Once Fox's biggest guaranteed moneymakers, many of the studio's Charlie Chan films are now lost, while those that survive have been hard to find since political correctness has kept them off TV. The latter charge is particularly curious because, while the series typically used Western actors for its Chinese detective, the almost apologetic Chan is consistently the smartest guy in the room and regularly outwits the Westerners who consistently underestimate him.
"Front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of house, always look in backyard."
The first in Fox's expensively restored series of classic Warner Oland Charlie Chan films to be released on DVD, 1934's Charlie Chan in London spends little of its running time in London, quickly shifting the action to a country house where Chan has three days to prove the innocence of a condemned man by finding the real killer. Luckily they're all assembled for the last fox hunt of the season and it's not long before suspects are found dead and someone's trying to arrange for Chan to join them. It's slick production line fare that hits all the expected notes satisfactorily, benefiting from a decent supporting cast including Alan Mowbray as the lord of the manor and a young Raymond Milland as the condemned man's lawyer who rather mucks up his engagement to his sister by letting it slip he actually thinks he's guilty. Few surprises, but done well enough for it not to matter a bit and a partial inspiration for Gosford Park, which even gives it and Mowbray a namecheck in the script.
The featurette included on the DVD, The Legacy of Charlie Chan, does address the way the Chan films were interpreted in later years, pointing out that at the time they helped slowly chip away at some racial barriers even while creating something of a stereotype in the process. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
"Many strange crimes committed in sewers of Paris."
Charlie Chan in Paris sees the Honolulu detective stopping over in the city of lights having solved the Stable Murder Case in his previous adventure, and it's next to no time before the bodies are piling up. But it's not a murder investigation that takes him to France or even the vacation he pretends but a bank bond scandal that needs to be investigated on the quiet, and this time his number one son (Keye Luke) is also in town to help him. Unlike Charlie Chan in London, Chan actually spends the whole running time in the capital city, though he avoids most of the usual tourist haunts for its banks and its sewers, with only a brief stop off in a nightclub for a violent dance number with a rather more violent climax than was intended by the lady's dance partner. It's a thoroughly entertaining number, with the usual aphorisms - "Optimist see only donut: pessimist see hole," "Joy in heart more desirable than bullet" - false accusations, attempts on his life and dastardly deeds delivered in a snappy 71 minutes, as well as a polite rejoinder to one character's use of pidgin English when meeting Chan for the first time.
Also included is documentary featurette In Search of Charlie Chan and the trailer for Charlie Chan in London.
"Cannot believe that piece of carved stone contain evil - unless dropped on foot."
Despite being directed with surprising visual flair by Louis King and boasting a plot built around the opening of a tomb and the disposal of some of its treasures that adds a bit of supernatural spice to proceedings for the first time, Charlie Chan in Egypt never quite hits the highs. It's a perfectly decent mystery that benefits from what looks like much higher production values, though it also flirts much more with casual xenophobia and racial stereotyping, be it the duplicitous local guides or Stepin Fetchit's shtick as the lazy and cowardly black servant `Snowshoes.' On the plus side, the supporting cast also includes Rita Cansino in the days before she changed her name to Rita Hayworth in a thankless role as a native servant girl, but you'd never guess from the scant evidence here that she'd blossom into a major beauty and a major star. The credits have obviously been remade for DVD, presumably because of the limited material available on all the early Chan films, though the disc does include a fascinating documentary about Chang Apana, the real Chinese detective in Honolulu who was the model for Chan - a svelte, two-fisted type who carried the sickle and knife scars from the many fights he never walked away from!
"Beauty of poppy contains sting of death."
Charlie Chan in Shanghai sees a noticeable increase in production values for the series, with the detective and his Number One son finding themselves mixed up with secret agents, kidnappers and opium rings a bit closer to their ancestral home. It's a fairly lavish picture, with a much wider scope than previous entries. The murder of one of Chan's old friends almost seems less important than smashing the drug smugglers here, the investigation initially seeming more of a trigger for the plot than its focus, and daring escapes, assassination attempts and even a shootout assume as much prominence as detection. There's also some surprising violence, not least from an America intelligence man who gets his confessions with his fists
Thankfully the racial stereotyping that makes parts of his previous adventure in Egypt so uncomfortable to watch today is not an issue here. True, Charlie does sing a cheerful song about Fu Manchu to some children and the positions of authority are all represented by British or Americans, but nonetheless the Chinese characters are never belittled - though Key Luke's Number One son is on the receiving end of several rebukes for running up a hefty bill on his father's hotel telephone. All in all it's a rather nifty and enjoyable 70 minutes that manages to throw in a couple of minor surprises along the way.
The film which really kicked off Fox's Charlie Chan series and introduced Warner Oland in the role, Charlie Chan Carries On, is now lost, but a Spanish-language version filmed at the same time on the same sets with a different cast in the days before dubbing still survives. Eran Trece aka They Were Thirteen has a decent hook: a series of murders among a group of well-off tourists touring the world where the police know the name of the murderer - or at least his real name - but don't know what he looks like. Unfortunately it takes almost as long to get going as it does for Chan to make his appearance, the first half of the film entrusted to the capable hands of Rafael Calvo's Inspector Duff, who constantly talks about his friend Charlie Chan while he's faced with the usual assortment of suspects and potential victims - a theatrical impresario, a pompous doctor, a compulsive liar, a Chicago gangster with a penchant for musical impersonations and his wife, an elderly man with a heart condition and his young companion, a rich young heiress, a spinster and a lumber merchant among them. Although it's decently staged the film spends far too long introducing the suspects in their London hotel after the first killing and, if not quite creaks, certainly threatens to lose your interest.
Things pick up when the film starts to follow the tourists rather than the detective - at least it gets them out of the hotel - but it's not until the halfway point that the Inspector finds himself on the wrong end of the killer's gun and Charlie Chan takes over the case. It's almost a pity to see the Inspector go, because Manuel Arbo's Chan isn't terribly impressive, giving the kind of performance that would usually be relegated to minor comic relief and really overplaying the epigrams ("Every `maybe' has a wife called `maybe not,'" "A big head is no more than a place for a big headache"), though Raoul Roulien's gangster does get a good retort when Chan tells him he doesn't drink: "Okay, you can listen to the cork pop and imagine you're chasing bandit." Included on the Region 1 NTSC DVD of Charlie Chan in Shanghai as an extra, it's an okay studio mystery that at least offers a tantalising glimpse of what its lost American big brother was like.