MR. MOTO’s GAMBLE is an odd entry in the Moto series, in which German/Hungarian actor Peter Lorre plays Japanese detective Kinsaro Moto. It’s odd because it’s really a Charlie Chan movie, from the series in which Swedish actor Warner Oland played Chinese detective Charlie Chan, only Chan has been excised and replaced with Moto. Why?
The DVD supplemental documentary tells the story, which I pass on here at no extra charge.
After making approximately 9,000,000,000 Charlie Chan films for 20th Century Fox, Oland was tired. He was also alcoholic, miserable, and mid-divorce. He didn’t want to make CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE, and his reluctance took the form of a strange protest. He refused to work on Stage 6 at the Fox studio, claiming that the facility was outdated and draughty and he feared catching pneumonia. Fox argued that this complaint was reasonless: the stage was identical to all the others, and since the sets for CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE had been built there, that’s where the film would be shot.
Oland insisted, and the Screen Actors Guild were called in to negotiate. Money was being lost while the sets stood empty. Eventually a compromise was reached: Oland would return to work, but on Stage 7. But the wily Fox had a trick up their sleeve: rather than tear down and reconstruct those bulky sets, they simply repainted the number 6 outside with the number 7. Chan showed up for work and apparently never realised he was on the exact same stage as before. So the studio were proved correct: the different sound stages were identical.
But a day or so later, Oland took off again, and production was shut down. Desperate to get some kind of use out of the script and sets, Fox chiefs eventually recast Chan with Moto, simply erasing one name and substituting another in the script, just as they had renamed Stage 6. Moto was now hanging around with Chan’s Number One Son, still played by Keye Luke, and dispensing pithy eastern proverbs, just like Chan. Rather than being mysterious and a master of disguise, Moto was now ever-reliable, but with an impish sense of humour. A brief scene was inserted at random to allow him to demonstrate his judo skills and love of cats, but that’s as far as the rewriting went.
Against the odds, Oland’s mood improved as his divorce was settled, and he prepared to return to his most famous role. The studio were glad to have him back. He decided to go on holiday before beginning his next Chan picture, but once he got to Sweden for a rest, the actor quickly became ill with pneumonia. He never recovered.
Fox eventually replaced the cherubic Swede with a creepy Scot, Sidney Toler, but we are left to ponder Oland’s strangely prophetic sense of impending doom, and wonder about the fatal Stage 6, and the persistent strain of bronchial pneumonia that tracked him across the globe…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A young Persian gardener said to his Prince:
‘Save me! I met Death in the garden this morning, and he gave me a threatening look. I wish that tonight, by some miracle, I might be far away, in Ispahan.’
The Prince lent him his swiftest horse.
That afternoon, as he was walking in the garden, the Prince came face to face with Death. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘did you give my gardener a threatening look this morning?’
‘It was not a threatening look,’ replied Death. ‘It was an expression of surprise. For I saw him here this morning, and I knew that I would take him in Ispahan tonight.’
~ Jean Cocteau, The Look of Death.