Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Ann Vickers (1933)

Ann Vickers is a 1933 RKO melodrama directed by John Cromwell.

It was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis was a big deal in the literary scene at that time although he is now forgotten.

Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) is a social worker. She has been involved in every fashionable cause that’s going but she’s always looking for new causes.

Ann has devoted herself to her career as a reformer. The First World War has broken out and she meets a handsome young officer. She imagines that he’s in love with her and will marry her but he finds a woman who is younger and cuter. By this time Ann is pregnant.

She solves that problem by having an abortion. At least we assume she has an abortion - the movie is a little vague on that subject. It probably had to be vague to avoid igniting a firestorm of outrage.

She has by now found a new fashionable cause - prison reform. She throws herself into it with her usual zeal. She ends up running a reformatory for women. She has setbacks. She is set up for blackmail and forced to resign. She then writes a best-selling book on prison reform and becomes a celebrity.

Then she meets Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston). He’s corrupt but she doesn’t mind that as long as his political views are aligned with hers. They fall in love and she has a son by him, out of wedlock. She gets fired yet again.

And Barney Dolphin’s crooked business dealings are about to catch up with him.

There’s lots of obvious pre-code material here - the lead character has (probably) an abortion and later becomes a single mother.

The problem is that this is a social message movie and it bludgeons us relentlessly with that message. Jane Murfin’s clumsy heavy-handed script doesn’t help. This is a movie totally lacking in any trace of subtlety.

John Cromwell manages to do something rather amazing in this movie - he gets a bad performance out of Walter Huston.

Edna May Oliver contributes an annoying performance as Ann’s friend and mentor Malvina Wormser.

The other supporting players and dull and wooden.

The biggest problem is the central character. Ann Vickers is smug and self-righteous and she’s a hypocrite. She poses as a moral crusader but is quite prepared to use her political influence to try to get her crooked boyfriend out of a jam. Irene Dunne’s performance is dull and earnest. It is impossible to care what happens to Ann Vickers. The character never comes to life.

It’s a bad sign when a movie with a modest 76-minute running time feels much too long.

The movie tries to combine preachiness with emotional melodrama but the preachiness is clumsy and the emotional melodrama feels contrived and falls flat. Irene Dunne never gets any kind of handle on her performance. She displays neither genuine emotion nor passion. She just reads her lines. The movie might have worked slightly better with a livelier lead actress but I suspect this film was doomed from the start. I’d avoid this one.

This film is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is far from pristine but it’s acceptable.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Thirteen Women (1932)

Thirteen Women is a 1932 RKO pre-code movie which straddles the crime melodrama and horror genres.

It was based on a book by Tiffany Thayer and he’s an interesting figure (and yes despite the name he was a man). He was a founding member of the Fortean Society and edited their newsletter for many years. Thayer therefore had an active interest in the strange, the unexplained, the occult and the paranormal. Those interests come through very strongly in this movie.

Twelve women who were once schoolgirls at the St Alban’s School for Girls in San Francisco receive warnings in the mail. An Indian mystic, Swami Yogadachi (C. Henry Gordon), has cast their horoscopes. He has foretold disaster for all of them.

The Swami has foretold disaster for himself as well. But were the letters that were sent to those twelve women sent by the Swami, or by his assistant, the beautiful and glamorous Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)? What motive could Ursula have?

The swami’s predictions begin to come true. Disaster does befall three of the women, in puzzling circumstances.

Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) has by far the strongest personality of the twelve women. She decides that she will have to take charge and persuade the others that the only dangers they face are in their own minds. It is their own fears that threaten them.

Ursula had also been a pupil at the St Alban’s school. She is half-Indian and as a result she was given a very hard time by those other twelve girls. She has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

The combination of threatening letters and three slightly mysterious deaths has attracted the attention of the police. Detective Sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez) is assigned to the case. The three deaths were all suicides. There was absolutely no doubt about that. But Sergeant Clive suspects that something sinister was behind those suicides. His job is to find out what is really going on, and to make sure there are no more odd suicides. Laura Stanhope’s main concern is for her little son Bobby.

