Hypnotising Charlie

From MEETING AT MIDNIGHT. I must say, I don’t think I like Sidney Toler’s Charlie Chan. He wears too much eye makeup. Viewed in this light, the casting of Swedish Warner Oland in the role actually makes a kind of demented sense: Oland’s Swedish eyelids actually have a kind of oriental shape, without the need of makeup artistry. Toler, of largely Scottish ancestry, doesn’t have the same nordic slant. He also overdoes the supposedly Chinese mannerisms, and has a truly unpleasant smile, in contrast to Oland’s attractively cherubic grin, which he produces at regular intervals with zero sincerity.


The highlight of the film, which revolves around faked seances and hypnotic fluid, is Frances Chan, playing Charlie’s daughter, Frances Chan. Frances had appeared in Mr. Oland’s opus CHARLIE CHAN’S GREATEST CASE in 1933, playing the youngest Chan daughter. Here she gets promoted to lead girl, with her slightly amateurish charm and eagerness highly reminiscent of Number One Son Keye Luke’s performance style, and her ’40s dresses looking fashionable all over again.

And that, alas, was more or less the end of her career.

19 Responses to “Hypnotising Charlie”

  1. his grin seems to employ the same group of acting muscles that krussell exercises whilst letting off his gun during the escape from lo pan’s warehouse in big trouble in little china. very few people can achieve such a rictus without resorting to the use of strychnine. it is in my top five favourite movie faces which is how come i remember it so clearly

  2. Possibly the face of a man who lives with Goldie Hawn and has just realised that Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was not as funny as it seemed at the time.

  3. Yes, but surely the memory of Overboard would make up for that, permanently removing said rictus and replacing it with the vacant eyes of a character in a modern Carpenter film?

  4. I’m actually completely undecided as to how future cinephiles will regard late Carpenter (literally: “one who works with wood”). Fiona decided to watch Ghosts of Mars when it was on TV recently, and I watched bits too. He’s still doing what he always did. It’s still bad in the same ways. It definitely does have some of the same virtues. Yet, while the old movies still look good, as a modern viewer watching any of the post 90s efforts, one wants to cry out, all the time, “But this is just CRAP!”

    Yet I suspect modern viewers responded the same way to late Hawks, etc, when they were new.

  5. Carpenter has always been competent, sometimes slightly interesting. But The Live is really and truly great.

  6. Yes, that one actually brings some ideas to the table. He had been keen on the whole “movies are about emotion, not ideas” thing before, which just means that ideas that you haven’t thought about colonise your movie and you usually make something rather conservative, like Lord of the Rings — or Halloween. But here he actually wanted to say something, and in an amusing way.

    I mean, I can see that his mise-en-scene is always admirably and unfashionably relaxed, which is nice, but I’m not convinced that’s enough. And the Hawksian values are derived from Hawks movies, rather than from life.

    Land of the Dead managed a better Hawks pastiche than Carpenter has ever pulled off.

  7. For me early Carpenter (Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman) of course is fantastic but I’ve got the real soft spot for the smaller, flawed gems like The Fog, Prince of Darkness and They Live!

    I think I was lucky though in seeing PoD and They Live (along with Halloween) without any preparation for what was about to occur during late night screenings.

    On the subject of ‘late Carpenter’, I’ve not been a big fan of Escape From L.A. or Vampire$ but would seriously defend Ghosts of Mars just for the fascinating approach to structure it displays – multiple characters narrating various pieces of the story; digressionary scenes; alternate timelines; flashbacks within flashbacks; and so on.

    I’ll need to see it a few more times but I’m getting close to saying that I feel it is the underrated masterpiece of Carpenter’s late career.

  8. It’s definitely more interesting than Vampire$ and Village of the Damned and that lot. The experience of seeing it is always that it’s a bit more interesting than it has any right to be, but that the central casting has hurt it considerably, and it has an undercurrent of cheesiness it can’t quite shake. Great supporting cast, but somehow they don’t get to be as interesting as they should be.

