Archive for Charlie Chan

Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by dcairns

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 (NOTE: see comments for correction), 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 hole 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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Who Killed Charlie Chan?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2008 by dcairns

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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…

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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.

The Holy Mantan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 21, 2008 by dcairns

Here we see a scene from the late Charlie Chan opus, MEETING AT MIDNIGHT. Comedy Negro Mantan Moreland (a sort of dark-hued Rodney Dangerfield in appearance) is rolling his eyes and acting spooked and generally doing all the things Comedy Negroes were paid to do, during the years Hollywood saw fit to represent African-Americans in this way. Moreland’s character is called Birmingham, which makes him seem a pretty straight rip-off of Eddie Anderson’s “Rochester” character.

“Are you not a nigger bloodhound?” asks Charlie Chan.

At which point I stop the film, rewind, and listen again.

“Are you not an eager bloodhound?” asks Chan. I think. It is genuinely hard to tell.

Anyhow, Moreland then goes on to say, “No, I’s too anaemic, why I’s practically pale,” so the film’s casual racism-meter rises to a standard 1940s setting anyway.