Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Nearly missed this! A quick post to squeeze in under the wire.

I’d elected to watch and write about BEHIND THE CURTAIN, a 1929 mystery story which casts Boris Karloff as an Indian manservant. A few things commended the movie to me. Firstly, I’d enjoyed Tod Browning’s 1929 thriller THE 13TH CHAIR, and was eager to sample more of the creaky, crackly delights of the early talking era. Secondly, I’m fascinated by pre-FRANKENSTEIN Karloff, the best example of which is probably his role in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, where he slowly stalks an opponent with all the zombified lumber and menace of the Famous Monster. Thirdly, BEHIND THE CURTAIN is the first ever Charlie Chan movie — sort of.

“…or my name’s not Boris Karloff.” That catchphrase, from the intros of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, the 1960-2 TV show Boris presented, is an amusing one, since Karloff was actually named William Henry Pratt. And in a similar way, his casting as an Indian character in BTC is amusing, since his father was Anglo-Indian, a fact that seems to have been kept fairly secret during Boris’s career. So here’s an Anglo-Indian actor with a Russian name pretending to be a white man pretending to be an Indian.

Boy oh boy this movie moves slowly! Which allows us plenty of time to assess the stupidity of the plotting. London. A private detective is murdered. Said flatfoot was gathering information on two chaps, Warner Baxter and Philip Strange, both of whom were suitors of the same girl, Lois Moran. The only clue is a pair of Chinese slippers jammed onto the corpse’s feet by the killer.

It’s Poole, from the Mamoulian JEKYLL & HYDE!

At first, our suspicions are evenly divided. True, Warner Baxter is a known movie star, but who knows what he was capable of in 1929? Whereas Strange is just strange. But soon it becomes clear that Strange is the killer, and he’s married the poor girl. Relocating to India, he blatantly carries on an affair with the maid, Nuna (Mercedes de Valasco, a common Indian name I’m sure), and becomes enraged when his wife learns his secret.

Meanwhile, Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emory) of Scotland Yard has learned that the slippers belonged to Baxter (he doesn’t LOOK like a man who’d wear Chinese slippers, but there it is). This practically proves Baxter’s innocence, since why would he deliberately leave his own property behind at the crime scene? Yet it takes the plodding Sir Fred another YEAR to solve the case.

His informant on the slipper situation is Charlie Chan, world’s second greatest detective (after Sir Frederick, we are told — God help us all). But Chan doesn’t appear until the narrative has trudged its way through Persia, where Karloff turns up as Baxter’s faithful stooge, and from there to San Francisco.

Acting. There’s a lot of it, of course, and all in that ponderously enunciated 1929 style, where the microphone gives the direction. They could practically attach strings from the actors to the boom and let it yank them about. Director Irving Cummings is well served by photography and design, and in a moment of exuberance attempts a tracking shot, but soon has trouble with moving shadows at the edge of frame and reverts to stasis. So what life the film has must come from the cast. So we’re in trouble.

“I hope you like your martinis… very dry.”

Lois Moran gradually unstiffens about 20%, so she can show some emotion when hysteria is called for. Baxter declaims, and tries to sound less American than he is, with reasonable success, but he’s still robotic. Emory (or Emery — credits differ) is hilariously stultified. Karloff excels here, since his character is meant to be rather sepulchral, intoning things like, “The desert gives… and the desert takes away.” He’s the only player who can actually situate a dramatic pause ¬†somewhere in a sentence that makes sense. But his effectiveness is somewhat reduced by the fact that everyone else in the cast is acting as if under deep hypnosis. The qualities that should make Karloff’s Indian stand out cause him to blend in. Still, he has a sinister way with a soda syphon.

The film’s crowning glory is the eventual appearance of Charlie Chan, played by the mysterious EL Park, in his only film. Park is the only oriental actor to have played Chan, although I’m guessing from his name he’s Korean rather than Chinese. He’s wonderful! Fluent and convincing when he babbles away in his native tongue, he becomes hilariously maladroit in English. His pauses are both random and voluminous. “Honorable. Excuses… Sir. Frederick.” he intones.

When Sir Fred is speaking, Park’s eyes dart around the set in panic, taking in the crew, the camera, painting a retinal portrait, for our benefit, of the whole studio. Park succeeds, where Karloff could not, in blowing a whole in the film’s consistency of style, which is one of suffocating lack of imagination. Through his sheer amateurishness, this glorified walk-on ennobles and illuminates his surroundings, offering us our sole glimpse of recognizable humanity.

