With Olympics fever currently raging, it seemed like an appropriate time to re-visit “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937).
Historically, it’s a fascinating document in many ways, much more so than the “whodunit” aspects of the story.
Let’s quickly get the story out of the way. While undergoing a test flight in Honolulu, an experimental remote control airplane is hijacked. Honolulu’s Chief of Detectives Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) is on a fishing vacation with his young son when they spot the wreckage of a plane. Calling the authorities, they determine it is the missing plane and the plane’s new technology, a revolutionary new guidance system, has been stolen. The pilot’s corpse is found stuffed in the plane’s closet, a victim of murder.
Charlie and the plane’s inventors are sent to Germany to trace their main suspect, the plane’s mechanic. By a coincidence, Number One son Lee Chan (Keye Luke) is on his way to Berlin across the Atlantic via steamship as a member of the U.S. Olympics swimming team.
Charlie isn’t concerned his quarry has a jump start on them. Here we get a fascinating glimpse into 1937 global travel times, as described by Charlie Chan.
“Race not always won by man who start first. Please – will leave tomorrow in company with Hopkins and Cartwright on Clipper. Honolulu – 18 hours to mainland. Then transcontinental plane from San Francisco – 13 hours across country to New York. Take Zeppelin Hindenburg from Lakehurst, New Jersey across Atlantic Ocean to Friedrichschafen – 61 hours.”
Yes, THAT Hindenburg, and “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” was already dated before it opened. The Hindenburg exploded in Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937 and “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” was released on May 21, 1937. There is some very interesting footage of the Hindenburg as it soars above New York City. I wonder how many people went to see “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” because they heard there was footage of the Hindenburg in the movie? I’m sure interest in the disaster was still very strong in the weeks after the explosion.
Who else would have gone to see “Charlie Chan at the Olympics”? Chan fans, of course, and mystery buffs. And, most likely, Olympics fans, who got the rare opportunity to see footage of the historic 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In those pre-television days, only newsreels shown in theaters would have had footage of the Olympics. Olympics junkies would have read all the newspaper coverage of the Olympics, but only those newsreels offered actual footage.
But by going to see “Charlie Chan at the Olympics”, Olympics fans could see footage of the arrivals, the opening ceremonies, and Jesse Owens and team win gold medals in the 4 x 100 meter relay.
I wonder how many Olympics devotees went to see the Charlie Chan film just to glimpse that precious footage? I would suspect quite a few. (Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, her propagandistic look at the Berlin Olympics, did not come until 1938, but I don’t know what kind of distribution it got here).
What’s also interesting about the documentary footage is what it does not show. No swastikas and no Hitler to be seen anywhere, though it’s hard not to miss the upraised arm salute in the front row as the Olympic torch is carried into the stadium. (There’s no swastikas to be glimpsed on the Hindenburg either, though I don’t know if it was airbrushed out or it’s just not seen from those angles).
Many Hollywood films of the mid-1930s were neutral about Hitler and the rise of Nazism, and the studios did not want to risk a German boycott of their product if even one film from their studio gave offense to the German government. “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” is no exception. Even a glimpse of a swastika in a Chan film may have been seen by some as an endorsement, or as an affront by others.
Indeed, the local police inspector, Strasser (Frederick Vogeding) wears a Kaiser-style hat, as do his men, like something out of an operetta. No Gestapo-style outfits here, as 20th Century Fox was doing everything it could not to offend Germany. At the end of the film, Charlie even makes it a point to thank the Berlin police for their cooperation.
We can laugh now, but it was a real dilemma for the studios at the time. In his book Charlie Chan at the Movies (McFarland & Company, 1989), Ken Hanke writes about how the German government threatened a wholesale boycott of Universal Studios movies if changes weren’t made to James Whale’s World War I film “The Road Back” (1937). The resultant changes shred Whale’s vision into an almost unrecognizable state.
Back to the movie. Not only is there the murder of the pilot in Honolulu to be solved, but the return of the guidance system, which is being peddled to an unnamed foreign power. Again, no mention of Germany at all.
There are quite a few familiar faces on hand here, including some who had made, or will make, appearances in other Charlie Chan films. There’s Mr. Dithers, I mean Jonathan Hale, who was also a suspect in “Charlie Chan at the Race Track” (1936). A particular favorite of mine, C. Henry Gordon, whose final film would be “Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum” (1940), is here in all his beady-eyed glory.
Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine is one of those dastardly foreign agents. Representing All-American wholesomeness on the U.S. Olympics team is Allan Lane, future B cowboy star and later the voice of Mr. Ed.
Very easy on the eyes is cute-as-a-button Pauline Moore, shown modeling what the best-dressed American athletes wore at the 1936 Olympics. Pauline Moore also appeared in my personal favorite Chan film, “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island” (1939). See, the miracle movie year of 1939 also produced a great Chan title.
While I enjoy “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” for the reasons cited above, I’ve always found it ludicrous that Lee Chan is made part of the U.S. Olympics swim team, and winning the Gold Medal!. Surely there could have been other ways to include him in the story? It always seemed very clumsy to me.
To the best of my recollection, Lee he is never shown training in any of the previous Chan films, and in later entries, he is never referred to as a Gold Medal winner.
Only for this movie is his incredible swimming prowess revealed.
Still, “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” is most enjoyable, even though it would have been nice to spend more time at the Olympics. While the mystery is negligible, as a historic document, it continues to hold interest. And even an average Charlie Chan film makes for a satisfying evening’s entertainment.