Sunday, January 12, 2014
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)
Fox had failed to pick up Keye Luke’s contract and in any case Luke was not keen to continue playing the crucial rôle on Number One Son without his friend Warner Oland. So the Chan series would have just not a new lead actor but a new sidekick as well.
For the first of the Sidney Toler Chan films, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, the studio decided to do something rather unusual - set the film in Chan’s home town, Honolulu. In fact the movie opens in Charlie’s home on Punchbowl Hill.
The problems are compounded by the fact that Chan’s new sidekick, Number Two Son, is played by Yen Sung and he compares very unfavourably with Keye Luke.
The plot, what little there is of it, concerns a murder on a cargo ship bound for Honolulu. The motive appears to be robbery. A young woman had been carrying $300,000 in cash for her employer in Shanghai, the money to be handed over to the man who turns out to be the murder victim.
The movie’s one real asset is George Zucco as Dr Cardigan. He is both sinister and oddly likeable as a mad scientist who travels with an artificially preserved live human brain in a suitcase. Zucco wisely chooses not to go over-the-top despite the obvious temptation to do so and as a result he becomes a genuinely fascinating character, Zucco’s underplaying making him much more effectively sinister and mysterious.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu is very much a transitional Chan movie. 20th Century-Fox were less than happy with it and for the next Chan movie they would make major changes, changes that would put not only put the series back on its feet but usher in a new and very fruitful era for Charlie Chan. The only reason to see this movie is to see Sidney Toler’s first, slightly hesitant, attempt at the rôle. Happily Toler would gain in confidence and grow into the part very successfully. It’s already evident in this movie that Toler doesn’t have the warmth that Warner Oland brought to the part but with more experience under his belt Toler would make the slighter harder-edged Chan distinctively his own and make a virtue of what had initially appeared to be a weakness.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu is very much a lesser Charlie Chan movie but it is historically significant as the beginning of the Sidney Toler era so hardcore Chan fans will find it worthwhile viewing. More casual fans of the series can safely give this one a miss.