Tuesday 10 June 2008

Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)

I've always preferred Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. He wasn't the first (three other actors predate him in the silent era) and he wasn't the last (currently Sir Peter Ustinov holds that honour for 1981's Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen), but to my eyes he was the best. However he couldn't continue on forever as he was 51 when he started. He died in 1938 after making Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo and being Hollywood, the studio hired another Swede to play a Chinese detective in Hawaii, Sidney Toler.

Toler is better here than I remember him from later entries in the series. He seems to be a lot more awake and alert here than later on and the sarcasm that he brought to the character is here already, though perhaps a little less developed. There were certainly missed opportunities that the later Toler would have seized on, such as the key reason for the presence of a couple of younger Chans at the murder scene. Charlie has many children but is about to become a grandfather for the first time. After leaving for the hospital his boss on the Honolulu force calls to ask him to board the Susan B Jennings where a murder has been committed. Number two son takes it upon himself to investigate in his father's stead.

The Susan B Jennings is a freighter but it has six highly varied passengers, all of whom are natural candidates for the role of murderer. There's a secretary carrying $300,000 in cash to deliver to an unnamed stranger. There's a wealthy lady travelling under a pseudonym. There's a psychologist with a wandering eye who has a living brain in a tank and highly convenient darkroom equipment. There's a wanted criminal pretending to be a detective. There's even a man transporting a collection of animals to a circus and who keeps a lion as a pet.

The cast is interesting and everyone seems to have fun with the material. The secretary is Phyllis Brooks, who was apparently having an affair with Cary Grant at the time. She'd go on to marry a congressman and have JFK as the godfather to her elder son. The wealthy lady is Claire Dodd, no new face to detective series films as she'd played Della Street twice to Warren William's Perry Mason. The psychologist is George Zucco, no strange face to anyone watching B movies, as he crops up everywhere, usually in some sinister role or other. The crook playing a cop is Richard Lane, and it's believable to me as I know him best as a cop: he's the Inspector Farraday who's always trying but failing to lock up Boston Blackie. He would go on to be a highly renowned announcer, for wrestling, roller derby, midget cars, you name it. The animal man is Eddie Collins, who has such highly malleable facial features that it seems surprising that he's real. He looks precisely like Nick Park was animating him in a Wallace and Gromit film.

And then there's Toler. He was very much in replacement mode at this point, not a star himself (though he'd appeared in around fifty movies already), taking on a character that a more famous actor had played no less than 16 times. However he'd make it his own and play it even more often: 22 times to be exact. He needed makeup, though Warner Oland didn't through blood on the Mongolian side. At least this one is still for Fox and not yet for the much lower budget Monogram Pictures. Toler is also lumbered with a very awkward first scene: the film begins at the Chan dinner table and the Chan family is not a small one. Toler was very notably the only white man in the room, with every other member of the family played by an Asian American actor. Hollywood never had a problem casting Asian actors, it just couldn't cast them in the lead.

Victor Sen Yung is about as close as it came, playing Chan's number two son for the first of many times here. It's definitely a supporting role, and would often become far smaller, but it has quite a lot of screen time this time out. He's the earnest young Chan who wants desperately to follow in his father's footsteps, and he'd play the role almost as often as Toler would play Chan. In fact he lasted longer, reprising the part under Toler's successor, Roland Winters. It's a coin toss as to whether Sen Yung is more remembered for playing Number Two Son or Hop Sing, the Cartwright's cook in Bonanza.

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