Friday, November 14, 2008

Castle in the Desert

“Castle in the Desert” (1942) was the last Charlie Chan film produced by 20th Century Fox and unlike many final series entries, it’s a most respectable conclusion. An unusual setting, great atmosphere and wonderful supporting cast really elevate this one.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is summoned to a mysterious castle in the Mojave desert owned by the Manderleys (shades of “Rebecca.”) Paul Manderley (Douglass Dumbrille) is a historian studying the Borgias. His wife Lucrezia “Lucy” (Lenita Lane) is a direct descendant of the infamous family of poisoners. Manderley keeps half his face hidden under a large scarf, thanks to an industrial accident which left part of his face horribly scarred.

He’s so intent on immersing himself in the 16th century while writing about the Borgias, that the Manderley Castle has no phone or radio.

Effectively cut off from the world (accessible only by taxi, with the nearest town 70 miles away), the Castle nevertheless welcomes a houseful of guests.
The great Henry Daniell shows up as a sculptor and there are others on hand, including Steven Geray, Edmund MacDonald and the conventional young couple, Arleen Whelan and Richard Derr. Ethel Griffies, the old ornithologist in the café in “The Birds” (1963), plays a woman with supposed mystical powers who sneaks into the castle to warn everyone of impending doom.

Why Charlie was invited no one knows, but it’s a good thing he’s there, because poison soon claims its first victim, played by Milton Parsons. (Always liked Milton, and was sorry to see him go so soon).

Apparently someone suspected Charlie’s services would be needed. Fortunately Number Two Son Jimmy (Sen Yung) has a week’s leave from the Army and is happy to help “Pop” with the case. In Jimmy’s case, help equals hindrance.

The interior design of the castle is a marvel, filled with all kinds of macabre furniture and props. The lighting is particularly good here. Also, any movie that boasts both Douglass Dumbrille and Henry Daniell in the cast is automatic viewing.

Thanks to World War II, Fox pulled the plug on the Chan series. I’ve never quite understood why. Not making any more Mr. Moto movies makes a certain kind of sense since he was Japanese, but Charlie is of Chinese descent, and an American citizen to boot. Perhaps Fox thought Charlie was more suited to detective work, which seemed trivial in light of current world events. There were now spies and enemy agents to capture, and Fox’s newest in-house sleuth, Michael Shayne, could handle that, and provide more physical action, than Charlie could.

Charlie Chan wasn’t the only detective series the studio dropped. Fox had made two very successful Sherlock Holmes films in 1939 with (of course) Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, both set in Victorian England. They declined the option to make additional entries, feeling audiences wouldn’t care about Victorian skullduggery when the war was going on. So off they went to Universal, starring in arguably the most popular detective series of all time (and with an updating that included entries where Holmes and Watson battle Nazis).

Charlie Chan, still played by Sidney Toler, also moved, but instead of a lateral move to another major studio, he wound up at Monogram Pictures, that Poverty Row studio par excellence. Toler played Charlie 11 more times at Monogram, before dying in 1947. Monogram replaced him with Roland Winters, in six additional titles before ending the series for good in 1949.

Production-wise, of course, the Monograms can’t hold a candle to Fox, and several of the Monogram Tolers like “Dangerous Money” (1947) and “The Trap” are unspeakably bad, and are probably the worst Charlie Chan films ever.

But the Monograms had what Fox didn’t – the great comedian Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, the Chan family chauffeur. His comedy relief, still genuinely funny today, is the highlight of these films. Birmingham Brown wants nothing to do with murders, or corpses, but of course, when you chauffeur Charlie Chan, that’s not going to happen.

Even if it wasn’t the last in the series from 20th Century Fox, “Castle in the Desert” would still earn kudos as a more than respectable entry in the Charlie Chan filmography.

Rating for “Castle in the Desert”: Two and a half stars.

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