This movie does confront the issue of racial prejudice and it does so in an intelligent and sensitive way. It is best not to get distracted by the fact that it does not approach the issue the way it would be approached today. Western attitudes in the 1930s towards Asia, Asians, Asian society and culture and Asian belief systems were complex and varied. Ursula is certainly portrayed as a dangerous exotic beauty but she has some nuance. She has comprehensible motives for her actions.

Irene Dunne gets star billing but she also gets the thankless sensible good girl role. She is totally overshadowed by Myrna Loy who gets the juicy sexy bad girl role (and in 1932 no-one could top Myrna Loy in that kind of part). Ursula Georgi is in fact the central character, she entirely dominates the movie and Myrna Loy is the real star. And she’s fabulous.

The most interesting question to be confronted is whether there is actually anything occult or paranormal going on. There are hints that perhaps there might be. This is essentially a murder mystery but those hints are just enough to give the film some affinity with the horror genre.

Sadly Thirteen Women in its original form is a lost film. In 1932 it was hacked to pieces by the studio. The running time was slashed from 73 minutes to 59 minutes. The cut footage was destroyed. Since this happened in 1932 it seems most likely that the studio lost faith in the film’s commercial viability as an A-picture and butchered it for release as the bottom half of a double bill. In its surviving form it’s quite coherent but seems a bit rushed.

Thirteen Women doesn’t have any overt pre-code content but it is rather pre-code in its refusal to fit neatly inside genre boundaries and it does have a lurid vibe. It’s slightly offbeat and thoroughly enjoyable. Myrna Loy’s performance is enough to qualify it for a highly recommended rating.

This film is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is not great but it’s acceptable. That’s where my copy came from but it has also been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Murder Over New York (1940)

Murder Over New York is a 1940 entry in 20th Century-Fox’s incredibly prolific Charlie Chan B-movie cycle.

I watched this one immediately after watching Charlie Chan at the Opera (made four years earlier). I wanted to watch a Warner Oland and a Sidney Toler Chan movie back-to-back. I’ve always had a preference for Sidney Toler in the role and watching these two movies confirmed my view that Sidney Toler was a much better Charlie Chan. He’s just slightly harder-edged. Chan after all is not a gentleman amateur detective. He’s a cop. I can buy Sidney Toler’s Chan as a policeman in a way that I can never quite buy Warner Oland’s version. And Warner Oland tries a bit too hard to make Chan too likeable.

Murder Over New York
involves spies and sabotage but those elements are really just there to give the movie a topical flavour, and to justify some aviation action. The plot is mostly just a standard murder mystery tale.

Inspector Drake of Scotland Yard is now working for British Military Intelligence. He and Charlie are old friends. Drake is investigating a sabotage ring, and more precisely he is investigating the sabotage of a new bomber prototype. 

When Drake is murdered Chan naturally is determined to be involved in the case. Number Two Son is also determined to be involved, whether Charlie likes it or not.

There will be more murders, and the murder methods involve poisons and poison gases.

There’s an array of possible suspects but the prime suspect is nowhere to be found. He’s a notorious spy named Paul Narvo and Drake was on his trail but even Narvo’s ex-wife has no idea where he is.

There’s some gee-whizz technical stuff, with detailed explanations of the equipment used to send photographic images over long distances and there’s a secret chemical laboratory that plays a part in the story. There’s another high-tech element but I can’t mention it without revealing a major spoiler.

There’s a tense climax aboard the second new bomber prototype, with Charlie (as so often) setting a trap for the killer.

At least it’s supposed to be a bomber prototype but it’s clearly a civil aircraft, in fact I’m fairly sure it’s a Lockheed 12 airliner. I guess they figured that the audience at the time wouldn’t notice or care. And really it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we get suspense and terror in the air and that’s always fun.

The plot is quite serviceable with the usual red herrings.

