Monday, July 7, 2014

Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

The Charlie Chan films had proved themselves to be consistent money-spinners for 20th Century-Fox through the 1930s. When Warner Oland died after making sixteen Chan movies the studio cast Sidney Toler to replace him. The first of the Toler Chan movies, Charlie Chan in Honolulu, is a rather uncertain effort. The second Toler outing, Charlie Chan in Reno, is a much more confident production. Toler seems much more comfortable in the role and Norman Foster, a very reliable B-movie director, keeps a film grip on things.

Reno was known at the time as the divorce capital of America. Divorce was a very major industry in Reno. The six weeks’ residency requirement to obtain a divorce made the industry profitable for hotel owners as well as lawyers. In fact just about everyone in Reno, directly or indirectly, made money out of the divorce industry. This makes Reno the perfect setting for a murder mystery with ample opportunities for jealousy to provide the necessary motive. People not only went to Reno to get divorced; they also got remarried there. This provides yet more possible motives for murder, angles which are exploited fairly well by the screenplay by Frances Hyland, Robert E. Kent and Albert Ray.

Mary Whitman (Pauline Moore) is one of the thousands of women who journey to Reno to get divorced. At the Hotel Sierra she has a rather unfortunate encounter with Jeanne Bently. Mrs Bently is about to marry the man Mary Whitman is divorcing and as you might expect their meeting is not exactly amicable. This is particularly unfortunate as later that night Mrs Bently is found murdered, with Mrs Whitman standing over the body. Mrs Whitman is arrested although the police case against her is extremely weak.

Both Mrs Whitman and her husband are from Honululu and they count Detective-Lieutenant Charlie Chan as a close friend. Even though they were about to be divorced Curtis Whitman (Kane Richmond) is convinced of Mary’s innocence. Charlie Chan has his doubts as to whether any man can ever predict what a woman might or might not do but he is willing to fly to Reno to see what he can do.

The plot is quite convoluted with a couple of sub-plots that serve mostly to muddy the waters even further. Charlie Chan is however equal to the challenge. He has Number Two Son (Victor Sen Young) to assist him, although whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage is open to debate. 

The perennial curse of B-movies of this period is the irritating and unnecessary comic relief elements the studio insisted on including. This movie is afflicted with no less than three characters providing comic relief - Number Two Son already mentioned, a gruff hay-seed sheriff and a loquacious taxi-driver. They’re none of them especially funny but they’re not quite awful enough to wreck the movie.

Ricardo Cortez is the standout among the supporting players, as a smooth society doctor type who may have quite a few things to hide. The other members of the supporting cast are adequate enough.

What makes a Charlie Chan movie worth watching is Charlie Chan. Sidney Toler is a rather different Chan compared to Warner Oland - he lacks Oland’s warmth but he adds a much sharper edge to the character. Toler is actually much closer to the character originally created by Earl Derr Biggers. I like Toler’s performance as Chan and for me he’s more than enough reason to watch and enjoy this movie.

The Reno setting is well utilised, with its blending of glamour, sin and despair. There’s also an amusing side episode in a nearby ghost town. 

This movie is one of four in Fox’s Charlie Chan Volume 4 boxed set. The transfer is extremely good. The extras are a bit of a mixed bunch although the mini-documentary on Reno in the 30s is quite interesting.

This movie sees Sidney Toler settling in nicely as Chan. He would eventually play the role in no less than twenty-two films, eleven for Fox and eleven for Monogram (when Fox stopped making the Chan movies Toler bought the rights to the character himself and persuaded Monogram to continue the series). Charlie Chan in Reno is a good solid B-mystery and is highly recommended to fans of such movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment