Sunday, May 15, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon – Charlie Chan at Treasure Island

(The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Classic Movies Blog Association’s Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon, currently underway from May 15-17 and supervised by ClassicBecky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page of My Love of Old HollywoodFor a list of the participants and the movies to be reviewed, the CMBA has a list available here.)

1939 is considered by countless film buffs to be a watershed year for movies—even more consider it to be the peak in cinematic history.  The film often referred to the greatest of all time, Gone with the Wind, was released that year…not to mention timeless classics such as Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Only Angels Have Wings, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights.  Just a cursory glance at a list of the releases from that year is sure to turn up a favorite or multiple favorites in any classic movie fan’s library.

But there were also films released that year that may not have had the prestige of the movies I mentioned in the first paragraph yet are every bit as valuable to movie buffs…and most importantly, to us here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  For example, the first and second films featuring Basil Rathbone as “the world’s greatest detective” were seen in theaters that year: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  W.C. Fields made one of his funniest films—with his radio sparring partners Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy yet—in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.  Bob Hope starred in the movie comedy that put him on the map, The Cat and the Canary, in addition to a film that’s every bit as funny (and written by Preston Sturges), Never Say Die.  Finally, 1939 marked the debut of the feature that some fans consider to be one of the hallmarks of the long-running film Charlie Chan film series: Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.

Master detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is traveling from his Honolulu stomping grounds to San Francisco aboard the China Clipper with both Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) and a friend of the family who’s been vacationing with the Chans, mystery novelist Paul Essex (Louis Jean Heydt).  Essex receives a radiogram while the plane is still making its way to Frisco—and it contains a mysterious message that reads: “Sign of Scorpio indicates disaster if zodiac obligations are ignored.”  The troubled Essex asks the sleuth when the month of Scorpio is due and Charlie helpfully points out that according to the Chinese calendar, tomorrow will mark the first day.  Come morning, as the Clipper flies over the titular atoll—the site of the San Francisco franchise of the 1939 World Exposition—Essex is found dead in his seat.

Jimmy’s suspicion is that insurance actuary Thomas Gregory (Douglass Dumbrille) is in some way connected to Essex’s death, especially when Gregory makes off with the novelist’s briefcase…which contains a manuscript Essex was working on before his demise.  After Charlie breaks the unfortunate news to Essex’s widow (Sally Blane) and her uncle (Charles Hatton), he hails a cab for the hotel and finds himself in the company of two menacing men (character great Fred Kelsey is one of them) who turn out to be detectives with the San Francisco police force, sent to pick up Chan as a practical joke concocted by Charlie’s pal J.J. Kilvaine (Donald MacBride), the department’s deputy chief.  While reuniting with his colleague, Charlie also has a bit of Old Home Week with newspaper reporter Peter Lewis (Douglas Fowley).  Lewis is hard at work on a story that is determined to debunk phony psychics—none more so than a man mysteriously known as “Dr. Zodiac.”  Zodiac is “person of interest” in connection with a series of suicides (all of whom happened to be his clients) and when Kilvaine suggests that there may have been a connection between Dr. Z and the deceased Essex, Chan, Pete and a mutual friend of theirs—Fred Rhadini (Cesar Romero), a renowned magician who’s assisting Pete in his expose—are determined to pay the medium a social call.

The trio arrives at the home of Dr. Zodiac and after being greeted by his manservant Abdul (Trevor Bardette) are ushered into a séance room to meet the mysterious Dr. Z, who puts on quite a show by apparently contacting the “spirit” of Essex, who “tells” Charlie that his death was not set in motion by foul play.  Zodiac’s presentation is pure con game, much to Charlie’s amusement, and it comes to an end when an angry Pete threatens Zodiac after the fake medium advises him to end his romantic involvement with Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), who works as an assistant to Rhadini.  Charlie will soon learn that while Zodiac’s act may be hokum Eve is the real deal—she demonstrates remarkable powers of telepathy later that evening during a party Rhadini throws on Treasure Island shortly before someone makes an attempt on Chan’s life.

Charlie heads back to Dr. Z’s crib to learn some answers, with Pete and Rhadini in tow.  In the house, our hero is none too pleased to find that Number Two Son is fulfilling his all-too-familiar role in the series by being more hindrance than help, but after making a search of Zodiac’s surroundings Chan reveals to his accomplices that the good Doctor is indeed a 24-carat fraud, demonstrating the devices he uses in his phony séances.  Further examination of the house reveals a secret room where Zodiac has kept detailed dossiers in various file cabinets filled with incriminating details on a number of prominent figures.  One of these individuals being blackmailed by Zodiac was the late Mr. Essex—who has a secret Charlie doesn’t want his widow to learn, so he gathers up the files and torches all of the blackmail evidence.  Chan justifies this by declaring: “We are destroying web of spider—now let us find spider.”

