Made by the Fox Film Corporation in 1931 The Black Camel is apparently the earliest of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies to survive (although it’s not the earliest surviving Charlie Chan movie). It’s also interesting as being one of the few Charlie Chan films to be set in the famous detective’s home town, Honolulu, and one of the few in which we get to see Charlie’s entire family.
Movie star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) is in Hawaii to shoot a picture. She’s also just about to marry the rich and handsome Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr). She hasn’t actually said yes to him yet - first she has to consult her psychic advisor Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi). There may be a reason why she can’t marry her young man.
Also on the island at this time is Shelah’s first husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi). She’s arranged to meet him, for reasons unknown.
Shelah’s friend Julie (Sally Eilers) seems to have some idea as to the reason Shelah may not be able to marry Alan Jaynes). She knows that Shelah has a secret from the past.
Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police is already on the scene. He’s also interested in events in the past but soon he’s going to be distracted by events in the present when a murder takes place.
Apart from the characters already mentioned there are several other possible suspects including a down-and-out artist, a sinister butler, a mysterious maid and a couple of pompous movie people.
Yet another unusual feature of this movie is that it’s based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ actual Charlie Chan novels (although I have no idea how much resemblance it has to the novel apart from the title). It’s a decent moderately complicated murder mystery plot with a few good twists.
I’m rather fond of mystery plots involving show business or the world of movies and this one has the nice combination of Hollywood glamour (and a little decadence) with the exotic location.
This is of course the Honolulu of 1931, still a true unspoilt tropical paradise, a far cry from the Honolulu of today. And there’s actual location footage, actually shot in Hawaii.
This was in fact a more expensive and more ambitious film than the later Chan films made after Fox became part of 20th Century-Fox. It’s also visually quite impressive overall, with the fortune-telling scene between Tarneverro and Shelah being very moody and very atmospheric.
Warner Oland had already played Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On (one of several Chan movies that are tragically now lost). While I’m quite fond of the Sidney Toler Chan films it has to be admitted that Oland is overall the best of the many actors to play the great Chinese detective. In general Toler’s slightly harder-edged performance is perhaps closer to the Chan of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels so it’s interesting that in this film Oland gives us a Chan who is spikier and more forceful and more cop-like compared to his performances in later movies in the series.
Of course there has to be some comic relief and it comes in the form of Charlie’s Japanese side-kick Kashimo (Otto Kamaoka), an insanely energetic and enthusiastic if not overly competent Honolulu PD junior detective. The good news is that he’s actually funny. It’s a performance you could never get away with today, but then you could never get away with making the Charlie Chan movies today either.
The supporting cast is solid with Robert Young as Julie’s boyfriend Jimmy being marginally less hyperactive than usual.
Bela Lugosi is perfectly cast as the enigmatic psychic Tarneverro. It’s a fairly restrained performance by Lugosi but a very effective one.
20th Century-Fox spent a lot of money restoring the Chan films for their DVD boxed set releases and it was money well spent. The Black Camel looks pretty good. There are a number of extras including an audio commentary track with film critic Ken Hanke and film historian John Cork.
The Black Camel is fine B-movie entertainment with the added bonus of a slight hint (a very slight hint) of the supernatural. In fact it’s definitely one of the very best of the Chan movies. And you get Bela Lugosi as well. Very highly recommended.