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).