Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The Charlie Chan movies have a sticky reputation today, largely based on the fact that the main character, a Chinese detective who works for the Honolulu police, was played by a non-Chinese actor, Swedish born Warner Oland (and after he died, by American Sidney Toler). This would almost certainly not happen today, though Asian roles were still being played by Anglo actors into the 70's (David Carradine as the half-Chinese Buddhist priest Caine in TV’s "Kung Fu"). I can understand the discomfort that some viewers today might feel watching a performance that could be described as "Asian blackface," but it was a Hollywood truism for many years that American audiences would not accept Asian actors in leading roles. If you can get past this problem, the Chan movies are generally quite fun, and even could be seen as "politically correct" in content if not performance, as Chan not only always remains dignified in the face of prejudice, but also always outdoes or outfoxes the Anglo good guys and bad guys. Though there were 8 previous movies in which Chan was either featured or starred, LONDON is apparently the earliest one that still exists intact. Drue Leyton's brother is about to be executed in three days for murder, but she's convinced he's innocent and goes to Chan for help. When the brother's attorney, Ray Milland, who is also Leyton's fiance, confides to Chan that he thinks the brother is guilty, Leyton breaks off their engagement. Chan agrees to help and attends a house party at which are present most of the principals of the case. There is a sinister butler, a drunkard, a horse's groom, and a bumbling country inspector (E.E. Clive) who keeps calling Chan, "Chang." There is also a reenactment of the original murder, an apparent suicide, a secret military invention, a near-fatal horse accident, and some gunplay before Chan cracks the case. The familiar supporting actors include Alan Mowbray, Douglas Walton, and Mona Barrie. (BTW, this is the movie that one of the producers in Robert Altman's GOSFORD PARK is supposedly researching). The next film has Chan arriving, umm.. IN PARIS to investigate bank fraud. He gets a stern warning delivered with a rock thrown through his taxi. He meets up with the son of the bank president (Thomas Beck, who appeared as a major character in several Chan and Mr. Moto films), then goes to see exotic dancer Nardi (Dorothy Appleby) who has some information for Chan but who is murdered at the end of an acrobatic dance number. There is a mysterious beggar, counterfeiters, blackmail, and a chase through the sewers of Paris, but most notably this film marked the first appearance of Chan's westernized son, played here by the handsome Keye Luke who would play the same role in not only six other Chan films, but even in a Mr. Moto film. Erik Rhodes, one of my favorite supporting comic actors, has a more serious role here. I find the plots of the Chan movies, like those of the Thin Man movies, to be interchangeable, but what they lack in narrative originality is made up for by Oland's excellent performances. [DVD]

No comments: