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The Charlie Chan Chanthology

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, The Chinese Cat, The Jade Mask, Meeting at Midnight, The Scarlet Clue, The Shanghai Cobra

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (July 17/04)

There's something more than a little jarring about the entire premise behind the Charlie Chan series. The movies follow the exploits of the titular character, a gifted Chinese detective, as he solves crimes that nobody else can crack. The role of Chan was never filled by an Asian actor; rather, a series of extremely Caucasian performers played the part. All of the titles in MGM Home Entertainment's Chanthology feature Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan, starting with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. The film finds Chan summoned to a palatial estate, where an important scientist has been murdered and his revolutionary invention has gone missing. Chan begins interrogating the various guests of the house, and must contend with the interference of his two grown children. Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is a decent mystery, though the cheap nature of the production is extremely evident (the film looks as though it was filmed over a couple of days). The addition of a bumbling black servant (played by Mantan Moreland) is incredibly offensive and wholly unnecessary (the character seems to exist solely to bug his eyes out and look really, really scared all the time). The film does a nice job of turning virtually every single character into a suspect, making it virtually impossible to predict who will be revealed as the murderer.

out of

The Chinese Cat (July 30/04)

The Chinese Cat offers up more of the same, and actually seems to re-use one of the sets from Charlie Chan in the Secret Service! This time around, Charlie has been hired by a wealthy young woman named Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury) whose father was murdered in his own home. Though nobody has been arrested for the crime, Leah's mother has become the prime suspect thanks to an "expert criminologist" who has written a book implicating her for the murder. Charlie quickly gets to work on the case, uncovering a conspiracy involving smuggled diamonds - though his ambitious son continues to make his unwanted presence felt. The Chinese Cat also features the return of Mantan Moreland's Birmingham Brown, who is working as a cab driver this time around (and is just as offensive as ever). The story's resolution is somewhat unexpected, though it feels as though several red herrings were included just to pad out the running time.

out of

The Jade Mask (August 12/04)

In this unusually complicated mystery, Charlie Chan must solve the murder of a renowned scientist. Said scientist was working on a gas that's able to turn ordinary wood into a substance as strong as steel, and it would seem as though that's why he was killed. But nothing is ever as it appears in a Charlie Chan flick, something that's certainly true here. In The Jade Mask, Chan is finally given an intriguing sidekick in the guise of a Southern detective (and yes, Mantan Moreland's Birmingham Brown returns once again, wearing out his welcome almost immediately). The two investigators quickly discover that they share a passion for cheesy aphorisms, and their eye-rolling banter is admittedly the film's highlight. But the conclusion, which resembles the denouement of virtually every episode of Scooby-Doo, is especially ridiculous, even by Chan standards.

out of

Meeting at Midnight (October 22/04)

Meeting at Midnight finds our man Chan forced to take a case after his daughter is fingered as one of the suspects. It seems as though she was participating in a seance when a man was killed, making her - and everyone else that was there - the potential killer. Of course, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) returns, having just gotten a job as a butler in the very house where the murder occurred. Meeting at Midnight was originally called Black Magic, a title that was likely changed due to cultural sensitivity issues. The repetitive nature of these films is becoming increasingly clear - Charlie initially doesn't want the case, but eventually takes it and solves it - while it's impossible not to be distracted by the use of the exact same set in each movie. With Meeting at Midnight, Charlie is faced with a case that just isn't interesting - something that's exacerbated by the continued presence of Moreland (a terrible, terrible actor).

out of

The Scarlet Clue (November 9/04)

Finally, a Charlie Chan mystery that doesn't take place in the same location. This one finds Charlie investigating a series of murders connected to the possible theft of radar secrets, with the killer dispatching his victims using an unusual amount of creativity (ie poison-tipped cigarettes, a bottomless elevator, etc). The Scarlet Clue is probably the most effective Chan flick yet, as it finally deals with a case that doesn't require the master detective to stumble around an old house. However, the film is nevertheless a bore - primarily because the case is far to complicated to ever entirely hold our interest. This is the biggest problem with these films: we're presented with mysteries that aren't compelling in the slightest, making it a real struggle to care about the resolution. And despite some extremely out-there plot twists (the killer dumps a body inside a snowy wind tunnel), The Scarlet Clue is just as mediocre as the rest of these Charlie Chan adventures.

out of

The Shanghai Cobra (November 13/04)

More of the same as Charlie attempts to solve the deaths of three seemingly unconnected victims, all of whom died from snake bites. The Shanghai Cobra is yet another needlessly complicated mystery - featuring trapdoors, powdered explosives, and radon (!) - that isn't interesting in the slightest, though director Phil Karlson does deserve some kudos for attempting to imbue the movie with a more varied atmosphere than any of Monogram Pictures' previous Chan mysteries (there are even flashbacks!) But the real problem here is that the storyline's been jam-packed with superfluous elements, something that's true of all these films. Each of the Charlie Chan movies contained within this boxset runs around an hour, yet these are stories that could clearly be told in a fraction of the time.

out of

About the DVDs: Each of these Charlie Chan mysteries are available either separately or as part of MGM Home Entertainment's Chanthology, though bonus features are non-existent.
© David Nusair