Charlie Chan, Volume 3 – DVD Review

DVD available at Amazon.com

Black Camel
Director:
Hamilton MacFadden

Cast:
Warner Oland….Charlie Chan
Sally Eilers…Julie O’Neil
Bela Lugosi….Tarbeverri
Robert Young….Jimmy Bradshaw
Otto Yamaoka….Kashimo

Fox Home Video presents Black Camel. Screenplay by Barry Conners, Philip Klein & Dudley Nichols. Running time: 71 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: June 21, 1931.

Charlie Chan’s Secret
Director:
Gordon Wiles

Cast:
Warner Oland….Charlie Chan
Rosina Lawrence….Alice Lowell
Charles Quigley….Dick Williams
Henrietta Crosman….Henrietta Lowell
Edward Trevor….Fred Gage
Herbert Mundin….Baxter

Fox Home Video presents Charlie Chan’s Secret. Screenplay by Robert Ellis. Running time: 72 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: Jan. 17, 1936.

Charlie Chan on Broadway
Director:
Eugene Forde

Cast:
Warner Oland….Charlie Chan
Keye Luke….Lee Chan, #1 Son
Joan Marsh….Joan Wendall
J. Edward Bromberg….Murdock
Douglas Fowley….Johnny Burke
Tashia Mori….Ling Tse

Fox Home Home Video presents Charlie Chan on Broadway. Screenplay by Charles Belden & Jerome Cady. Running time: 68 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: Oct. 22, 1937.

Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo
Director:
Eugene Forde

Cast:
Warner Oland….Charlie Chan
Keye Luke….Lee Chan
Virginia Field….Evelyn Gray
Sidney Blackmer….Victor Karnoff

Fox Home Home Video presents Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo. Screenplay by Charles Belden. Running time: 71 minutes. Unrated. Theatrical release: Jan. 21, 1938.
Fox Home Video presents Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 3. Four movies on 4 DVDs. DVD release: July 10, 2007.

The Movies

Before Steve McGarrett and his Hawaii 5-0 crew fought crime on the islands, Charlie Chan was tropical justice. While people often mistake Chan for a Chinese private investigator, he was an American citizen and worked as detective for the Honolulu police department. He used his quiet demeanor, careful eye and ancient sayings to track down the guilty. Volume 3 covers the start and finish of Warner Oland’s beat in Chan’s white suit.

There was a time when your local low budget UHF station would run Charlie Chan films on a Sunday afternoon or as part of Night Owl Theater. The detective series has vanished from the airwaves and cable channels over the last decade. The protests about a Chinese-American detective being played by a non-Asian actor caused the series to be hidden in the vault. Should these films be wiped off the cinematic map and their negatives torched like these protesters have demanded? Should anyone who enjoys these films feel guilty that they are taking pleasure in what others consider racist entertainment? While Warner Oland was a Swede, there’s respect in his performance as Chan. This was not a wacky stereotype on the rampage. Does anyone complain when Englishmen and Americans portray Germans in World War II films? What about when Carlos Mencia plays a Mexican? If we eradicate the Chan movies, we destroy the legacy of Keye Luke. The most beloved of Charlie Chan’s Number One Sons was an Asian-American actor. He wouldn’t have been given nearly so much screen time early in his career if it wasn’t for these films. In his later years, Luke supported the work of Oland as Chan. While these films no longer get airtime, the surviving Warner Oland’s Chan films are now out on DVD.

Black Camel is the only surviving title of Oland’s first five Chan movies. After reading summaries of the other four films, this is the essential title. Unlike all the other Chans that were filmed at a studio and augmented with stock footage of international locations, most of Black Camel was shot on location in Hawaii. The film opens with surfing. Thirty years before Frankie and Annette, moviegoers were treated to the sight of what a board can do on the waves. The crime revolves around a starlet that’s shooting a film in Honolouou. She summons a famous psychic to the islands to give her a true spiritual reading. Unfortunately the psychic doesn’t predict enough to prevent her from reaching the final scene. This brings Chan onto the case to find the killer amongst the tourists. Who plays the psychic? It’s Bela Lugosi. He’s fresh from sinking his teeth into the role of Dracula. Bela’s perfect in the film since you’re never sure if he’s the killer or Chan’s new friend.