And find him they will—for Charlie has concocted a scheme to wash the spider out by appealing to Zodiac’s ego and vanity: Rhadini issues a public challenge to Dr. Z, daring him to turn up at the Temple of Magic—Rhadini’s theater at which he performs his magic act—for a showdown.  With a curious audience watching and the suspects in attendance as well, Charlie unmasks Essex’s murderer in one of the series’ most unforgettable climaxes.

The Charlie Chan film series had been a positive gold mine for the Fox studios ever since they committed themselves to making movies based on the exploits of the Occidental sleuth created by Earl Derr Biggers with 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On.  The actor who took on the role of Chan was Warner Oland, who despite his non-Asian status had previously played onscreen a goodly number of Chinese characters (many of them villains) and slipped into Chan’s sartorial splendid white suit as if it were the part he was born to play.  The Chan films were pretty much Oland’s bread and butter for the rest of his career onscreen, and most fans of the movie series acknowledge that if he wasn’t the best of the Chans he certainly starred in most of the finest entries, notably Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) and Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937).  Oland died of pneumonia in 1938 while Fox was making Charlie Chan at the Ringside, and so the studio refashioned it into a vehicle for their equally popular Mr. Moto series (1938’s Mr. Moto’s Gamble) with star Peter Lorre and “Number One Son” Keye Luke appearing as Lee Chan.

The title of the Moto film was sort of a precursor to how 20th Century-Fox approached the Charlie Chan franchise after Oland’s passing—they took a gamble on continuing the series by hiring another non-Asian thespian, Sidney Toler, to wear Oland’s Panama hat.  When Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) became a success at the box office, the studio high-fived itself and continued cranking out Chans until 1942.  Toler then purchased the rights to the character and took the series to Monogram, which continued making the films until 1949.  (Toler died in 1947, and character actor Roland Winters took over until the series came to a close.)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island may not be my favorite Chan film of all time (that distinction goes to Charlie Chan at the Opera) but it’s far and away the best of the Sidney Toler Chans, who in his dedication to keeping the inscrutable sleuth on movie screens admittedly made some of the weakest entries in the long-running series, particularly after the franchise started picking up a paycheck at Monogram.  And yet, in many ways I prefer Toler’s interpretation to Oland’s because while Oland may have made better Chans his character was a little too gentle for my tastes—Toler’s take on Charlie had a little more bite, much in the way Charlie was portrayed in Biggers’ novels.  (When Oland would utter Charlie’s signature “Thank you so much,” he sounded like he meant it—in Toler’s tones there was a slight sarcasm underneath.) Oland’s strengths lie in the fact that he was fortunate to work in tandem with Luke, who as Number One Son displayed a real rapport with the series’ star, an affection that was still present when Luke would reminisce about Oland in interviews years after the actor’s death.  Toler had the misfortune to be saddled with progeny that didn’t display the same amount of moxie as Luke’s Lee…and on many occasions it’s not hard to comprehend why Charlie’s disposition become sourer with each film that followed.  (Toler’s Chan has one of my all-time favorite lines in Island when he comments after one of son Jimmy’s screw-ups: “If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.”)

Treasure Island succeeds so well as a great Chan picture because of several factors—a tight script by John Larkin that superbly blends elegant wit and nail-biting suspense; first-rate direction by Norman Foster, who was at the helm of a number of the top Mr. Moto entries, including Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) and Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937); and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography courtesy of Virgil Miller.  At an economical seventy-two minutes, Island doesn’t waste any time getting started (but by this point in the Chan series, you pretty much knew what to expect once the opening credits had finished) and the film also feels no need to pad itself with a lot of unnecessary comedy relief.  Sure, there are plenty of comic contributions from Sen Yung (I like his magician’s coat bit) and Wally Vernon as Romero’s stooge but they flow with the plot, and never appear to be superfluous for the sake of giving someone a little extra screen time.

