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DVD Review: TCM Spotlight – Charlie Chan Collection

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Earl Derr Biggers’ famous fictional detective, Charlie Chan, certainly did his fair share of studio-hopping back in the day. The first film adaptation of the brilliant Honolulu-born Chinese sleuth came from Pathé Studios in 1926. Then, the character appeared at Universal. It wasn’t until the Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century Fox) picked up the franchise in 1929, however, that the honorable Asian gumshoe found a place to hang his patented derby for a few years.

Alas, nothing lasts forever. In 1942, the suits at Fox made the decision to can the entire series altogether — leaving the series’ present star, Sidney Toler, without a whole lot to do. Nevertheless, the actor succeeded in purchasing the film rights from Biggers’ widow, and Charlie Chan was soon solving crimes again on the big screen — this time courtesy of Poverty Row studio, Monogram Pictures.

The move to Monogram, though, was not without a few downsides. Budgets were only a fraction of what there was at Fox. Story writers recycled one plot after another (from older Chan films as well as other mysteries). Even the series’ main star, Sidney Toler, wasn’t doing so hot: in the late ‘40s, the star was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He continued to work anyway, regardless of the fact he had a hard time saying his dialogue comprehensibly or even stand for that matter (many viewers often mistake him for being drunk, when such was not the case).

Sidney Toler passed away in 1947, leaving the door open in the franchise for another actor to fill the shoes. Said shoes were filled by Roland Winters — one of the oddest choices ever to portray an Asian character. Unable to don the make-up appliances to give his eyes that “Asiatic” look (reportedly due to an allergic reaction), the rather tall and husky Winters finished up the Pathé/Universal/Fox/Monogram film legacy in six installments, wherein he walks around with his eyes squinted (!).

Many of the later Monogram-produced theatrical efforts never found their way to home video in the VHS days, particularly the Winters titles. However, with the TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection, audiences are finally able to see for themselves whether or not Roland Winters was a worthy successor to Sidney Toler (I‘m deliberately leaving Warner Oland out of this review, folks, since none of his entries are included here), in addition to seeing Toler’s final outings (as Chan or anyone else) on film.

TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection begins with Dark Alibi (1946), with Toler as Chan and his then-regular comic sidekick, the great Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown. When a bank is robbed late one night and a guard is murdered, the police arrest Thomas Harley (Edward Earle) — whose fingerprints were found at the scene — as the culprit. Unable to convince a jury of his peers that he was never even at the bank, Harley is sentenced to death. Believing her brother to be innocent of the crime, Harley’s sister, June (Teala Loring), hires Charlie to investigate. Character actor Benson Fong co-stars as Charlie’s Number Three Son, Tommy (neither Fong or the “Number Three Son” character returned).

Next up is Dangerous Money (1946), wherein a US Government agent on the hunt for stolen artwork from World War II is murdered whilst traveling aboard a cruise ship to Samoa. Naturally, everyone onboard the ship is suspect material, and Charlie turns up one clue after another with the help of his Number Two Son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and Mantan Moreland’s temporary replacement, Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown (a character that was previously seen in 1945’s Chan outing, The Red Dragon, but disappeared after this).

Third in the set is The Trap. Not only was it the final Charlie Chan film to star Sidney Toler before his death, but it was also the final Chan film from 1946. The plot here involves the strangulation of one of the lovely young lasses from a show business company on leave at a secluded Malibu Beach residence. Filmdom’s first Superman, Kirk Alyn, and ’40s horror heroine Anne Nagel co-star. Our honorable hero (with Victor Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland once again in tow as sidekick/comic relief material) doesn’t show up ‘til about 15 minutes into the film, which is understandable considering how ill Toler was at the time.

And finally, making his debut on home video for the first time ever is Roland Winters in his first of six Charlie Chan films: The Chinese Ring (1947). Wow, what can I really say about this entry? It’s definitely different, that’s for sure. For starters, the movie seems more an uncredited remake of one of Monogram’s earlier Mr. Wong vehicles.

Why? Because it is an uncredited remake of one of Monogram’s earlier Mr. Wong vehicles! A young Chinese woman arrives at Charlie’s home in San Francisco (hey, I thought he lived in Honolulu!) and is promptly murdered by a poisonous dart-shooting assailant. Charlie works side by side with a San Francisco police officer (Warren Douglas) to solve the crime, while Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland again) works with Number Two Son, Tommy (Victor Sen Yung), in an attempt to figure out why his name enigmatically changed from Jimmy and nobody said anything.

Not only did the original Charlie Chan himself jump around from one studio to another, but so did the rights to his various onscreen adventures. Back in 2004, the suits at MGM had the bright idea to release the few Charlie Chan films that they had in their vaults to DVD (the release is now out of print, incidentally). Despite the fact that said films were from the latter era of the Charlie Chan franchise (read: the ones made by Monogram Pictures), the set became a must-have for fans. From 2006 to 2008, Fox released five box sets (and actually went that extra mile, including new bonus materials on many titles). And now, in 2010, Warner has decided to slip a new four-disc set onto the shelves, as part of the TCM Spotlight collection.

Much like the MGM set from ‘04, TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection contains a minor gap for perfectionists hoping to get the entire chronological series. In this instance, the missing movie is 1946’s Shadows Over Chinatown. As to whether this was a copyright or print-related issue is unknown to me at the time of this writing.

All four films are presented in their original Academy aspect ratios, and look outstandingly well when you stop and consider these were a couple of low-budget Monogram flicks that someone threw into a vault for a few decades. English mono soundtracks are the only audio options for each entry (which far surpass what I honestly was expecting), with English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles accompanying. No special features are to be found here, although the foldout packaging of this release does contain some original artwork (is that means anything to any of you).

While the later Charlie Chan films have always been a subject of controversy with fans around the world (whether it be the Monogram vs. Fox argument, or the more popular Winters vs. Toler), longtime fans and newbies alike can agree on this one thing: at least you don’t have to rummage around for third-generation late-night television bootlegs of these films anymore.

Now, I wonder if Warner will be brave enough to release the rest of Roland Winters’ Chan movies?

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.