[1 April 2008]
When I was growing up, my family only had one television hooked up to cable. That television was in the basement and the basement was my dad’s domain. If my sister or I wanted to watch cable, we usually had to choose something he wanted to watc,h as well. Luckily, he was a closet Nickelodeon fan.
My dad was also an American Movie Classics (and later, after AMC sold out) a Turner Classic Movies aficionado. Therefore, my favorite movies at age 10 included Casablanca, Laura and other noir classics a grade-schooler probably shouldn’t have been watching.
I saw a quite a few Charlie Chan movies in those days. As a kid, I watched the films much like I imagine the original audiences did back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. I was drawn to the stories and Chan’s enigmatic qualities. The negative stereotypes that Chan represents went right over my head.
Years later, watching the four movies included in the fourth volume of Chan boxed sets was an altogether different experience. It could and has been argued that, by virtue of his leading man status, Chan was a positive role model for Asian-Americans. But the prejudices of the American public in those days clearly shaped much of Chan’s persona. The stereotypes on display make the films fascinating to watch as a piece of American film and social history. But they’re a shortcoming when it comes to the stories’ pure entertainment value.
Fox released more than 25 Charlie Chan films in the ‘30s and ‘40s (more were later released by other studios.) The first three boxed set volumes in the Charlie Chan DVD collection include the movies starring Warner Olund, the Swedish actor who made the character famous. Olund died in 1938 and was replaced by Sidney Toler, a white American actor. The collection includes four of his early Chan movies: Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Charlie Chan in Reno, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, and Charlie Chan in City in Darkness.
Among the Volume 4 collection’s extras are two documentaries about the search for a new Chan and a profile of Toler. The documentaries reveal some interesting tidbits, among them that the Chan films, which were considered “B” movies, were cash cows that helped keep Fox finacially afloat. The film historians who appear in the extras come down pretty hard on Charlie Chan in Honolulu, the first film starring Toler as Chan. Although the series’ back story casts Chan as a detective for the Honolulu police, the film is also the first to show Chan at his home on Punchbowl Hill.
With his frozen grin and a Fu Manchu mustache barely hiding the fact that he’s really a former bit player from Missouri, Toler is completely out of his element. To Olund fans, this movie must have been a lot like going to a restaurant expecting dim sum but getting a Chinese buffet, instead.
Most of the action takes place aboard a freighter off the coast of Honolulu. The murder mystery plot is surprisingly intricate, despite several doses of rather hackneyed slapstick from Chan’s sidekick, “#2 Son” Jimmy (Victor Sen Young.) The movie is also Young’s (and Jimmy’s debut), as he replaced “#1 Son” Lee. Jimmy is aptly named, as he plays the bumbling Jimmy Olsen to Chan’s Superman in all of the films.
Toler is improved in the other three films, which also amp up the drama. For “B” movies, these Chan films don’t skimp on plot or plot twists. There are no absolutely shocking denouements, but plenty of secondary characters running around with various motives.
Chan swoops in to all of the aforementioned locales to save the day. But it’s hard to get past the fact that he’s a walking cliché and enjoy his ingenuity and heroics. The pithy proverbs and pidgin English are easy to ignore as a kid, but as an adult they put the brakes on enjoyment of the narrative as a whole.