Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Favourite movies: Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)


Earl Derr Biggers popular fictional detective Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department sprang from the writer's Hawaii vacation and the newsworthy career of local policeman Chang Apana.  Six Chan novels were published between 1925 and 1932.  So popular were the novels that the first, The House Without a Key was filmed in 1926 with Japanese actor George Kuwa playing the detective.  The Chinese Parrot was filmed the following year with Kuwa in the cast as a different character while Sojin Kamiyama played Chan.  E.L. Park was Chan in the first sound adaptation of one of the novels, Behind That Curtain which is a bit of a snorer, of interest only out of curiosity.

Warner Oland
1879 - 1938

Charlie Chan Carries On was directed by Hamilton MacFadden in 1931 and Fox Films fortuitously cast Warner Oland (The Jazz Singer, The Vagabond King, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu) as Charlie Chan.  Sadly, the film was lost to us in a studio fire although the plot was recycled as 1940s Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise.  Other lost films from the Oland series are Charlie Chan's Chance, Charlie Chan's Greatest Case and Charlie Chan's Courage based on The Chinese Parrot.  1931s The Black Camel directed by Hamilton MacFadden on location in Hawaii is the earliest sound Chan available to fans.

In 1934 with Charlie Chan in London the movie mystery series really hits its stride as the Inspector's world class reputation took him to exotic locales matching wits with a variety of international criminals.  1935s Charlie Chan in Paris took another leap forward with the introduction of Keye Luke (The Good Earth, the Dr. Gillespie series, Gremlins, TVs Kung Fu) as number one son, Lee Chan.  Talented and good looking, Luke also had great chemistry and a strong bond with his co-star Warner Oland and their interactions heightened the audience affection for the series.

Warner Oland, Layne Tom Jr., Keye Luke
On set for Charlie Chan at the Olympics

The 1936 Summer Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany from August 1st - 16th.  Adolf Hitler used the Games as a chance to promote his government's ideology of racial supremacy on the world stage.  The world of sports and politics clashed, not for the first or the last time, over the issue of participation in an event hosted by such a divisive nation.  Countries which boycotted the Games included Spain and the Soviet Union.  Arguments included those with blinders who felt politics and sports shouldn't and didn't mix.  The American Jewish Congress saw boycotting as the only viable form of protest.  Many in the African-American press saw participation and winning in the Games Some as a potential triumph over the Nazi party.  Ultimately, the Games were attended by the largest number of delegates since the inception of the modern movement in 1892.

In May of 1937 Twentieth Century Fox released Charlie Chan at the Olympics directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (I Wake Up Screaming, Sun Valley Serenade, Charlie Chan at the Opera).

Warner Oland, Katherine DeMille
Charlie Chan at the Olympics

Honolulu is the testing site for an aerial guidance system that has drawn the attention of various worldwide political factions, friendly and otherwise.  Precautions to preserve security are useless when bribery, blackmail and murder are available tools.  The guidance system is stolen, misdirected blame is placed and murder discovered.  Nine-year-old Layne Tom Jr. makes his first appearance of three in the series as a younger Chan son.  They never did settle on a consistent name for the youngster and here he is referred to as Charlie Jr.  The boisterous kid pops up everywhere in the first part of the movie in the time-honoured series tradition of both pestering and assisting his beloved "Pop".

Charlie Jr.'s favourite suspect in the international caper is Yvonne Roland, the "lady with the fox fur coat", played by Katherine DeMille (The Black Room, Unconquered, Banjo on My Knee), adopted daughter of Cecil B. DeMille.  The attractive Ms. DeMille, who would marry Anthony Quinn in 1937, makes an elegant and obvious woman of intrigue.  Despite Charlie Jr.'s steadfast conviction, there are other suspects in the case.  Chief among them is C. Henry Gordon (The Charge of the Light Brigade, Kongo, Charlie Chan in City in Darkness) as Arthur Hughes, a freelance procurer of contraband.  