I love this man! Can somebody tell me more? Park’s history — even as to whether he was in fact an actor at all — is unknown, but it seems like I might have some luck where others have failed: I’ve already made contact with Charlie Chan’s grandson.

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12 Responses to “Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain”

  1. Amazing shot of Karloff! Is there a link to the rest of the blogathon or doesn’t it work like that?

  2. Karloff, it must never be forgotten or denied or said differently, was a truly great actor. His performance in Bride of Frankenstein is one of the great performances of all time and he plays the most demonish villain in The Black Cat. When I saw that film although his character was evil and awful I actually found him more interesting than Lugosi and in the climax when Lugosi exacts his revenge on him I felt more sympathy for Karloff’s torture at his hands than I did for his victims.

  3. Japanese Actors George Kuwa (Birth Name: Keiichi Kuwahara) & Sojin played Chan in 1926 and 1927, respectively.

  4. Link added! At top. Posted (and wrote) this in a hurry, you see.

    Karloff is indeed a very great actor, and responsible almost wholly for the greatness of the first Frankenstein. By the time of Bride, everyone around him has raised their game to the same standard and you get a masterpiece.

    Chuck, thanks! You wouldn’t mind correcting the IMDb entry on Park, would you? Even the documentaries that come with the Charlie Chan DVDs don’t mention these earlier adaptations.

    Apparently, in The Chinese Parrot, Conrad Veidt was considered for the role of Chan, suggesting a parallel world where Veidt was Chan to Lorre’s Mr Moto.

  5. I actually used the IMDb to get the dates and names right. The info is on there, if you go to the movie connections page for any Chan film, you’ll find the two films, The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot, listed right at the top of the list. I would imagine that being both lost and made for a different studio made these films easy for the documentarians to ignore.

    More Chan trivia:
    Conrad Veidt almost got the role in The Chinese Parrot instead of Sojin.

    Charlie Chan Carries On is a real film title from 1931. Despite the London setting, Charles Hawtrey fails to make an appearance.

    I accidentally left out an Asian Charlie Chan. Keye Luke got to voice the role in Hanna-Barbera’s The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Despite the setting, The Funky Phantom fails to make an appearance, but Jamie Farr (!) did write the occasional episode.

  6. ah, beat me to the Connie info

  7. Christopher Says:

    excellent shot of Karloff making the martinis…I can actually hear him saying that ..very clearly :o))

  8. The line is actually swiped (by me) from The Purple Rose of Cairo.

    Thanks Chuck, you sure know your Chans! It’s the IMDb entry on EL Park that needs corrected.

  9. jason hyde Says:

    It’s a shame The Chinese Parrot is lost, because Paul Leni directed it, and it should therefore be visually striking, if nothing else. And I like Sojin as the sinister butler in The Bat and wouldn’t mind seeing how he played Chan. I had no idea that Veidt was very nearly Chan.

    Behind That Curtain, unfortunately, really is a tough slog, and I say this as a genuine admirer of creaky early talkies. It’s much longer than it needs to be, and the story’s rewritten so that there’s no mystery to be found anywhere. I agree about Park’s Chan, though. There’s something delightful about him and I’d love to see a parallel universe version where he’s the star of the show. Maybe Karloff’s his assistant in that one. That’s a movie I could get behind. Behind That Curtain as is, though, is something that I’ll probably never watch again.

  10. It’s bizarre to me that they minimized the character so much in BTC. It’s an appalling piece of writing in every respect, but reducing the only intriguing part to a walk-on is certainly the most inexplicable choice.

    I really like Leni’s work, and he survived the trip to Hollywood with some part of his style intact. The Man Who Laughs was considered lost for years, I’m so glad it was rediscovered because it’s incredible.

  11. Richard Buller Says:

    I really enjoyed this write-up for “Behind that Curtain.” Thanks so much for posting it! I thought you might be interested in my 2005 biography of Lois Moran, “A Beautiful Fairy Tale,” that includes a discussion of my take on “Behind that Curtain.” Cheers! Richard Buller

  12. Fascinating! Thanks for the tip. I hope you’ll write the definitive biography of E.L. Park next!

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