Though the character first appeared on film in 1926, the Charlie Chan films proper ran from1931 to 1949. Warner Oland’s interpretation of the character is the most beloved, though SidneyToller (who took over after Oland died in 1938) was still part of the series’ peak (1936-9). In1944, beginning with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, the series moved from 20thCentury Fox to Monogram, one of the Poverty Row studios, and the decline began, though thecheapest of the f…lms came at the end, with Roland Winters in the role. It is rather unfortunatethat the first DVD release of Charlie Chan movies gives us not Oland, but a batch of theMonogram features with Toller.
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the first of the Monograms, moves Charlieinto cases directly concerned with the war effort and US national security. Here a scientist whowas working on a way to protect US ships from submarines is murdered.
Meeting at Midnight (1944) is a more traditional murder mystery, as a fakespiritualist is killed during a seance, and because his daughter was present at the time, Charlie isdrawn away from government work to solve the crime. There is much ado with secretpassageways and Mantan Moreland (as Birmingham Brown) being terrified of ghosts (more onMoreland’s role a bit later).
The Chinese Cat (1944) sees Charlie become involved in a case thanks to bumblingson Tommy’s attempts to help a young woman clear her father’s name. Jewel thieves provideanother break from saboteurs and spies in this episode.
Another scientist (this one finding a way to make wood as strong as steel) is murdered inThe Jade Mask (1945). The man is so hated that Charlie has a whole family of likelysuspects to sort through.
But it’s back to espionage in The Scarlet Clue (1945). Here Charlie traces a murdererback to a radio station, which is located in the same building as an experimental lab. The villainis somehow involved in the radio show. Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter perform a classiccomedy routine of theirs, which, while having nothing at all to do with the plot, is still quiteclever.
The bad guys are planning to rob a bank’s radium deposit (but of course!) in TheShanghai Cobra (1945). The jacket copy on this DVD mentions the film noir aspect of thefilm, and it is true that the opening sequence in particular is almost purely noir in atmosphere.Once Charlie, Tommy and Birmingham arrive on the scene, that atmosphere evaporates almostcompletely (though our three heroes are in a bit more peril than usual). The resolution of thismystery is particularly confusing.
None of these films are classics, even within the series. They are enjoyable little mysteries,however, and benefit greatly from their nostalgic value. They all follow roughly the sameformula, with the extremely competent Charlie walking slowly through the crime scenes beforefinally summoning everyone to a room for the revelation. (Good luck trying to remember whichfilm is what a week or so after watching them.) Though hardly lightning-paced, they all clock inat about 65 minutes, and so never outstay their welcome. Enjoying the films does inevitablyrequire making allowances for antiquated (a kind way of putting it) racial attitudes. MGM hassupplied this little “Fact from the Vault” on each case: “Created in a time when castingCaucasians in minority roles was considered acceptable, the Charlie Chan fils continue to sparkdebate to this day.” Fair enough, as far as dealing with Sidney Toler’s presence in the part, not tomention his rather caricaturish make-up. And there were other such examples in the period:Peter Lorre was Mr. Moto, and Boris Karloff was Mr. Wong. Unmentioned is Mantan Morelandin his patented role as the Cowardly Black Manservant. There weren’t a lot of other options opento African-American actors at the time, and Moreland is superb in the part, but be prepared forlots of eye-rolling, gibbering and naivete to be on display.
The mono soundtracks are pretty good, given the films’ age and Poverty Row status. Thoughthere is some background static, the scores are generally warm, and the dialogue free of gurgles.The static behind the dialogue is more noticeable on some features than others. The ShanghaiCobra is one of the more troubled, and in the wind-tunnel scene, the dialogue is almostcompletely inaudible (though this is the fault of the original recording, rather than thetransfer).
By and large, the prints are in excellent shape, especially considering their age and the factthat the movies were produced by a minor studio. Speckling is kept to an absolute minimum.Grain is variable, with The Shanghai Cobra having one of the poorest pictures of the lot,while Meeting at Midnight is damn close to pristine. Flicker is present, but minor as well.There is no digital artifacting, and the picture quality depends almost entirely on the print. Theblack-and-white tones are very good, as are the blacks. Again, there are some problems: thecontrasts on The Scarlet Clue are sometimes a bit too dark, making for a couple ofindecipherably murky shots. But these are, generally, minor issues given the overall clarity of theimages.
None at all, which is very disappointing, especially for a box set. The main screen of themenu is animated and scored.
These are not first-rate classic mysteries. They are programmers, churned out by a minorstudio, and come after the best period of the series. But they still have a place in film history, andtheir release is a very welcome and nostalgic trip.