Jonathan Hale (Inspector Fernak in the Saint series, Mr. Dithers in the Blondie series) is Mr. Hopkins, president of the company backing the aerial guidance system.  Hughes is his top suspect and he doesn't trust the police methods.  John Eldredge (Meet Corliss Archer) is Cartwright, the inventor behind the system, an easy-going sort who backs up his employer.  With no evidence to hold the suspects on the island, Charlie Chan is once again on the road following his leads all the way to Berlin, site of the Olympic games.

Hawaii's Olympian, Duke Kahanamoku
1890-1968

Where, you are probably asking, is our pal Lee during all of this excitement?  Following in the footsteps of five time Olympian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, holder of gold and silver medals in 1912 at Stockholm, two gold in 1920 at Antwerp, one silver in 1924 in Paris, and member of the water polo team 1932 at Los Angeles, Lee Chan is on the Olympic team as a swimmer.


Keye Luke, Pauline Moore
Charlie Chan at the Olympics

The American Olympic team is on an ocean liner headed to Europe and other passengers include the fashionable Yvonne Roland and the mysterious Arthur Hughes.  Lee's teammates include track and field athletes Betty Adams played by Pauline Moore (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Young Mr. Lincoln) and Richard Masters played by Allan Lane aka Allan "Rocky" Lane (Red Ryder series, voice of TVs Mr. Ed).  Betty and Richard provide the romantic subplot for the picture and are worthy pals for Lee.

Making up for the suspect's head start, Chan, Hopkins and Cartwright make their way to Europe aboard the ill-fated dirigible the Hindenburg whose fiery destruction in New Jersey occurred a mere two weeks prior to the film's release.

In Berlin the athletes find themselves the victims of thefts and under suspicion by the police, represented by Frederick Vogeding (Murder on the Blackboard, Mysterious Mr. Moto, Below the Sea) as Captain Strasser.  Only slightly bull-headed, but largely sympathetic and co-operative, Strasser walks a fine line of deferring to Inspector Chan and upholding the dignity of his office.

Inspector Chan faces one of the most cool and diabolical opponents of his career in diplomat the Honourable Charles Zaraka played by Morgan Wallace (Orphans of the Storm, It's a Gift), a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants.  Zaraka stops at nothing short of kidnapping beloved Lee Chan to stop the Inspector's interfering with his plans.  The torment of this plot turn for our cherished Chans ramps up the emotional connection to this stellar entry in the series.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium, 1936

Along with being a top-notch entry in the series, Charlie Chan at the Olympics also holds our interest for its historical value.  Film of the Hindenburg, airbrushed clean of its swastikas, gives us a glimpse into a way of travel long vanished.  Incorporated into the movie are scenes of ceremony and background at the Berlin games and the triumph of America's gold medal winning athlete Jesse Owens.  Charlie Chan at the Olympics is set amidst a background of political turmoil, contentious ideology and threats of violence at a sporting event that sees itself in a bubble apart from those things surrounding it.  Perhaps that is the celebration that the Games should be, but can never be.  The movie is an entertaining visit to the past with an uncomfortable connection to our present.          


22 comments:

  1. Without a doubt, this is an interesting film! I'm ashamed to say that I've never seen a Charil Chan film, but your love for the series is starting to contaminate me.
    It's curious that I was watching Anthony Quinn's speech at the Golden Globes and he cited his wife, Katherine DeMille. And then I come here and find a picture of her!
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Our classic movie universe seems to be getting smaller. What a fun DeMille connection. "Charlie Chan at the Olympics" is currently available on YouTube. Perhaps you'll get a chance to check it out.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great choice of film for the upcoming Olympic fever! It's maddening that those early Chan/Oland films were lost. Darn those studio fires. Great review and it makes me want to watch this one again ( just saw Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise last night ).

    ReplyDelete
  4. A justly popular film in the series "Charlie Chan at the Olympics" has a lot to recommend it and a lot of fans. I am starting to get excited about the Sochi Games. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for shady looking diplomats and ladies wearing white fox furs.