There’s some humour but it’s not too intrusive.

The supporting cast is solid. Look out for Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges in a bit part as a phoney Hindu fakir. I enjoyed Charlie’s gentle affectionate mockery of Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung). And as I mentioned earlier I really enjoy Sidney Toler as Chan.

Director Harry Lachman does a good job and keeps things moving along.

Mostly this movie follows the established formula but it’s entertaining and it’s highly recommended.

This movie is included in Fox’s Charlie Chan volume 5 DVD boxed set. The transfer is very good.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Bachelor Apartment (1931)

Bachelor Apartment is a 1931 RKO pre-code comedy that deserves more attention than it gets. In fact it doesn’t get any attention and that’s a pity.

Lowell Sherman stars and he directed the movie as well. He shares top billing with Irene Dunne.

Sherman plays rich New York playboy stockbroker Wayne Carter who has a problem. There are just too many women in his life. It’s not that he doesn’t like women. He likes them a lot. But he can only deal with so many at once. He certainly can’t deal with four women all at the same time.

He’s having a particular problem with Mrs Agatha Carraway (Mae Murray). They had had a steamy affair before her marriage to Wayne’s buddy Herb. Now Agatha wants to resume the affair but Wayne really isn’t interested at all. Unfortunately it is almost impossible for a man to convince Agatha that he isn’t interested in her.

There’s also Janet (Noel Francis). Wayne picked her up in a traffic accident. Janet is a lot of fun. Janet likes men a great deal. She’s a sweet girl but she will end up being something of an inconvenience. As far as Wayne is concerned they were ships that passed in the night but this ship keeps steaming back into port at the most inopportune moments.

Helene Andrews (Irene Dunne) and her sister Lita (Claudia Dell) are out of work and living in a seedy apartment. Lita is considering becoming a bad girl because bad girls get lots of nice things and she likes nice things. Helene would never consider doing such a thing. Helene has never had any trouble defending her own virtue. Her virtue is as well defended as Fort Knox. But now she has to defend Lita’s virtue as well.

As soon as Helene meets Wayne she disapproves of him. Wayne is however fascinated. A good girl is something totally out of his previous experience. He persuades her to accept a job as his executive secretary.

Wayne is now considering a major lifestyle change. He intends to give up his wicked ways and settle down with a nice girl and the nice girl he has in mind is Helene.

As you would expect lots of complications follow, with gun-wielding irate husbands and romantic misunderstandings and women suddenly popping up in bedrooms where they’re not supposed to be.

Irene Dunne gets the thankless good girl role but handles it reasonably well. Helene is supposed to be a bit prissy.

Not everybody likes Lowell Sherman in this movie but I thought his low-key performance was spot on. Wayne Carter is supposed to be a man who is cynical and a dissolute and at the same time bored and weary of his cynical dissolute lifestyle and I think Sherman nails the character perfectly.

Mae Murray had been a big star in the silent era but talkies killed her career stone dead. It’s not hard to see why. Her performance here is histrionic and affected and she is either putting on a ridiculously shrill voice or she simply has an unfortunate voice. Having said that I don’t mind her in this film - this is essentially a bedroom farce and so being outrageously over-the-top isn’t too much of a problem.

Claudia Dell has a more rewarding part as Helene’s sister Lita. Noel Francis is fun as Janet.

There’s plenty of mild pre-code naughtiness here. What would have landed this film in trouble with the Production Code after 1934 is its rather frivolous attitude towards illicit sex and its assumption that having illicit sex doesn’t make either a man or a woman a dangerous menace to society.

This is a breezy bedroom farce and it’s genuinely amusing and charming. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I especially enjoyed Lowell Sherman’s performance. Highly recommended.

This film is part of the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is not great but it’s acceptable.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Phantom of Chinatown was the sixth and last of the Mr Wong crime B-movies made by Monogram Pictures between 1938 and 1940 (although the print credits this one to Monarch Films).

