Saturday 30 June 2007

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) Phil Rosen

I don't have a good background in Charlie Chan films but I'm aware that, like most series, it deteriorated over time. In this case the heyday is seen as the Warner Oland era for Fox in the thirties, with the Sidney Toler films gradually getting worse as the films moved from Fox to MGM to Monogram, where they reached their nadir with Roland Winters as Chan. Fortunately, if we're looking at a declining quality curve, this one was made before the last one I saw, but unfortunately it's still from the Sidney Toler Monogram era.

The story is an investigation into the death, presumably murder, of George Melton, an inventor important to the government's war effort as he's been researching a means of ridding the country of the German U-boat threat. He walks downstairs, leaving his presidential bodyguard behind, and drops dead, with his secret plans mysteriously missing. Chan is called in to investigate what turns out to be a too short mystery, the world being reduced effectively to a single house and its occupants so that we can investigate along with Chan, but none of whom get adequate background or screen time.

I've watched a lot of early twentieth century films featuring supposedly oriental characters played by quite obviously not oriental actors. The quality is highly varied and I'm starting to see the extremes being Peter Lorre as Mr Moto at the good end and Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan at the bad end. It isn't just the standard stereotypes, it's the fact that I can't help but have the impression that Toler can't even talk, let alone talk in a broken form of English, or see or walk or act or anything else.

It's hard to call a film racist when the Chinese character played by a non-Chinese actor can't live up to his potential, but the Chinese characters played by actors of Chinese descent transcend their sucky parts. Even though he's supposedly the bright Chinese detective hero, Toler comes across as stupid, quite unlike his supposedly dumber son and daughter who come across at least as completely articulate, merely not great detectives. I don't know if it's just me, but I tend to dismiss Sidney Toler and enjoy Benson Fong and Marianne Quon instead.

The real racism to me is the blatant stereotyping of black chauffeur Birmingham Brown, which is acutely embarrassing. Actor Mantan Moreland is obviously far more talented than many of his cohorts, from Toler to Gene Roth, who does a bad Kirk Douglas impression as Luis Philipe Vega, a hulk of a man apparently of Hispanic descent but really German. He isn't believable as any of them and the rest of the cast and the story aren't much better. At least it's better than the last one I saw.

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