  9. I’d also try to make a case for In The Mouth Of Madness – it gets rather cartoony in spots but very enjoyable for all that. I’d call it one of the best Lovecraft-influenced films if that wasn’t damning it with faint praise (and also untrue as I love From Beyond!)

  10. What ITMOM owes more to than Lovecraft is the Jonathan Carroll novel The Land of Laughs, which postulates a town where an L. Frank Baum-type children’s author’s characters all live. Much scarier than monsters is the Staffordshire bull terrier who talks in his sleep!

  11. Michael Eng Says:

    My mother Frances Chan, a.k.a. Frances C. Eng is now passed away. She and my father owned the Sunset Pacific Motel for 40 years which is only a mile away from the studios where she filmed “Meeting at Midnight” back in 1943 at age 18. She was 79 years old when she fell down the stairs and passed away in 2004.

    She never saw the moving “Meeting at Midnight” until age 70 when I saw it on TV and called her on the phone. Until then it was on some shelf at some studio archives. Her pay at the time was only $800.00.

  12. Michael Eng Says:

    Frances Chan’s career ended when she married my father Edward J. Eng in 1944. They lived about a mile from the Monogram Studios where “Meeting at Midnight” was filmed. It is now KCET studios. They have 5 children, 4 daughters and 1 son, myself. The have 9 grandchildren. My parents owned a lot of real estate around Los Angeles. So even though her career as an actress did not endure her career as the landlady collecting rent lasted for 60 years.

  13. Wonderful to hear from you! I’m sorry your mother is no longer with us. She’s delightful in the film, and maybe in another era would have been a star. But I’m very glad she had what sounds like a happy and productive life.

    I guess Monogram was very much a low-budget outfit, and an ingenue wouldn’t expect to get a high salary there.

    Thanks so much for getting in touch with this fascinating background.

  14. Michael Eng Says:

    Frances Chan got her start by being Miss Chinatown in 1939. A search of the Los Angeles Times from that period will bring up several articles on her. Her parents Anthony (Suey) Chan and Mary Chan were also actors from that period although they were never listed in the credits from any of their numerous films. They were very close friends with Keye Luke, Peanuts, and Anna Mae Wong, all major Chinese actors from the early to mid part of the 20th century. As far as I remember forty-years ago, my grandparents were constantly getting invitations to play bit parts in Chinese roles in a lot of movies. I still get residual checks from those movies today even though most checks are usually less than $10.00. The producers of the Charlie Chan films wanted Frances Chan to make several more films and Sidney Toler and Montan Mooreland really enjoyed working with her. Who knows how far her career would have gone if she had decided to go that route instead of marrying my father.

  15. Lovely that those movies still bring in the cheques, just as a reminder that they’re still out there, screening to audiences.

    Crazy about Keye Luke and Anna May Wong, don’t know Peanuts. How can I research this person?

  16. Michael Eng Says:

    Peanuts was an elderly Chinese actor who always got parts in John Wayne’s western movies. He played the stereotypical bearded, skinny, coolie-like old man who couldn’t speak English. John Wayne really liked him personally as a friend and always insisted that he got at least some role in many of his films. I don’t know what Peanut’s real name was or how he was credited or if he was even credited at all. He passed away quite a long time ago during the 1970s when I was still a kid.

  17. […] 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. […]

  18. Rik Rettke Says:

    Say what you want about Mantan Moreland and the stereotypying done by Hollywood but when I watched Charlie Chan movies as a kid (and now) whenever he showed fear and trepidation I always thought “Now there’s the only sensible man in the whole movie.” After all who WOULD want to hang around in a creepy old house, deserted street, dark alley, etc. with a murderer on the loose just because Tommy Chan thinks he’s a detective?

  19. S’true. Kind of like how Shaggy and Scoobs are the only empathetic characters in that cartoon, because they show understandable fear.

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