Charlie Chan on DVD

Unsurprisingly, the arrival of six Charlie Chan films on DVD in MGM’s splendidly named Chanthology box set has met with little enthusiasm from the film press.
Most of them ignored it altogether, despite it being the first ever official release of Chan movies in Britain, and in gorgeous quality transfers, too.

This is not just because the films pre-date Star Wars, though obviously that has a lot to do with it.
Chan, Mr Wong (Boris Karloff) and the Japanese Mr Moto (Peter Lorre) are problematic figures today, relics of an earlier age in which it was traditional to cast western actors in oriental roles (usually those with a long-standing reputation for playing unusual character parts, often in heavy make-up).
Chan, by far the best-known of the three, has in fact come in for some pretty savage batterings in recent years: Ken Hanke’s invaluable Charlie Chan at the Movies documents these objections, but points out that the presentation of a Chinese hero, a super-smart detective who outsmarts not only the villains but the usually slow-witted white cops who share his investigations, was in fact a considerable step forward in the presentation of a race hitherto used primarily as exotic villains. (Warner Oland, the first and finest Chan, though in fact Swedish, had cornered the market in just these roles, appearing as Fu Manchu and General Chang in Shanghai Express.)

To this we could add that the films also gave significant supporting roles to authentic Chinese-American performers: Chan was invariably aided in his adventures by one or more of his fourteen children, and various other Chinese characters are encountered in usually positive contexts throughout the series. (Further, it is not immediately obvious why Oland playing Chan should be more offensive than, say, Albert Finney playing Hercule Poirot. All acting is, after all, impersonation, and early Hollywood had encouraged the notion that the test of great acting was to assume roles as far from the actor’s real self as possible, hence the extraordinary acclaim lavished upon Paul Muni.)
The real problem is not that a Chinese actor is not playing the role; it is the underlying knowledge that a Chinese actor would not have been allowed to play the role. But is even this true? When Boris Karloff tired of playing Mr Wong, Monogram handed the final film in the series to Keye Luke, well known as Chan’s Number One son, Lee. The public stayed away, but it is interesting and notable that Monogram made the experiment all the same.

The Chan series began at Fox, with Oland in the lead and benefiting from good B-picture art direction, writing and supporting casts. (Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Rita Hayworth, Ray Milland and even Virginia Cherrill, Chaplin’s blind flower seller, are among those who appeared alongside such peerless B-picture perennials as C. Henry Gordon, Douglas Dumbrille, Halliwell Hobbes and Henry Daniell.)
Even by the standards of a detective series, the pleasures of a Chan film are incredibly formulaic: there is the mystery killer revealed by Chan at the end (usually by gathering the suspects in a room and slowly explaining the plot to them all), the elaborate murders (often mysterious in themselves, and frequently relying on trickery, gadgets and concealed doors and weapons) and Chan’s own endless supply of aphorisms (“murder without bloodstain like Amos without Andy: most unusual”). They remain among the best film series of golden age Hollywood: unpretentious, witty, atmospheric and often ingenious in their convoluted plots.

Oland, an alcoholic and eccentric, was at work on his seventeenth Chan film when he simply walked off the set and never returned. He was eventually discovered to have returned to Sweden, where he suddenly died of bronchial pneumonia. (The script, with Lee Chan still on board, was hastily revised and shot as a Mr Moto film.) But Chan soon returned, in the brasher form of Missouri-born Sidney Toler, who went on to give twenty-two likeable but technically much less impressive performances in the role. (Unlike Oland you can often see Toler giving occidental performances, he’s in Laurel and Hardy’s Our Relations for instance.)

When Fox abandoned the series after the first batch of eleven, Toler acquired the rights to the character himself, and set up shop at Monogram. If he had wished to give the impression of business-as-usual his hopes were soon dashed by the studio’s reduced budgets, dim supporting casts and far less inventive plots. (The characterisation of Chan, in particular, loses all distinctiveness in these later films, and the stories are often bland.)
The six titles in the Chanthology are the first six from this Monogram period. With Chan a controversial figure already, they further stir the pot by making a regular character of black comic relief Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, who keeps improbably running into Chan before eventually becoming his chauffeur.
But Moreland was included not to alienate but to attract black audiences: his presence insured the films major release-status in Harlem and other predominantly black territories, where he was hugely and rightly popular. Indeed I'll go much further: Moreland is a one of the truly great comic actors of his day, and the films he made specifically for black audiences are eminently worth seeking out. Inevitably diluted and tamed in guest spots in whitey films like these, he nonetheless always makes the most of what he is given. Many of the later Chans are happy to stop while he does a comic party piece.

.The Mr Wong films, widely available in no-frills budget editions, may perhaps seem rather more fun than these later Chans, though they're not a patch on the Fox originals.
Boris Karloff, who had appeared heavily disguised as Fu Manchu in 1933, is a surprisingly restrained lead, tall and thin and refined, and playing the character with little make-up and no trace of a Chinese accent. (We learn he was educated in England by way of partial explanation.) He’s also rather more arrogant and cynical than Chan, whose excessive politeness is typified by his catchphrase “thank you so much”.
These are decent little mysteries (two of them were in fact remade as Chan films when Roland Winters assumed the role for six last titles after Toler’s death in 1947) and the Monogram trappings, which on release seemed hopelessly poverty-stricken, have acquired much charm with the passage of time.

The real gold remains in the Fox Chan films, which are now starting to turn up on DVD, albeit transferred from pretty ropey, fuzzy old prints. Or you can get the lot on E-Bay from a nice man who’ll put them on a dozen or so discs for you: the quality’s actually higher than that of the semi-official releases, and you can’t quarrel with the price. Thank you so much.

(Postscript, 2013: The Fox Chan films are now available on DVD in good quality editions.)