Charlie Chan’s Secret would be better titled Charlie Chan and the Haunted House. A boat sinks off the coast of Hawaii. Chan thinks that Allen Colby, a missing passenger, didn’t drown. He flies to San Francisco to visit Colby’s family and discover the fate of the lost heir. While Chan’s right about Colby not being fishfood, the heir has become room temperature in his family’s haunted house. Chan has to deal with psychics to solve this crime. While there’s no Number One son to assist him on this case, we get the comic relief from Baxter, the Colby family’s butler.

Charlie Chan on Broadway has the famed detective arriving in Manhattan as he cruises back to Hawaii. Instead of a peaceful layover, Chan is dragged into a mobster murder mystery. A fellow passenger has stashed a secret package in Chan’s luggage. Turns out the package can destroy a lot of major players in the Big Apple. Lee Chan attempts to help his father solve the case while impressing Ling Tse, a cocktail waitress. Charlie discovers this case involves more than just normal cops and thugs business.

Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo has him and Lee making a stopover in the gambling mecca. The Chans stumble upon a murder and securities theft. Lee’s horrible French gets them arrested and named as prime suspects. Luckily the local police chief is a fan of the legendary Chan. Instead of being railroaded in the name of justice, Chan assists the police in sorting through the numerous suspects. There’s plenty of shady characters lurking about the casino. This would prove to be Oland’s final case as Chan. He died months after its release and Sidney Toler took over the role. Toler seemed to get the role less because he looked Chinese and more because he fit Oland’s wardrobe.

Compared to today’s mystery films, the action surround Chan is rather pedestrian. There’s no amazing car chases, dangling off buildings or brutal slugfests found on an episode of Matlock. Chan’s a deducer that prefers to flush out the guilty with logic than beat out a confession. This collection has an intriguing caseload. They make sure there’s enough guilty looking actors to keep you guessing. While people will guilt you into never watching a Charlie Chan film, remember that it’s even more wrong to ignore Keye Luke’s performance as Lee. His work in the final two films show him emerging as a great comic actor. These are not films that mock a cultural identity. They’re about a man solving elaborate crimes.

The DVD

VIDEO:
The picture is 1.33:1 and transfered from the best available print sources. They did a fine job in restoration as the demos on each DVD proves.

AUDIO:
The soundtrack is mono. Film critic Ken Hanke and historian John Cork provide commentary tracks on Black Camel and Charlie Chan’s Secret. Cork is responsible for the bonus features so he shares plenty of stories about the actors and the productions. This is not dry academic blather. The subtitles are in English, French and Spanish.

EXTRAS:

Behind That Curtain (1:30:45) features the first Charlie Chan film made at Fox. The story deals with a forbidden love in the desert. Chan arrives in the final few minutes of the film. He’s a rough character as played by E.L. Park, an Asian-American actor. The big highlight of the film is Boris Karloff in the thankless role as a servant with a turban. You get both Karloff and Lugosi in this boxset.

Charlie Chan’s Last Chance (1:03:51) has new voices read the original script while production stills appear on the screen. This is a good substitute for a film that has vanished from the vault.

Charlie Chan and the Rise of the Modern Detective (14:43) deals with literary rise of detective fiction in relationship with both the Charlie Chan fiction and films.

Dr. Henry Lee: The Modern Charlie Chan (6:38) interviews the famous forensic scientist. You might remember him as one of the experts that took the stand in the O.J. Simpson trial. Lee was born in China and has no problem being called a modern Charlie Chan.

The World of Charlie Chan (34:32) breaks down the various global locations visited by Oland’s Chan. The experts discuss how audiences of that time viewed the various cities. This featurette gives a good sense of the films in the first two volumes.

Chanograms: The Aphorisms of Charlie Chan (5:15) highlights many of Chan’s sayings from the series.
Charlie Chan Is Missing: The Last Days of Warner Oland (17:13) is a biography on the man who played Chan. We discover during his visit to China, the local fans thought he was Chinese. We get the story behind his death during a return trip to Sweden.

Advertising Gallery has 17 posters and lobby cards from Warner Oland’s reign as Charlie Chan.

Still Gallery on each DVD has 30 production photos from each film.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 3
CATEGORY
RATING
(OUT OF 10)
THE MOVIE

8
THE VIDEO

7
THE AUDIO

7
THE EXTRAS

9
REPLAY VALUE

8
OVERALL
8
(NOT AN AVERAGE)

The Inside Pulse
If you don’t get uptight seeing a Swede play Charlie Chan, you’ll enjoy this set. The best part is getting to see Bela Lugosi going against Chan. Keye Luke also rises to the occassion as the comical Number One son of Chan.

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