Review from Arches alumni magazine, Winter 2008
Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 3
(Charlie Chan's Secret/Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo/ Charlie Chan on Broadway/The Black Camel)
with commentary by President of the University Ronald R. Thomas, Professor Emerita of History Suzanne Wilson Barnett, and Professor of History Nancy Bristow
DVD box set, Fox Home Entertainment
review by Chuck Luce
This, the third in a series of Charlie Chan box sets that Fox began releasing in 2006, ranges from the earliest existing Chan movie starring Warner Oland, The Black Camel (1931), to Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, released in 1937, just before Oland’s death. The Fox Studios pulled out all the stops for its Charlie Chan films of the ’30s, assigning top writers and directors, and casting supporting roles with the likes of Robert Young and Bela Lugosi. Nearly 50 Chan movies were made over the years, with four actors in the title role, but Oland, it has been said, is to Chan what Sean Connery is to James Bond.
Lovers of Charlie Chan will get everything they’ve come to expect here: Amazing deductions that sometimes jump way ahead of the science available at the time. The occasionally obscure “Chan-o-grams.” And comic relief from “Number One Son,” played by Keye Luke, who calls Chan “Pop” and has seriously undeveloped detective ambitions of his own.
Beautifully restored, these films are made more interesting by the background commentary of President Thomas and Professors Barnett and Bristow.
Thomas, the author of Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science, reminds us that the literary tradition of the crime-solving sleuth goes back to the 1850s, to Poe (Murder in the Rue Morgue) and Dickens (Bleak House). In that era popular interest in geographic exploration, science, and technology was on the rise. Astronomers, meteorologists, botanists, and medical doctors could fill concert halls when lecturing on their discoveries, so it made sense that the idea of using scientific methods to catch murderers and thieves would fascinate 19th-century readers.
Thomas says critics of the day regarded detective fiction as a degraded form that wouldn’t last very long, but of course just the opposite took place. The genre exploded, and if the number of CSI TV-show spin-offs are any indication, its proliferation continues even to this day.
Such enduring acceptance, notes Thomas, is possible because the detective explains mysteries that have strong allegorical connections to social conundrums. Between the world wars, for example, when people were streaming into cities, the urban environment was a scary place for former dwellers of rural America. The detective entered the city and restored order on behalf of citizens.
Other historical conditions influenced themes and choices of locales for the 16 Charlie Chan movies Fox made with Oland.
Americans were still recovering from the Great Depression in the 1930s. Movies were an affordable distraction, and Bristow notes that setting Chan films at the circus and race track, on Broadway, in Paris, London, and Monte Carlo would have been welcome escapes for moviegoers of the time.
Charlie Chan in Egypt capitalized on the mania that swept the world after Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. When Lord Carnarvon, who financed Carter’s excavations in the Valley of the Kings and who entered the tomb with him, died a year later, stories of a mummy’s curse caught the headlines. In fact Carnarvon was already in ill health when he first laid eyes on Tut’s sarcophagus and Carter lived a long natural life, but that didn’t quell the curse rumors. The 1932 film The Mummy with Boris Karloff caught the hype and ran with it, and in The Black Camel Bela Lugosi plays a sinister mystic, yet the circumspect Chan was a debunker of the supernatural, says Bristow.
Charlie Chan in Shanghai addressed another concern on American minds in the ’30s, observes Barnett: organized crime. Far enough removed so that it didn’t hit home too hard, the film nevertheless confronts a blurred line between government and gangs, in this case an opium smuggling ring, while at the same time placing Chan in the formula exotic locale.
Chan was a character created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers based on Chang Apana, a real Chinese-American detective working in the Honolulu Police Department in the 1920s. As played by Oland, Chan is observant, astute, exceedingly polite, and prone to dispensing aphorisms such as, “Fingerprints very valuable if detective can catch owner of fingers,” and “Kindness in heart better than gold in bank.”
Charlie Chan offers and commands respect through his exaggerated politeness, Thomas says, and his personality is more intellectual, like Sherlock Holmes, than the gruff and instinctive Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. But the celluloid Chan was also controversial. The character perpetuated racial stereotypes and was criticized for being too unassertive and retiring, a demeanor that was perhaps in response to growing anti-Asian sentiment in the ’30s. And charges of “yellowface” were leveled at Fox for casting Oland, a Swedish immigrant, in the role of Chan.
Still, Chan fans call the Oland years the golden age of Charlie Chan films, and the special-feature commentaries in this set are fun and instructive—just what you’d expect from your old college professors.