October 5, 2016
Charlie Chan in London – US, 1934
It is said that context must be taken into consideration when watching films like Charlie Chan in London. With that in mind, here is at least part of that context. The character of Charlie Chan was created by Earl Derr Biggers and, according to Wikipedia, loosely based on Chang Apana, a detective in Honolulu. The character first appeared in novels, and later on the silver screen, the first film being released in 1926. Interestingly, in the first few films, which were largely unsuccessful, Chan was a minor character and often only came onscreen to wrap things up. In those early films, Chan was portrayed by Japanese actors George Kuwa and Kamiyama Sojin, as well as Korean actor E.L. Park. However, when Chan became a main character, the role was handed to Swedish actor Warner Oland. Success quickly followed, and from 1931 to 1949, over forty Charlie Chan films were produced.
Charlie Chan in London, the sixth film with Oland in the role, was released in 1934, a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect, but sentiments were slowly turning in favor of the Chinese and against the Japanese. Perhaps Chan was part of the reason for this, for he is everything that Fu Man Chu and other characters in the “yellow peril” era were not. For one, he is a family man, often mentioning his 12 children and 1 wife, presumably to differentiate himself from stereotypes of Chinese men with concubines. Chan also displays characteristics that would have enamored him to white audiences, those being passivity, patience, and humility. I should also add that he is the opposite of many of the roles that Sessue Hayakawa played. Hayakawa’s characters often had impulses and desires that drove him to do lecherous deeds; Chan, in contrast, doesn’t seem to have ever had a dirty thought. In other words, he was a character with whom white America could feel comfortable.
Charlie Chan in London begins with a series of newspaper clippings about a sensational murder case that ends in a death sentence. We soon meet the man convicted of the crime and learn that there are only three days before his scheduled execution. His sister Pamela (Drue Leyton) visits him to cheer him up, and, as can be expected in a film of this sort, she is the only one convinced of his innocence. If only there were someone who shared that belief and could look into the case with fresh eyes and objectivity. Fortunately, Charlie Chan is in town. Soon he is on the case.
The problem with films of this sort is that once they have laid out the circumstances and the detective is on the case, they can quickly settle into a series of meetings and question sessions, during which the detective – but rarely the audience – picks up clues that will be revealed later on. Characters who have no reason to act suspiciously act that way just so that the one character who should do so does not stand out. And of course doors open and shut so silently as to allow shadowy figures enter, exit without a trace. We’ve seen it before, and to say that Charlie Chan in London treads familiar ground would be an understatement.
As the film progresses, I found myself increasingly less interested in the case and its consequences. Paul Gray (Douglas Walton), the man with only 72 hours to live, is never made a truly endearing character, and the screenwriter’s decision to make Pamela his sister rather than his fiancée or wife robs the film of a great deal of emotion. Another relationship is introduced, this one involving two of Pamela’s friends, but the audience is given very little reason to care about these characters or the people who inhabit their inner circle. Interrogation sessions are therefore a numbing experience, as characters we’re indifferent to rant and rave about the inconveniences of being questioned. It is only when reminders of just what is at stake are given that people settle down. True friends wouldn’t need the prompt.
And so that leaves Charlie Chan to hold the audience’s interest, and to me he just didn’t do it. I admit to releasing a few chuckles here and there, mostly at his quirky phrasings and polite mannerisms – he refers to a horse as “noble animal,” apologizes to the villain for misleading him, and, after being driven at top speed to help someone notes that he “nearly find ancestors” during the ride – yet none of those things helped me to engage with the film. They were just pleasant distractions, and whenever the film returned to the mystery, my interest once again waned. There are other examples of this occurring in films – Bill Pullman’s eccentric detective Daryl Zero in 1997’s Zero Effect is far more interesting than the case he is trying to solve, and I can’t remember anything about the case at the heart of The Thin Man. However, in these films, the detectives are not restrained by societal fears and the need to play it safe. Charlie Chan is, and as much as this is understandable given the restraints placed on the character, it practically renders him a non-entity in his own film.
I know. I know. Remember the context. I get it. However, no context can make up for a script that doesn’t draw the reader in or get them invested in the characters and the stakes. The case at the heart of Charlie Chan in London is ultimately forgettable, and, as such, the film is only mildly interesting.
2 and a half stars