The five earlier movies all starred Boris Karloff as Mr Wong and all were directed by William Nigh. For this sixth movie Phil Rosen took over as director. Keye Luke took over the role of Mr Wong and this was a significant change. Karloff’s Mr Wong was an avuncular middle-aged English-educated Chinese gentleman. Keye Luke’s Mr Wong is a much younger man (Keye Luke was seventeen years younger than Karloff) and he’s very Americanised. This is a totally different Mr Wong. And there’s a change in tone - this movie begins with some touches of both horror and adventure as an archaeological expedition searches for fabulous treasures in a lost tomb in Mongolia. The tomb is reputed to be protected by a curse.

In the earlier movies everyone calls Mr Wong Mr Wong. In this movie people call him Jimmy (Mr Wong is James Lee Wong). In this movie he seems to be strictly an amateur detective.

Captain Street of the Homicide Squad appears in all the earlier movies but in this movie he and Mr Wong have never met before. One explanation is that this movie is a sort of origin story, showing us Jimmy Wong at the start of his career as a detective.

Today we would describe these changes as representing nothing less than an attempt at a reboot of the franchise.

Sadly the attempt failed. Keye Luke was a fine actor but he lacked Karloff’s huge box-office drawing power and distributors were not interested in Mr Wong movies without Karloff.

Phantom of Chinatown
begins with an audience listening to a lecture from Dr Benton, the leader of the expedition that had sought to find the Temple of the Eternal Flame in Mongolia. Dr Benton suddenly keels over in the middle of the lecture, dead. And it was murder. He was poisoned.

Jimmy Wong, who been one of Dr Benton’s students, is on the scene.

Jimmy spots a couple of clues that the police have missed. Captain Street decides to bring Jimmy in on the case.

During his lecture Dr Benton had shown film footage shot during the expedition and Jimmy Wong suspects that there’s a clue in that film.

The story is quite good but I found the ending to be just a bit of a letdown.

Grant Withers once again plays Captain Street of the Homicide Squad but he’s a very different character to the one we saw in the previous movie. He’s much more easy-going and much less hardbitten.

Casting a relatively unknown Chinese male lead was a commercial risk and just as risky was the decision to have an Asian female lead. Lotus Long plays Dr Benton’s Chinese secretary although the actress was in fact half-Japanese and half-Hawaiian. She’s OK but her performance is just a little flat.

Once you get past the fact that this is not the Mr Wong of the earlier films Keye Luke’s performance is pretty good.

VCI’s Mr Wong Collection offers all six movies on two DVDs. Phantom of Chinatown gets a pretty decent transfer.

Phantom of Chinatown is lightweight but quite enjoyable although Karloff’s star power is sorely missed. Recommended.

I’ve reviewed the Mr Wong short story collection by Hugh Wiley, Murder by the Dozen. I’ve also reviewed most of the earlier Mr Wong movies - Mr Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr Wong (1939), Mr Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (AKA Mr Wong at Headquarters, 1940).

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Treasure of the Silver Lake (1962)

Karl May became a pop culture phenomenon in Germany in the late 19th century and is best remembered for his westerns. When he started writing westerns May had never set foot in North America. His books deal not with the Wild West of reality or even with the Wild West of the American imagination, but with the Wild West of the German imagination. I think that’s cool and interesting.

I also like the fact that The Treasure of the Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silbersee), the first movie in Rialto’s very successful 1960s Karl May film franchise, was made by a German director, written by a German screenwriter and shot on location in what is now Croatia. This is a western with practically no American connection whatsoever. So again it’s the Wild West of the German imagination.

Karl May’s westerns deal most famously with the friendship between a German immigrant trapper known as Old Shatterhand and an Apache chief, Winnetou.

I’ve only read one of Karl May’s westerns and I have to say it was heavy going. The Treasure of the Silver Lake is much much better. It’s much less stodgy. In fact it isn’t really stodgy at all.

