Monday 11 February 2008

The Black Camel (1931)

While I've caught up with so many detective films from detective series that I've even discovered new detectives, one of the most prolific series has mostly eluded me. To date there have been no less than 48 Charlie Chan movies, quite possibly more than any other recurring character except Sherlock Holmes, yet I've rated precisely three, all late Monogram entries with Sidney Toler in the lead. He apparently wasn't the worst Chan but he wasn't great, that's for sure. Much better, at least my childhood memory tells me, was Warner Oland who made 16 films as Chan before Toler made the first of his 22.

From what I've read, The Black Camel may be the best of the bunch and I've looked forward to it for quite some time. Luckily a bunch of box sets going cheaply just before Christmas at Fry's Electronics mean that I have it on DVD and a whole lot more sitting by to follow. Not only is it a Warner Oland Chan but he investigates with the assistance of Bela Lugosi, the same year as Dracula, and whose accent works perfectly as a Hollywood mystic to the stars called Tarneverro.

Lugosi takes the third credit behind Sally Eilers, a popular leading lady of the time who I know best as the love interest in Central Airport. There's even a Robert Young, living up to his name at 24 years of age and earning his first credited role, movie director Hamilton MacFadden playing a movie director and Lugosi's memorable co-star in Dracula, Dwight Frye. The story is even based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers rather than merely on characters he created.

We're in Honolulu, where Chan is an inspector of police, and our murder victim is Shelah Fane, a Hollywood starlet who's there to act in a film but spends her time instead getting secretly engaged to Alan Jaynes who she met on the boat. Unlike the later Toler Chans who all had a single obvious candidate for the murderer, there are a slew of possibles here. Jealous ex-husband Robert Fyfe fits the bill, as does Jaynes who may have known she wasn't going to marry him after all. There's a mysterious painter camping outside on the beach and Fane's maid who discovered that she murdered a fellow actor three years earlier. Then there's the rest of the film crew, plus Tarneverro and Jimmy Bradshaw and who knows who else.

There's much to recommend here, though there are creaks. There's a good story, some good acting and some great dialogue. In the Toler era, Chan's famous aphorisms are generally flat cliches, but he has a bunch of joyous lines here. There are plenty choose from but my favourite must be the one that follows the suggestion that he bring in a lie detector that can tell when anyone is lying. He replies that he already has a wife. There's even the admirable fact that while Warner Oland was a Swede pretending to be Chinese, the rest of his ample family are really Chinese.

Oh and by the way, the title comes from the proverb that death is a black camel who kneels at every gate. It adds a little poetic touch to a pretty decent mystery. I don't know yet if it's the best Chan but it's a league above the Toler Chans I've seen.

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