Sunday, January 29, 2017

Behind That Curtain (1929)

Behind That Curtain was I believe the first of the Fox Charlie Chan movies (although there had been a couple of earlier Chan movies from other companies). Released in 1929, this is also the earliest surviving Chan film.

Eve Mannering (Lois Moran) is an heiress pursued by two suitors. Colonel John Beetham (Warner Baxter) is a famous explorer and he’s the man Eve’s uncle hopes she will marry. Eve however prefers the handsome plausible cad Eric Durand (Philip Strange). Eve’s uncle has employed a private investigator in the hope that he will dig up something on Durand that will bring his niece to her senses. Eve however is totally besotted by Durand.

The private investigator is murdered. Eric Durand has an obvious motive for the murder but Colonel Beetham has a motive also. It looks like the murder is going to remain unsolved but Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emery) of Scotland Yard has a reputation for never giving up on a murder case. Sir Frederick has also been in contact with the famous Charlie Chan who has provided some very useful pointers.

Eve of course marries her handsome bounder and sets off for India with him. Predictably the marriage is not a success. As luck would have it Colonel Beetham is also in India.

Much of the action takes place in India and in the remote deserts of central Asia (the scene of Beetham’s latest expedition).

There was a witness with vital information about the murder but he has decided that blackmail would be more profitable than talking to Scotland Yard.

The identity of the murderer is actually revealed very early so the emphasis is on the suspense angle of the investigation rather than the mystery. This is of course a perfectly valid approach but in this instance it falls rather flat. The screenplay has its flaws but it’s the lifeless execution that is the real problem. And the dialogue! The dialogue is often excruciatingly bad.

The film is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel by Earl Derr Biggers. In fact it bears only a tenuous resemblance to the book.

Very early talkies have a reputation for being very static due to various issues involved with the early sound technology. That reputation is often undeserved but this movie really does suffer in this area. The camera setups do tend at times to be rather static. Director Irving Cummings is also much too leisurely in his approach.

Warner Baxter is OK but there are problems with the rest of the cast. Lois Moran is terrible. She started her career in silent films and it’s obvious she has not yet adapted to sound films. Her performance is as a result overly melodramatic and just doesn’t ring true at all. Gilbert Emery is very dull as the indefatigable Scotland Yard man. Philip Strange has potentially the best role but does little with it. Look out for Boris Karloff in a bit part.

For Charlie Chan fans the biggest issue is going to be that Chan plays a very minor role in the film, not appearing until very late in the proceedings. Chan is played by E.L. Park who was the last actual Asian actor to play the role (although Warner Oland claimed to have some Mongolian ancestry). This was Park’s only film role. 

When Chan finally does appear he’s only in a couple of brief scenes. Obviously at this stage no-one at Fox realised that the character was capable of carrying an entire movie.

The Indian and central Asian scenes are done surprisingly well and look quite impressive. They even have proper Bactrian camels. These scenes are the highlight of the movie.

Behind That Curtain is included as an extra in the third of the Fox Charlie Chan boxed sets. While Fox spent a fortune restoring the other Chan movies (with generally excellent results) they don’t seem to have done as much on this film, or perhaps the surviving print was simply in much poorer shape. Both image and sound quality are quite acceptable.

Behind That Curtain is played more as romantic melodrama than mystery. There’s not really a great deal of actual detective work in this film. It certainly has historical interest and  if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you’ll want to see it for that reason. However it’s much too slow and the lack of an effective mystery plot is a fatal flaw. The fact that Charlie Chan is hardly in the movie at all is also a very definite drawback. On the other hand the boxed set is very much worth buying and since Fox has thrown in this film as an extra you’re not losing very much (except an hour-and-a-half out of your life) by giving it a spin. There’s definitely no way this one would be worth buying on its own.

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