Friday, February 15, 2008

Charlie Chan in Honolulu

An ongoing argument among film fans is who is the better Charlie Chan, Warner Oland or Sidney Toler? Myself, I’m going to take the coward’s way out and say I prefer them both equally well, but if I had a gun to my head I would give the nod to Oland.

The arguments can begin anew with the DVD release of “Charlie Chan Vol. 4,” the first four Chan titles produced by 20th Century Fox and starring Sidney Toler as the famous Chinese detective.

Last night I watched the first one, “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (1938), a respectable enough offering, but one where we can see Fox was tentatively feeling their way with their new Chan.

Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan series was an exceptionally popular one with audiences, and he would likely have gone on playing Chan much longer, but personal problems and an ongoing struggle with alcohol caused a premature death in 1937. The Chan series was too popular to let die, so a replacement was sought. Many were tested, but eventually American actor Sidney Toler was chosen for the role. He played the role 22 times, 11 films for Fox. When the studio lost interest in 1942, he purchased the rights to the character and continued the role at 11 low budget mysteries at Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures until his death from cancer in 1947.

Oland is a more personable, warmer Chan, but Toler adds personal touches to make the character his own. I’ve always enjoyed when he smiles and nods politely at people, but when they turn away the smile instantly disappears. He wants the murder suspects to think he’s too polite for words, but we know there’s a keen mind at work.

Fox took no chances with their first Sidney Toler title and assigned H. Bruce Humberstone to direct “Charlie Chan in Honolulu.” Humberstone directed several of the better Oland titles, such as “Charlie Chan at the Opera” (1936), “Charlie Chan at the Race Track” (1936) and “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937). Humberstone always knew how to keep things moving, though the first Toler film does some suffer from some painful comedy relief.

The opening scenes of “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” are a delight, with Charlie eating breakfast with his wife and 13 children. Number Two son Jimmy (Sen Yung) wants to become a detective like his famous father and help him out on his cases, which Charlie is not too keen on. Number One son Lee is off in New York at art school. (Keye Luke had played Lee in the Warner Oland films, but did not return for the Toler series, out of respect, it is believed, for Warner Oland, for whom he was quite fond.)

Charlie and his wife are about to become grandparents for the first time, courtesy of Number One Daughter. When they get the call from the hospital the Chan brood rushes off to the hospital. But a phone call just after Charlie has left informs one of his kids that a murder has occurred on a ship docked outside of Honolulu and for Charlie to get their pronto. Lee decides this is his big break and decides to impersonate his dad and solve the murder. Then an impressed Charlie will have to hire Jimmy as his assistant.

A flaw in the movie is that too much footage is devoted to Jimmy investigating the murder, so it’s a good 20 minutes or so (out of a 68-minute movie) before Charlie starts his investigation. Another irritant is the amount of comedy relief footage given over to a lion tamer, played by vaudeville comedian Eddie Collins and his lion. Fortunately, such long stretches of comedy relief will disappear from the remaining Fox films.

Apart from Collins, there’s a juicy list of suspects aboard, including the great George Zucco as an eccentric psychiatrist studying the human brain (he even keeps a brain in his state room for research). Zucco is a delight here, gleefully talking about the glories of the human brain and we can tell he would love to examine Charlie’s if he ever got the chance.

There are two exceptionally attractive women on board, blonde bombshell Phyllis Brooks and the always watchable Claire Dodd. Heck, I’d sail on that ship in a heartbeat, even with a murderer aboard.

Richard Lane, best known for playing Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies, is on board impersonating a detective. Marc Lawrence, as his gangster prisoner, looks especially natty in his pinstriped suit. Lawrence had a long screen career, even appearing in two 007 movies until his last credit, the “Looney Tunes” movie (2004). Charlie Chan and James Bond movie appearances - that’s worth more than a couple of Oscars right there.

The ship’s crew is headed by First Mate John King (later a B western star) and Captain Robert Barrat (“Captain Blood”)

Lots of suspects there, and in true Chan tradition, Jimmy proves a nuisance trying to help his dad. But Charlie traps the killer, as he always does, and discovers he’s a grandfather in the final scene.

The DVD transfer on this title is excellent, and the two documentaries, one called “Re-Imagining Chan” and one on Sidney Toler, are first-rate. I’m looking forward to viewing the other films in Volume 4.

“Charlie Chan in Honolulu” isn’t the best film in the series, thank to too much comedy relief, but that wonderful supporting cast of familiar faces and the always welcome presence of Charlie Chan makes this a pleasant, diverting experience. Toler would grow into the role, and the best films were still to come.

Rating for “Charlie Chan in Honolulu”: Two and a half stars.

No comments: