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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

Director: H Bruce Humberstone
Stars: Warner Oland and Boris Karloff
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
Though this was Warner Oland's thirteenth outing as Charlie Chan, it was the only time he shared above the title billing, but hey, this is Karloff the Uncanny we're talking about. Therefore the title screen of Charlie Chan at the Opera reads 'Warner Oland vs Boris Karloff', fittingly phrased given that we begin at the Rockland State Sanitorium on a dark and stormy night, utterly appropriate for a Karloff movie. He's a singing inmate without a memory or a name, but the night's paper brings both back to him because he sees the face of Lilli Rochelle, who has been brought back to Los Angeles after seven years away by the San Marco Opera Company. She's going to star in Carnival at the Civic Opera House, which means that he promptly escapes and finds his way there.

The police mount a manhunt but get nowhere, even with Irish cop Sgt Kelly on the case, played by perennial dimwit cop William Demarest. Fortunately Charlie Chan is in town to assist, along with number one son Lee, played by Keye Luke, and a slew of others, including Benson Fong, who is only an opera extra here but would later become Charlie Chan's number three son. They're all sent to the Opera House after leading lady Madame Lilli receives a death threat with a bouquet of flowers. Given that she's thoroughly annoying when we first meet her at the police station, we can hardly be surprised or even upset at the concept but we soon discover that there are two crimes that need solving here not just one, and those two escalate.

On top of the death threats, and all the shenanigans going on between Lilli and her baritone Enrico Borelli, both of whom are married to other people, we discover a much older crime. Karloff has remembered that he's really Gravelle, a great baritone himself, whose finest performance was uncoincidentally in Carnival, as Mephisto. He's presumed long dead by all and sundry after a performance many years earlier left a theatre in flames and him deliberately locked in a burning room. Now he's back to take Enrico Borelli's place on stage and sing Mephisto once more, which doesn't surprise us after Arnold the stage manager says that 'this opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!'

Karloff is excellent here, though his lip movements fail pretty dismally at matching the singing voice of Tudor Williams, especially early on. Whose fault that is I can't say but it's there nonetheless. Margaret Irving doesn't do much better as Lilli Rochelle, her voice being provided by Zari Elmassian. The costume Karloff is given is magnificent, making him a Mephisto of the old school, someone you'd expect to see in an old silent movie like Häxan with a black skullcap, a white ruff collar and a feather between the eyes. While we know he's not singing, he's dominant on stage but backstage or when eavesdropping on proceedings he becomes more of an object of pity than of horror, something that's highly apt given the setting. The original Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, always worked both those angles in his characters, so that we identified with the monsters he played.
Warner Oland (who coincidentally once played a character called Dr Boris Karlov) wasn't the first actor to play Charlie Chan, as there were three Chans over three films in the silent era, but he was the first to really take charge of the character, beginning a long run with The Black Camel in 1931, which featured Bela Lugosi as the guest name. This was his thirteenth Chan of sixteen, that run ending with 1937's Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, by which point his alcoholism had turned into dementia and he began complaining that the studio he worked at was rife with voodoo. He died in 1938. The Swedish Oland was about as Chinese as I am but he did make the character his own. Sidney Toler, who took over the role and played it for no less than 22 entries in this long running series, was adequate but notably inferior, even though to be fair he was saddled with lower budgets and occasionally truly idiotic scripts to work with.

In the Oland era, the Chan films were hugely successful, which meant that the budgets were decent and the production values high. For Charlie Chan at the Opera, they could afford a name like Karloff, at the height of his career, and the sets are far from cardboard too. This is regarded as one of the high points of the series, which it may well be, because while it's far from a classic, it's notably solid throughout. While it's impossible to miss the villain in the Toler Chans from moment one, some of the Olands are well crafted mysteries where we find out the killer at the same time that the rest of the characters do, only when they're unveiled by Chan at the finale. I was only down to two suspects at the end here and I picked the wrong one. That would never happen in the Toler era.

One other thing that Chan films have going for them is his use of technology, which is scientific and accurate. Having seen so much scientific gibberish and mumbo jumbo in classic Hollywood films it's always surprising to see things done right this far back. The Kennel Murder Case, for instance, one of the Philo Vance series of detective films, played out like an episode of CSI, but one made in 1933. Here Chan uses basic chemistry to uncover a fingerprint and we're even treated to what can only be described as a 1930s fax machine, transmitting a photo from Chicago to Los Angeles through use of light and a photographic negative.

Boris Karloff got to play a Chinese detective himself soon after this film, a character called Mr Wong, in three films over two years: Mr Wong, Detective, The Mystery of Mr Wong and Mr Wong in Chinatown. The character is not related to the Mr Wong that Bela Lugosi played in The Mysterious Mr Wong in 1934. Sometimes it seems that every Caucasian actor in Hollywood at the time got to put on yellowface and pretend to be Japanese or Chinese. Best of them all has to be Peter Lorre, who played Mr Moto eight times in the late thirties, but many were really bad. I'm a fan of Lugosi for instance, but whoever decided to cast him as a Chinese character must have been insane.

While Oland was so much fun as Charlie Chan, he's terrible at being Chinese and it's a shame that none of the many highly qualified actors who played Chan sons over the years got a chance at the role themselves. Keye Luke got the closest, voicing the character in a cartoon TV series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. If you'd thought times had changed by then, given that it was 1972, think again. 1972 was also the year of Kung Fu, which extended the yellowface concept into a whole new generation, with David Carradine playing Kwai Chang Caine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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