Friday, September 6, 2013
Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)
The Charlie Chan movies were immensely profitable and played a major role in keeping Fox afloat in the 30s and in general they’re among the most entertaining B-features of that era. Earl Derr Biggers only wrote a handful of novels featuring the character so by the time this movie was made they were having to rely on original screenplays (in this instance by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan) rather than adaptations of the novels. The movies have a slightly different feel compared to the books but both the books and the movies are highly entertaining.
Charlie Chan is in Egypt on behalf of a French museum that has been funding the archaeological excavations of a Dr Arnold. All artifacts found by the expedition were supposed to go to the museum but some pieces have been turning up in rival museums and private collections. Dr Arnold has now disappeared. He had set off in search of another tomb but he hasn’t been heard from and his daughter Carol (Pat Paterson) is starting to get concerned. Professor John Thurston (Frank Conroy) is temporarily in charge while Dr arnold is absent and he assures Charlie that no artifacts could possibly have gone missing - the ones that have turned up in other collections must be fakes. Charlie is far from convinced.
I’m very fond of movies dealing with Egypt, and particularly movies dealing with archaeological expeditions. The tomb scenes were most likely left over from earlier A-pictures, this being a fairly standard practice with B-movies of the 30s and 40s. They look reasonably impressive and they offer opportunities for additional thrills with secret passageways and hidden rooms.
Unfortunately for this outing Fox decided to add even more comic relief than usual, and even worse the comic relief was assigned to Stepin Fetchit, an African-American actor who may well be the most irritating actor on the history of motion pictures. With the curse of the mummy claiming so many victims I kept praying that he would be next, but to no avail. I’d have felt immense gratitude to any murderer who could have removed this character from the movie. This ill-advised and excruciatingly unfunny comic relief continues throughout the picture and pretty much destroys any enjoyment of an otherwise quite decent movie.
The politically correct crowd would like us to believe that Charlie Chan’s excessive geniality and politeness, his quoting of Confucius and his slightly mangled English were all examples of wicked racial stereotyping. This is of course utter nonsense. Charlie Chan belongs to the distinguished line of detectives (Columbo being a prime example) whose eccentricities and apparent simpleness serve the purpose of persuading suspects to take him less seriously than they should. Chan has a razor-sharp mind but this is something that murderers usually find out too late.
Director Louis King had a long if not brilliant career. Like most B-movies made by major studios the production values are quite high and in fact the budgets for the early Charlie Chan movies were reasonably generous.
If you can ignore Stepin Fetchit then Charlie Chan in Egypt is an entertaining enough mystery. It’s not one of the best of the Charlie Chan movies but the Egyptian setting adds a touch of the exotic that makes up for some of its other deficiencies.