The plot of Treasure Island is similar in many ways to the previous Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) but it improves on the original by making its proceedings faster and funnier.  Romero, Fowley, Moore, MacBride and Dumbrille all lend fine support, and old movie buffs will have a lot of fun picking out some of the uncredited players like Kay Linaker and Mack Sennett veterans Heinie Conklin and Hank Mann.  And if at any point in time you expect the person playing Dr. Zodiac to say “Get this and get it straight—crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave…” it’s none other than old-time radio’s Philip Marlowe, Gerald Mohr, in one of his earliest film showcases (though he also appears without credit).  Since the Fox Movie Channel will often find itself besieged by individuals who interpret the Charlie Chan films as insensitive to Asian-Americans (despite the fact that the main character is a positive role model and often the smartest freakin’ guy in the room at any given time) the series doesn’t get the showcase it once did but has for the benefit of fans been released to DVD, and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is the jewel in the crown of the box set Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4.  Buy or rent it today!

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Rick29 said...

Ivan, I love that you chose a classic "B" film for the CMBA 1939 blogathon. I've always enjoyed the CHARLIE CHAN series and felt that Toler slipped seamlessly into the role after Oland died. TREASURE ISLAND is one of my favorite entries in the series--pretty much for the all the reasons that you highlighted in your review. The CHAN films excelled at integrating comic relief, whereas in some of the "B" detective films, the comedy "relieved" too much of the mystery. Another fine review at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

Yvette said...

I love that you chose CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, one of my favorite Chan films next to CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (same as you) which I spoke about on my blog recently. (By the way, Ivan, have you read Yunte Huang's Edgar winning book on the life of the 'real' Charlie Chan? Illuminating and very entertaining. Professor Huang's attitude on Charlie might surprise you.)

Can't tell you how many times I've seen CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA, because I've lost count. I love seeing Romero in this early role. He really was quite a debonair looking fellow.

Also enjoy watching Douglas Fowley, the fast talking reporter (a variation on a role he played for years and years and years. The man seemed to have lived forever and I enjoyed watching him play feisty old men later in his working life as well. He was a fun type.)

Thanks for a great post.

Rich said...

Another great post as usual... but is it a bad thing that I can't think of Charlie Chan without thinking of the parody character in Neil Simon's 'Murder By Death'?

grandoldmovies said...

CC At Treasure Island is one of the best in the Chan series, and I think it's one of the most fun to watch - the magic-show atmosphere is so well done. I agree w/your assessment of Toler's Chan having more of an 'edge'; he really did find ways to make the role his own after Oland. And I'm glad you mentioned Foster's direction and the beautiful cinematography; this may be a B-level film, but it had real quality - Thanks so much for your great review; it makes me want to re-watch the film!

ClassicBecky said...

Just great, Ivan! I love Charlie Chan (or Charles, as you may remember I called him once)! I have to say Oland was my favorite, but Toler had the extra little bite you mentioned and did a very good job. Interesting background trivia too. On a personal note, I met my first love in high school because of Charlie Chan! He didn't know I was such a classic film buff, and he was trying to trip me up about Charlie Chan. He asked me which two actors played Charlie. I surprised him by naming all three. It was true lover after that!

Vinnie Bartilucci said...

Keye Luke is deserving of an entry all on his own. In addition to the Chan series, he played Kato, sidekick to The green hornet twice, and had a solid role in The Good Earth. Decades later, he returned to the series, playing Charlie Chan himself in the Hanna Barbera series The Amazing Cnan and the Chan Clan.

DorianTB said...

Ivan, your post about CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND was excellent! The wit (like your "wash the spider out" metaphor) and details
in your review really brought the film to life for me. I must confess it's been years since I've had an opportunity to see a Charlie Chan movie, but I'll keep an eye on my TV listings!

By the way, Rich, I got a kick out of your MURDER BY DEATH quip; we're big fans of Peter Sellers' big screen work!

And Becky, I loved your anecdote about how you won your school sweetheart over with your Charlie Chan knowledge!

Page said...

The Charlie Chan series gets watched a lot at my parents with my mom being such a huge fan of it. Sadly, I haven't seen most of them since I was a little girl. So I really appreciate that you put so much information about how it came to be and the other titles which has motivated me to see the series now that I can appreciate it. Perhaps I can convince my mom to loan me her box set. I had no idea that TCM finds the films insensitive.

Your well thought out reviews are always a great read and this one doesn't disappoint.

Caftan Woman said...

Charlie Chan is my household god.

"at Treasure Island" always entertains and I got a great kick out of your article - the insights of a true fan.

I think Sen Yung's exemplary work in comic support is one of the prime reasons the Toler Chans work as well as they do. Even the lesser ones have grown in my eyes through the years.

John said...

Excellent review Ivan. I love the Chan films with Tolar doing a fine job replacing Oland. I know in later years it became a problem from a racial point of view with these films but I always thought Chan came across as the smartest person in all his films and was not looked down upon as inferior. This is one though I still have to see. The Moto films are also entertaining.

