ENDOWMENT PROMISED TO THE COLBY FOUNDATION FOR PSYCHIC RESEARCH IN HENRIETTA COLBY’S WILL: $100,000
THE SCHEDULED TIME FOR WARREN PHELPS TO BRING THE AMENDED WILL TO HENRIETTA LOWELL: 8:30 p.m.
HENRIETTA LOWELL’S USUAL DINNER TIME: 7:30 p.m.
THE TIME AS POLICE AND CHARLIE CHAN WATCHED THE OUTSIDE OF HENRIETTA LOWELL’S RESIDENCE: 8:25 p.m.
THE TIME AS A MYSTERIOUS BULLET APPARENTLY KILLS MRS. LOWELL: 8:30 p.m.
THE TIME AS CHARLIE CHAN RELOADED THE RIFLE INSIDE OF THE BELL TOWER: 9:20 a.m. the next morning
ACCORDING TO DETECTIVE MORTON, THE LENGTH OF TIME THAT THE POLICE QUESTIONED THE BOWANS: “Four hours…”
THE TIME GIVEN PROFESSOR BOWEN AND CARLOTTA BY DETECTIVE MORTON FOR THE DEPARTURE OF “THE TRAIN EAST”: 11:45 p.m.
CHARLIE CHAN’S FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH FROM HIS PASSPORT WALLET AS SHOWN:
chlorine water – An aqueous solution of chlorine used as a bleaching agent. The Substance used by Charlie Chan to determine the cause of the phosphorescent glow of Allen Colby’s face during the séance.
Honolulu – The capital and largest city of Hawaii, on the southeast coast of Oahu. Honolulu’s harbor was first entered by Europeans in 1794. Settlement of the area began in 1816, and the city soon gained prominence as a whaling and sandalwood port. Honolulu has been a major tourist center since the early twentieth century. Population – 1930: 202,807; 1940: 257,696.
Honolulu was the home of Charlie Chan and his multitudinous family who lived on the slope of Punchbowl Hill. This city is at least the starting point for a number of adventures, and, in two films, including Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case and The Black Camel (filmed on location), serves as the backdrop for the entire film. Other titles where at least some of the plot, if only implied, takes place in Honolulu include Charlie Chan Carries On, Charlie Chan’s Secret, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Charlie Chan in Reno, and Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise.
inquisition – (1) A former tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church (1232-1820) created to discover and suppress heresy. (2) A severe interrogation, often violating the rights or privacy of individuals.
Alice Lowell: “Haven’t we had enough of this inquisition?”
Ouija board – A board with the alphabet on it; used with a planchette to spell out supernatural messages. Henrietta Lowell regularly used an Ouija board, usually with the assistance of her butler, Baxter.
Pan American World Airways Clipper – On November 11, 1935, Pan American Airway’s China Clipper, a Martin M-130 flying boat, made the first transpacific airmail flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, and Manila in the Philippines.
The China Clipper was the largest flying boat ever and gave passengers the opportunity to fly in airborne luxury. The Clipper had a spacious lounge that was wider than a Pullman club car. In the lounge, passengers could sit in broad armchairs, and they could dine on food served on china.
Following the route pioneered by Captain Musick, Pan American World Airways Clippers flew on a schedule of stops that stretched from San Francisco to Manila. Hong Kong was soon added as the final leg of a journey that would allow passengers to fly all the way from the U.S. mainland to China.
Although the Clippers were each named for their destinations, that is, “Hawaii,” “Philippine,” and “China,” they were commonly referred to as “China Clippers.” The China Clipper cruised at about 160 miles per hour and had a range of 3,200 miles. Later models that were added to the Clipper fleet could cruise at just over 180 miles per hour at a range of about 3,500 miles. A flight between San Francisco and Honolulu cost passengers a hefty $720 and would take between 18 and 20 hours, flying at an altitude of about 8,000 feet.
Regular Clipper service between Honolulu and the mainland continued throughout the 1930s and into the start of the next decade until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Charlie Chan made fairly regular use of the Clipper route between Honolulu and San Francisco, flying on the plane to the mainland in Charlie Chan’s Secret, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan in Reno, and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.
quinine sulfate – A medicine that is mainly used for reducing the occurrence of nocturnal leg cramps, although it is also used against malaria, unknown infective species, and myotonia.
Charlie Chan: “Quinine sulfate, when exposed to rays of ultraviolet lamp, produce mysterious light which accompany apparition.”
Rifs – Berber people of Morocco with whom the French had fought.Charlie Chan: “Was taken prisoner by Rifs.”
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (Bay Bridge) – A toll bridge that spans San Francisco Bay and links the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and is the busiest bridge in the United States. The Bay Bridge opened for traffic on November 12, 1936, six months before San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge can be seen during its constriction in Charlie Chan’s Secret as the plane carrying Chan to San Francisco prepares to arrive at that city. The bridge can also be seen in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island in the background as Charlie Chan arrives with his son, Jimmy, via Clipper flying boat, at San Francisco’s Treasure Island.
state’s evidence – Evidence for the prosecution in criminal proceedings.Morton: “You can save yourself a lot of grief by turning state’s evidence.”
For a complete glossary list from all films, please visit our Charlie Chan Glossary.