CHARLIE CHAN, VOL. 4 (Fox):
CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU (1938) D: H. Bruce Humberstone, w/ Sidney Toler, Sen Yung. Rating: NN; DVD package: NNN
CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1939) D: Norman Foster w/ Toler, Ricardo Cortez. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND (1939) D: Foster, w/ Toler, Cesar Romero. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
CHARLIE CHAN IN CITY OF DARKNESS (1939) D: Herbert I. Leeds, w/ Toler, Lynn Bari. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Since the first Charlie Chan box in 2006, extras producer John Cork has been cramming them with little labours of love, fresh-made documentaries and interviews that explore the movies and the people who made them.
Who knew that City Of Darkness was one of Hollywood’s very rare pre-World War II anti-Nazi movies? Who knew that series regular Kay Linaker went on to write The Blob, or that Sidney Toler, who took over the Chan role after Warner Oland’s death, had been a successful Broadway actor, playwright, theatre manager, composer and lyricist before turning to B movies?
Taken together, the Chan extras paint a fascinating portrait of old Hollywood from the perspective of the ordinary workers who didn’t get the glory but got the job done, on time and on budget.
On the other hand, Treasure Island contains the single weirdest extra I have ever seen, a doc suggesting that San Francisco’s real-life Zodiac killer, active in the late 60s, may have been inspired by the mad Dr. Zodiac of Treasure Island.
The movies themselves aren’t entirely bad. Yes, they’re burdened by racism and too much broad comedy. But there is some good mystery-movie strangeness and some decent acting. Check out the use of disguises in Treasure Island and the bizarre George Zucco in Honolulu. Chan himself is an underdeveloped character, and Toler does little with the role but suggest a cold intelligence behind the affable grin.
There’s also some good moviemaking in Reno and, particularly, in Treasure Island, the best of the box. Both are directed by Norman Foster, Fox’s go-to guy for B thrillers, who has a way with pacing, crowds and lighting.
Foster also directed the Mr. Moto series, starring Peter Lorre, which are altogether better than the Chans. Lorre easily outperforms any of the actors who tackled Chan; his character is darker and more complex; and the movies are more action/intrigue than whodunits. The Moto boxes come with the same lavish extras, so they’re well worth looking into.
EXTRAS Honolulu: Reinventing Chan doc, Toler doc, recreation of lost Chan movie. Reno: Reno doc, dude ranch cowboy memoir, Linaker interview. Treasure Island: critic and historian commentary, Treasure Island and Zodiac killer docs. City Of Darkness: making-of and screenwriters docs. All titles: full frame, b&w. English, French, Spanish subtitles.