Friday, September 4, 2015

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, released by 20th Century-Fox in 1939, was the third of the Charlie Chan movies starring Sidney Toler who took over the rĂ´le after the death of Warner Oland. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is usually regarded as being one of the very best of the Chan movies, an opinion I share.

The movie opens on board the famous China Clipper flying boat and any movie that features flying boats has won me over right away. Charlie Chan and Number Two Son Jimmy Chan are flying from Honolulu to San Francisco. Also on board is Charlie’s old friend Paul Essex, a well-known mystery writer. Essex is destined never to reach San Francisco alive.

Essex’s death is initially attributed to heart failure but Charlie’s suspicions are aroused by a mysterious cablegram Essex received shortly before his death. Charlie is sufficiently concerned to put pressure on another old friend, Deputy Police Chief J.J. Kilvaine, to request an autopsy. The autopsy does not prove murder but it certainly points to murder as a possibility.

The cablegram made enigmatic references to the Zodiac. In San Francisco Charlie makes the acquaintance of successful stage magician the Great Rhadini (Cesar Romero) who is an enthusiastic debunker of phony psychics. As it happens Rhadini is particularly keen to expose a psychic known as Dr Zodiac. It seems to Charlie that the Zodiac connection might well be very significant indeed. Dr Zodiac has a large number of clients and this number includes Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), a mind reader protege of Rhadini’s.

Charlie is sure that Paul Essex’s death was linked to a gigantic criminal operation involving fake psychics and blackmail but getting the evidence to prove his theory won’t be so easy.

This movie benefits from a good supporting cast with the standout performer being Cesar Romero as the extravagant and charming Rhadini. 

In my view Sidney Toler was a very worthy successor to Warner Oland and as much as I love Oland’s performances as Charlie Chan I think I slightly prefer Toler who gives Chan a bit more of an edge. Victor Sen Yung not only manages not to be irritating as Jimmy Chan, he’s actually likeable and reasonably amusing without pushing the comic elements too far. He is basically a comic relief character but he’s not allowed to overwhelm the film. In fact in general the comedy elements here are rather downplayed by the standards of Hollywood B-movies of this era, and to me that seems to be a very good thing indeed. What’s even more pleasing is that the comic relief moments that are there are actually funny.

One of the greatest things about the old studio system was that it allowed the studios to make B-pictures on modest budgets but with very high production values. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is a fine example. It never looks cheap or shoddy. The importance of stage illusions and psychic phenomena require some fairly ambitious (by B-picture standards) visual set-pieces and they don’t disappoint.

Norman Foster directed many of the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan movies for Fox and always did a fine job. He does particularly well here. The theatre scenes involving stage magic are very skillfully executed. Foster is a very underrated director who added a definite sense of style and atmosphere to his B-pictures. 

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is one of four films in the Fox’s Charlie Chan Volume 4 boxed set. The transfer is excellent and there are a host of extras. Not many B-pictures are treated with this much respect when it comes to DVD releases and Fox are to be commended for giving this movie the luxury treatment.

I can’t really find any significant flaw in this movie. It has a decent mystery plot set against an interesting background (the 1939 World Exposition on San Francisco's Treasure Island) and fine acting, it’s well-crafted and looks good and it’s fun. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island really is terrific entertainment. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. "Usually regarded as one of the very best of the Chan movies?" Really, now... the mental telepathy angle that remains un-debunked at the end of the story spoils an otherwise logical denouement. Reading other people's minds is pure BS, and the fact that Charlie Chan gives this pseudo-science some credence places an indelible mark against iconic detective's character. I rate it the worst of the two-dozen Chan films I've seen so far...