The Old Shatterhand of the novels is a very devout Christian and that aspect gets a lot of emphasis. The film makes no mention at all of religion. The film also dispenses with the slight mystical overtones of the books.

The movie begins with a gang of bandits holding up a stagecoach. The gang is led by a man known as the Colonel and he’s played by Herbert Lom. Herbert Lom as the chief villain is a promising start. The bandits don’t appear to have stolen anything but they did kill a man named Engel. Their reasons for staging the holdup become clear later - the Colonel wanted a map in Engel’s possession. It’s actually half of a map. The map shows the location of the famous fabulous treasure hidden somewhere in the vicinity of the Silver Lake.

Engel’s son Fred (Götz George) wants to avenge his father’s death single-handedly. Old Shatterhand, famous for his wisdom and honesty and courage, persuades him that he will need help. Old Shatterhand will provide that help.

Fred, Old Shatterhand, Old Shatterhand’s blood brother Winnetou (Pierre Brice) and a few trusted friends set off to hunt down the Colonel’s gang.

The Colonel is now after the other half of the map, in the possession of a man named Patterson and hidden at Butler’s Farm. He will stop at nothing to obtain it. For no particular reason he slaughters an entire village of Utes. The Utes blame Old Shatterhand, so now Old Shatterhand and his friends are the hunted as well as the hunters.

Lots of action follows including some full-scale battle scenes, among which are an all-out assault by about a hundred of the Colonel’s bandits on the heavily fortified Butler’s Farm. Our heroes encounter other hazards, they are put on trial by the chief of the Ute people, there are more battles. The Colonel holds Patterson’s beautiful daughter Ellen (Karin Dor) hostage, which upsets Fred since Ellen is his lady love. There are narrow escapes from danger.

It becomes a race to find the treasure.

This movie does not have the feel of a Hollywood western, nor does it feel like a spaghetti western. It’s a genre on its own (I have heard the term sauerkraut western used). To me it feels more like an old-fashioned adventure movie than a western. It’s closer in feel to movies like King Solomon’s Mines than to a conventional western.

Lex Barker is reasonably good as Old Shatterhand. Casting Herbert Lom as an outlaw gang leader in a western was nothing if not interesting. Karin Dor is very good, as she usually was. I liked Götz George as the brave well-meaning but over-impulsive Fred.

Eddi Arent provides comic relief as a pith-helmeted big game hunter. The game he is hunting is - butterflies!

This is a very impressive movie visually. If the objective was to prove that a German studio could match Hollywood when it came to spectacle then that objective was certainly achieved.

A fairly entertaining adventure saga. Recommended.

The German Tobis DVD (part of a Karl May boxed set) provides a superb anamorphic transfer. Options are provided to watch The Treasure of the Silver Lake in English or in German with English subtitles.

I’ve reviewed the first of Karl May’s Winnetou novels, Winnetou I.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

This Man Is Mine (1934)

This Man Is Mine is a 1934 pre-code RKO melodrama with an impressive cast headed by Irene Dunne.

It actually belongs to a distinctively pre-code genre - the comedy melodrama.

Jim and Tony Dunlap (Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne) are very happily married. There are no clouds on their horizon until Fran (Constance Cummings) arrives back in town. Six years earlier Fran walked out on Jim just as they were about to get married. She married another man. Jim was devastated at the time. There was also a scandal. Scandal seems to follow Fran around.

Now Fran has divorced her husband. Jim isn’t worried. He’s over Fran by now. At least he’s sure he’s over her.

As soon as we meet Fran we know she’s a schemer and she’s trouble. She starts scheming right away.

What upsets Fran is that Jim, rather than falling apart after she dumped him at the altar, got over her and then got happily married. That offends Fran. Men are not supposed to get over her. She doesn’t want to win Jim back, she just wants to prove that she could do so if she chose. And she wants Tony to know that she could steal her husband without any difficulty.

Tony’s best friend Bee (Kay Johnson) does her best to frustrate Fran’s plans but Fran is unstoppable when she decides to enslave a man. Poor Jim doesn’t stand a chance, and the sap really thinks that Fran loves him.

