My Dad always used to tell me that when he was a kid, some of his favourite films were the Charlie Chan films, which featured a Chinese detective who solved mysteries. But by the time I was around, I never saw any Charlie Chan on TV or on video in Australia, so I was never able to experience this phenomenon for myself.
But now, thanks to the wonders of eBay and the willingness of studios to rake through their back catalogue for movies to put onto DVD, I was able to catch up with this film, considered one of the best of the lot.
Looked at now from a distance of so many decades (this film was made in 1936), this film provides quite an entertaining 70 minutes. Boris Karloff plays a madman who escapes from an insane asylum to track down his old wife, who he thinks attempted to kill him years before in a fire at the opera house. Said wife, who is performing in an opera Carnival when the movie opens, doesn’t realise that her old husband actually survived and is horrified when a death threat arrives in the mail.
Enter Charlie Chan (portrayed by the non-Asian Swede, Warner Oland, who was one of three actors to portray Charlie in 46 films and a TV series), his “number one son”, Lee, and a rather dopey American police force to save the day. Nowadays, you’d never be able to portray an Asian character like this – actually, scrap that – I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3 on holidays, and I’m not sure if Chow Yun-Fat’s character wasn’t as stereotypical as this one. However, I suspect that you wouldn’t be able to get away with Charlie’s broken English, and his little comments which sound like they come from fortune cookies. But on the other hand, he’s a darn sight smarter than the cops, who come across as total ignoramuses, so maybe it’s white people who are being sent up in this film?
Plotwise, it’s a bit more convoluted than I gave it credit for. As one reviewer said, “[Boris] Karloff is nothing less than the most obvious red herring in cinema history.” With a couple of little twists, and a last-minute reveal, what this most reminds me of is an episode of Murder, She Wrote or Monk, albeit without the flashbacks. This would fit in quite well with vintage Agatha Christie radio serials of the time. This is more of a light and fluffy TV detective, rather than a great big-screen mystery film. But, hey, it’s all fun.
2 1/2 out of 5.