DorianTB said...

Ivan, I thought I'd already sent you a comment saying how much I enjoyed your review of CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, but in case I haven't, I just wanted to say I found it thoroughly witty, entertaining, and informative. Nice work!

Rachel said...

I'll add to Yvette's plug for the Yunte Huang book on Chan and his origins. A fascinating read. Worth picking up just for the section in which Huang describes the differing reactions in China to the arrival of Anna May Wong and Warner Oland around the same time. They gave Wong the cold shoulder and embraced Oland like a long-lost son.

The Lady Eve said...

I'll admit up front that I haven't seen a Charlie Chan movie in a long time...but when I was a kid, they were on TV regularly and I watched them all. Ivan, you can weave a pretty good web yourself, and your description of "Charlie Chan at Treasure Island" makes me want to rent the lot of them.

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, a great post. I especially liked your analysis of why this installment succeeds so well. I haven't seen all the Charlie Chan movies, and the ones I have seen I saw mostly on TV when I was a boy. But I've always found the series most enjoyable (except for "Charlie Chan in Egypt," in which Stepin Fetchit's character makes me cringe). My favorite Chan is Toler for, I think, the very reason you cite, that his Chan has more bite than the gentle Warner Oland's. I particularly like this one and "Charlie Chan at the Opera." I like the Monogram series for Mantan Moreland's scene-stealing Birmingham Brown. (I recall the great post you wrote awhile ago on Moreland.) Your readers may not know that Sally Blane was Loretta Young's sister and the wife of director Norman Foster, who directed Young in "Rachel and the Stranger."

Yvette said...

Obviously I meant to say that I loved seeing Cesar Romero in CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND - my bad. I mixed up one title with another in my comments. GAK!!

Kevin Deany said...

CC at Treasure Island is not only my favorite Chan film, but one of my all-time favorite films.

Can't add much to what you already said, except that I love the close-ups of the killer's eyes as Charlie is re-counting the case at the end. That image is as spooky as anything found in a horror movie from the era.

While I prefer Warner Oland to Sidney Toler by a hair, I do prefer the Toler entries as a whole, partly due to the better supporting casts. Some of the romantic leads in the Oland entries re-define bland.

Classicfilmboy said...

Superb post. With 1939 remembered for so many films, I'm glad this blogathon is allowing smaller films to be examined, and you did a fine job of describing this entry's place in the Charlie Chan series' history. Thank you for the post!

trueclassics said...

Your detailed and always thoughtful reviews make me feel like an inadequate blogger sometimes, Ivan! :) I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts on this movie. I have only ever seen one Charlie Chan film (and it happens to be the one you've labeled your favorite, Charlie Chan at the Opera), so I am glad to know it is definitely worth a viewing.

Dawn said...

I have not seen many Charlie Chan movies. Your well written classic 1939 movie review on the film, Treasure Island, sounds like one of the better Chan movies with it's creepy atmosphere and a fun plot.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I don't think I've seen any of the "Chan" films since I was a kid, and it's high time I re-visted them. Your detailed background of the Chan genre was great, Ivan. Although, I have to admit, I also thought of the "Murder By Death" parody. Great minds think alike.

whistlingypsy said...

Ivan, you have written an entertaining and informative review that has brought both the film and film series to life for me. I have seen one film each with the title role filled by Warner Oland and Sidney Toler: Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) and Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938). Although my experience with the franchise is limited, I think the setting of Paris with the Apache Dance is my favorite. I would like to see Charlie Chan in London (1938) because Ray Milland has a role, and the film is frequently mentioned in Gosford Park by the fictitious director. May I also ask your opinion of Brenda Starr, Reporter with Joan Woodbury and Kane Richmond? I first discovered Kane Richmond in a Marie Dressler/Polly Moran film, and I understand that he was “the king of serials” for most of his career. Can you recommend the film in which he appeared with Joan Woodbury?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks, everybody, for the nice sentiments -- I'm a little behind catching up on the blogathon but I'll be stopping by the remaining blogs who contributed very soon.

And to whistlinggypsy -- for what it's worth, I'm getting a tremendous kick out of Brenda Starr, Reporter so I'd highly recommend it. Whether this is due to the content or the fact that such a scarcity has come to light on DVD is still up in the air at this point but I certainly think its worth a rental if you can find a place who'll accommodate ya.

garbolaughs said...

This one sounds so fun. I haven't seen any of the Charlie Chan films yet, so thanks for providing such a comprehensive guide. Great contribution to the blogathon, Ivan.