    "Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise" is one of my faves (Yeah, I know. They're all my faves.) I enjoy the novel "Charlie Chan Carries On" and it's fun to hear all those character names come to life.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent historical background to the movie, CW. I really love Charlie Chan, both Warner Oland and Sidney Toler (I really didn't like Roland Winters at all!) It's funny you are doing this right now -- when I'm sick or depressed, I love to watch Charlie Chan, Karloff's Mr. Wong, and Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. I don't really know why, except that they are well-paced, mysterious, shadowy ... I find them ultimately comforting, like old friends. I just had such a bout last month and gorged myself on all those movies. I loved this article!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Becky. I know what you mean. There's something immensely comforting about spending time with Chans and all of our B mystery favourites. Late at night with a hot chocolate and the cats behaving themselves.

    Here's something for you that I use to tide myself over when I can't get to my Holmes: http://themave.com/vid/holmes.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. How wonderful! My gosh, Basil Rathbone was a gorgeous, striking man! With that face and that voice, I turn to jello. Don't you secretly hope that an actor you like that much is also a good guy in private? Thanks for that great link ... I'm sure I'll go back to it occasionally!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I knew you'd like it! I have heard/read that Rathbone was a fellow with a terrific sense of humour which makes him all the more endearing.

      Delete
  8. Boy, leave it to Charlie Chan to be where the action is! This sounds like one intriguing film - and also one of historical interest. CW - you always bring it on!

    ReplyDelete
  9. The movie is a dandy, FlickChick. It's true that Charlie Chan was everywhere. A true international man of mystery - and a grandfather. Coolest guy ever.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a timely post about one of the most entertaining movies centered around an Olympics! Although I liked Sidney Toler as CC, I always preferred Warner Oland. This was one of his best entries and, as you pointed out so well, the historical significance makes it perhaps the most interesting of all CC pictures.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to know you're a fan, Rick. Warner Oland "is" Charlie Chan. However, Toler & Yung give us a lot of fun as the Chans and I'm glad they continued the series.

      Delete
  11. This does sound like an intriguing film from a historical aspect. I'm glad to hear it's on YouTube – it would be a good one to watch during the Olympics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The movie would be a dandy run-up to the Games in Sochi. I hope you can find the time to squeeze it in. It runs about 70 minutes.

      Delete
  12. I love this movie. It's such fun, and so was your post. The historical framework and the way it reads like current events is irresistible. We have a reverence for movies that are called "timeless", but I think I prefer films that are embedded in their own time. The have more to impart.

    ReplyDelete
  13. True. Something like this movie are the closest thing we have to a time machine.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Not one of my favorite Chans, alas, though I've seen it several times. Such is the power of Chan. I do think its a little silly to have Lee on the Olympic team, and the Games themselves are somewhat peripheral to the action. But still an entertaining mystery and I'll watch C. Henry Gordon in anything. He died far too young. Any Chan is better than no Chan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My sentimental attachment to the movie is strong. Lee was kidnapped! My agony was acute when I was 12 and I've never gotten over it.

      I agree that "Any Chan is better than no Chan" and anything with C. Henry Gordon is always better than anything without C. Henry Gordon. Many aspire to his cool suavity, but few attain his level.

      Delete
  15. I caught this one last year, and it's probably one of the more enjoyable of the Oland outings since it gets to play around so much with then-current events. Excellent review with some nice details; thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Danny. Glad you stopped by.

      I enjoy the idea that Inspector Chan can go between international espionage and the more straight-forward crime plots. He's one busy grampa!

      Delete
  16. CW,
    Very interesting! Of course any Chan film is and if I didn't agree I would be disinherited but with that said. So interesting due to the era and historical events that took place.

    I finally watched Der Untergang last night and once I finished watching it I went over to Wiki to read more about certain figures portrayed. Eventually I ended up reading about the swastika, the Iron Cross Medal etc and their origins. Interesting and appropriate that all signs of Nazism were erased from this film.

    I'll have to ask my mother her thoughts on this one then let you know what she says.

    Always glad to see you writing about Charlie, knowing your passions. : )
    All the best!
    Page

    ReplyDelete
  17. My, you certainly had an intense viewing last night. The history is endlessly fascinating from all aspects.

    The studio did not skimp on the Chan features and I think that's one of the reasons the pictures are so entertaining to this day. Look forward to hearing about your mom's impressions. Be checking with you later.

    ReplyDelete