Tony doesn’t really know how to deal with the situation. She’s too proud to take drastic steps. Jim is increasingly under Fran’s spell and matters come to a head at a party.

It’s not uncommon for a movie to start out as a comedy and then slowly become more and more of a melodrama. This film starts out as a melodrama and becomes more and more of a sophisticated sex comedy.

It’s definitely pre-code, with adultery being dealt with very openly.

One thing I love about pre-code movies is that the endings were less predictable. Once the Production Code was introduced such a movie could only end one way, with the adulterers suffering horrific punishment (preferably death for the adulteress). In the pre-code era people who broke the moral laws might well get away scot-free.

Ralph Bellamy is very good as the hapless Jim but this movie belongs to the women. Irene Dunne is good but she has the least fun role. Constance Cummings makes an absolutely wonderful sexy scheming bad girl. Kay Johnson is terrific as the cynical but realistic Bee.

Once the comedy really starts to kick in this is a very amusing movie. This is sophisticated pre-code humour at its best. Not as naughty as some pre-code films, but it has a cynical tone that would not have been permitted under the Code.

John Cromwell, who went on to a pretty distinguished career, directed.

Of course, this being 1934, the women get to wear fabulous gowns.

This Man Is Mine is one of those pre-code movies that seems to have continued to languish in obscurity even during the revival of interest in pre-code cinema a few years back. That’s unfair. It’s a rather delightful movie. Highly recommended.

This movie is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Irene Dunne Pre-Code DVD boxed set, in English as well as Spanish. The transfer is very good.

Monday, February 5, 2024

The Life of Vergie Winters (1934)

The Life of Vergie Winters is a 1934 pre-code RKO melodrama and it’s a bit of a tearjerker. And it’s certainly very pre-code.

The story begins in 1912 in the small American town of Parkville. It’s a town that thrives on gossip.

There’s a prologue, with a funeral and a woman in prison although we have not the slightest idea what could have led up to this.

And the story proper begins with a romance that has unfortunate complications. Aspiring politician John Shadwell (John Boles) is all set to marry milliner Vergie Winters (Ann Harding) until some very unpleasant people put a spanner in the works. A rich man who wants his own daughter to marry Laura (Helen Vinson) to marry Shadwell bribes Vergie’s father to tell Shadwell a scandalous lie, that Vergie will have to marry young Hugo McQueen (Lon Chaney Jr.) because he’s managed to get Vergie pregnant. In fact Vergie is not and never was pregnant and has never had any involvement all all with Hugo.

But Shadwell believes the lie and breaks the engagement to Vergie. An up-and-coming politician could not possibly marry such a scandalous woman. Shadwell heads off to Washington and what promises to be a glittering political career.

All this has happened before the real story gets going. That story kicks in when Shadwell, on an electioneering visit to Parkville, finds out what a horrible mistake he has made. He is now married to Laura, a woman he does not love. He has lost the chance of marrying the woman he really loves, Vergie, and all because he believed a terrible lie and never thought at the time to find out if there was any truth in the accusation. Now Shadwell and Vergie are doomed to unhappiness.

They are not however prepared to accept this unhappiness. They begin a clandestine affair, an affair that lasts for twenty years. And Vergie has his child, a daughter.

In outrageous melodrama style Shadwell persuades his wife that they should adopt this child as their own. Of course he isn’t crazy enough to tell Laura that the child is his, and Vergie’s. He spins her a story about the child’s parentage which she accepts.

Of course you’re not going to be able to appreciate this movie unless you accept that it takes place in a very different society, a society in which divorce was a career-ending scandal for a politician and in which adultery was slightly more shameful than murder. If you don’t accept this then you’re just not going to understand why Shadwell and Vergie are prepared to go on with their clandestine affair, a love that they must keep forever hidden.

