Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional Chinese-American sleuth needs no introduction here, but we’ll give some background on him anyway. Introduced in print in 1924, Charlie Chan first appeared on screen in 1926, but in 1931 when Twentieth Century-Fox (then known as the Fox Film Corporation) cast Swedish-born actor Warner Oland as the character, a successful series of films was launched. When Oland fell ill (he died in 1938), Fox continued the series with Scottish American actor Sidney Toler, who easily slipped into the role for another batch of films that continued until 1942, at which point the studio decided to abandon the character entirely.
Two years later in 1944, Monogram Pictures, a “poverty row” company known for making countless B pictures with such notables as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and The East Side Kids, picked up the Chan series once again. Sidney Toler, who actively obtained the screen rights to the character from Biggers’ widow, sold the idea to Monogram and the series was reborn. Toler played the role for a few more films, but passed away in 1947, at which point actor Roland Winters’ filled in Chan’s white suit for six more pictures. Fox Home Video has previously released five recommended Chan box sets, and before that, MGM released a “Chanthology” set of the first six Monogram entries. Now, Warner Home Video continues the tradition by unleashing this welcomed TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection, four detective yarns from the later Monogram era.
In DARK ALIBI (1946) (62 minutes), a bank is robbed and the night watchman is murdered. Thomas Harley (Edward Earle) claims he was never at the scene of the crime, but since his fingerprints were found there, he’s convicted and sentenced to death row. Even though her father is an ex felon who served jail time, June Harley (Teala Loring, RETURN OF THE APE MAN) is convinced that he’s innocent and hires on private detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to solve the case in time to save her pop. Chan uses the theory that Harley’s fingerprints could’ve have been forged, as he checks in with a police fingerprint expert while searching for the clues with hardly anything to go on. His investigation brings him to Harley’s home, the Foss Family Hotel where all its suspicious borders are questioned, as well as the prison that holds Harley and a spooky theatrical accessory warehouse. Number Three Son, Tommy (Benson Fong) and his sidekick, Chan’s ever-nervous chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) are always close behind, even steering an automobile through the prop-filled warehouse to nab a prime suspect.
DANGEROUS MONEY (1946) (66 minutes): On a luxury cruise ship headed for Samoa, a U.S. government treasury agent is in search of cash and artwork stolen during the Second World War. Meeting with super sleuth Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to discuss the details, the agent is soon stabbed in the back during the night’s entertainment by a faceless assailant. With a boatload of suspects (several of them withholding secrets and vital information), Chan soon encounters further knife-in-the-back executions and a caper on Samoa involving blackmail, a priceless necklace, and some loot hidden in a taxidermist’s fish. Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Young) and the scaredy-cat chauffeur Chattanooga Brown (Willie Best, who also played the character once before in THE RED DRAGON, another Toler/Chan outing) team up as very amateur criminologists mounting their own bumbling side investigation, communicating with walkie talkies and using the code names "Chop Suey 108" and "Pork Chop 711". When the murderer is revealed during the climax, it does come as a surprise, despite the mundane snooping and clue-gathering throughout the running time.
THE TRAP (1946) (68 minutes) is atypical in that Chan does not appear until approximately 15 minutes in, so at first you feel like you’re not even watching one of his mysteries. A show business company is headed for a long-needed rest, renting a seaside house on Malibu Beach. The group is made up of boss Cole King, aka The Maestro (Howard Negley), a pushy press agent, a company physician, as well as a boatload of beautiful dames. Instructed to grab some confidential letters out of a trunk, one of the girls is strangled to death by someone in black gloves toting a chord. A phone call is placed to the residence of Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler), and when accepted by the jumpy Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), the message is muddled, making it sound like his Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Young) has been murdered. Chan quickly shows up on the scene of the Malibu house (and soon Jimmy does as well, safe and sound and as blundering as always) to find that a young woman has been snuffed out, and another one will end up a cadaver washed ashore; with a houseful of eccentrics, he has plenty of possible suspects with the usual assorted motifs to choose from. Kirk Alyn (soon to play “Superman” in two Columbia serials) plays a helpful motorcycle sergeant and Anne Nagel (a Universal horror heroine in such favorites as BLACK FRIDAY and MAN MADE MONSTER) is one of the girls.
In THE CHINESE RING (1947) (68 minutes), a mysterious Chinese woman (Barbara Jean Wong) in distress arrives at the home of our renowned detective Charlie Chan (Roland Winters). It is in his study that she’s suddenly killed by a poisonous dart: it turns out she was a princess with a ring baring a cryptic message written in Chinese (“Long Life and Happiness”) with another clue being her scribing “Capt K” on a piece of paper just before perishing. Teaming up with Sergeant Bill Davidson (Warren Douglas) of the San Francisco police force, Chan suspects a ship’s captain who brought the princess over to the U.S., as well as the owner of an aviation company – both having ties with a dubious banker (naturally, a lot of money is involved with the crimes at hand). Also in on the intrigue are a feisty female reporter (Louise Currie, who starred with Lugosi in both THE APE MAN and VOODOO MAN for Monogram) who is romantically linked to Sergeant Bill, Chan’s ever dependable chauffer Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) and Chan’s Number Two Son (Victor Sen Young) whose name is inexplicably changed from Jimmy to Tommy!
With all the previous Chan DVD box sets out there, nobody (myself included) is going to say this is the best of the bunch. In fact, many believe some of the films here are bottom of the barrel. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their merit and can be easily enjoyed, especially if you consider the cult of Monogram Pictures itself. Monogram never had the prestigious character actors, elaborate sets and other resources associated with an illustrious studio like Fox, but those limitations at times brought on its rather impoverished charm. Plus, Monogram was able to incorporate into the series a character actor of such personality and comic timing in Mantan Moreland, seen here (and given ample screen time) in three of the four films and sorely missed in DANGEROUS MONEY as replaced by Willie Best (he plays Chattanooga Brown as more of a Stepin Fetchit characture). Moreland’s always jittery, bug-eyed Birmingham Brown, with his screeching exclamation of “Mr. Chan, Mr. Chan,” is well remembered and certainly well represented in this set. This set also has historical value in that it contains the last appearance of Sidney Toler as Chan (THE TRAP) after playing the role more than any other actor, as well as the first outing of Roland Winters who does a very honorable (pun intended) job of it in THE CHINESE RING, and would star in five more programmers.
All four films are presented here in this TCM Spotlight Collection from Warner Home Video, looking quite good. The Academy ratio black and white transfers are solid, boasting excellent detail and deep black levels, and only occasional print source abrasions (namely in the case of THE TRAP and THE CHINESE RING). Good mono English tracks accompany each film, and there are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles for each. The films are all housed on their own disc, and the handsome packaging opens up like an accordion adorned with stills from the films as well as mini posters for each title on the back cover. (George R. Reis)
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