That secret affair is enough for Shadwell and Vergie but there were a couple of things they had overlooked. One was the sheer viciousness of the gossip-ridden town of Parkville. The second was that Laura is both intelligent and suspicious. Keeping a clandestine affair clandestine is not necessarily something that can be done indefinitely.

The ending is perhaps rather contrived but melodrama has its own genre conventions and contrived endings that would never be acceptable in other genres are quite acceptable in melodrama. I think the ending works satisfactorily enough.

There’s plenty of emotional suffering in this movie but there is an extraordinary love that makes such suffering bearable.

Ann Harding is OK as Vergie although she is just a tad on the insipid side. John Boles is convincing as the ambitious politician. The script doesn’t do Helen Vinson any favours - it isn’t easy to make Laura sympathetic but we do at least understand her motivations.

The Life of Vergie Winters is a reasonably entertaining melodrama and it’s worth a look.

This movie is included in the five-movie Spanish Verdice Pre-Code RKO Volume 1 DVD boxed sets. All five films are in English with removable Spanish subtitles and the transfer are fine. From this set I’ve previously reviewed State’s Attorney (1932), The Common Law (1931), Kept Husbands (1931) and Lonely Wives (1931). All these films are worth seeing. The set is still in print and it’s very much worth grabbing.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

Charlie Chan at the Opera is a 1936 entry in 20th Century-Fox’s Charlie Chan B-movie series. At this point Chan was still being played by Warner Oland. The big selling point for this one was having Boris Karloff (a huge star in 1936) heading the guest cast.

Charlie Chan is supposed to be a Honolulu cop but in the many Chan movies he spends almost no time in Hawaii. He investigates cases in a wide variety of exotic locales (all created in the studio of course) and for a while in the mid-30s his cases had extremely interesting settings (circuses, race tracks, etc). In this film it’s murder at the opera, in San Francisco.

Personally I just adore murder mysterious in theatrical or similar settings (such as film studios). Murder in an opera house - that’s right up my alley.

We start with a maniac (you won’t be surprised to know he’s played by Karloff) escaping from a lunatic asylum. He’s suffering from amnesia and nobody has ever figured out his identity. He spends most of his time singing and he’s obviously a trained singer, and obviously operatically trained.

Charlie Chan’s assistance is requested when a threat is made on the life of a famed soprano, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving).

No murder has yet been committed but it soon becomes clear that there are romantic triangles and professional jealousies in the opera company that could very easily lead to murder.

Of course they do lead to murder. Two murders in fact.

Several suspicious characters have been hanging around the opera house and one of them is suspected of being the escaped maniac. Naturally the police make the perfectly logical assumption that the maniac is the murderer, and the evidence points that way.

Chan’s son Lee (Keye Luke) goes undercover as an extra in the latest opera production. As usual he does dig up some clues, and as usual he fails to draw the right conclusions.

The plot is pretty solid with several plausible suspects, all with convincing motives. Charlie eventually comes up with a risky plan to bring the murderer into the open.

Warner Oland is his usual self but it’s no surprise that Karloff totally and effortlessly steals the picture. This role allows Karloff to play to his strengths as an actor, particularly his ability to switch seamlessly from being kindly and sympathetic to being menacing and obsessed. It’s actually a pretty decent somewhat ambiguous role.

The opera house setting is used skilfully and director H. Bruce Humberstone does a competent job.

This movie does have some very slight hints of horror, with horror icon Karloff playing a madman. And the opera house setting gives it a slight Phantom of the Opera vibe.

So this is a Charlie Chan movie with a subtly different flavour. It’s a B-movie with no pretensions to being anything more than that but it’s pretty enjoyable. The Chan movies varied widely in quality but this one is quite satisfying. Karloff’s presence bumps this one up into the highly recommended category.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is included in Fox’s Charlie Chan volume 2 DVD boxed set and it gets a very nice transfer with a few extras thrown in.

I’ve reviewed lots of other Charlie Chan movies including Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) and Charlie Chan in Reno (1939).