Charlie Chan in London (1934)

*. This was the sixth Charlie Chan movie to be made by Fox starring Warner Oland as Chan, but only the second to have survived. Now it’s true that a great many old movies have been lost, but I think this still might give us some idea of the disposability of the product in this case.
*. It’s also notable that this was the first Charlie Chan movie not to be derived from an Earl Derr Biggers story. Biggers only wrote six Chan novels, so for the character to become a franchise they had to start coming up with something new. In doing so, they stuck mostly to formula though.
*. Charlie’s not in London for long. Instead, most of the action takes place at a massive country estate in Retfordshire (which I don’t think is an actual place), giving the story the familiar air of a English manor-house mystery. An innocent man sits in Pentonville Prison on death row and Charlie is called in by the man’s sister to clear him by finding the real killer. Which he proceeds to do.
*. In our own time the character of Charlie Chan, with his frequent bowing and pidgin English, not to mention the whitecasting of his being played by a Swedish-American actor, will likely be offensive to some. I don’t find it so, or at least not egregiously so, especially given how sympathetically the character is presented. Charlie is, after all, the saviour-hero (Raymond “Don’t call me Ray yet” Milland is the love interest, but doesn’t hold our attention at all). And it’s notable that when the maid finds Charlie’s snooping around to be suspicious an older maid replies that he is reputed to be a “nice, kind gentleman.” That’s high praise in the English class system.
*. Speaking of that class system, this movie’s greatest claim to fame today may be that it’s what the American film producer is doing research for in Gosford Park. No need for spoilers though, as Maggie Smith’s character tells him that nobody staying at Gosford Park is going to see it anyway.
*. In fact, there’s not much in the way of mystery here. The explanation, which involves international espionage, comes out of left field, with the killer actually being the least likely suspect, at least to my eyes. But up till the end it seems anyone could have done it. There’s even the classic moment when Charlie gets everyone gathered together and tells them that the killer is among them, followed by individual shots of each of the suspects glancing guiltily at each other. I wonder what the first movie was to do this. Perhaps it’s now lost as well.
*. Still, it all wraps up tidily, and quickly. The villain is apprehended by way of trickery, followed by a man in authority saying “All right Sergeant, take him away.” A coda provides the proper bow, as every Jack gets his Jill. The whole film is pretty much a formality, but the formula works so there’s no point in knocking it. Unless, you know . . .

8 thoughts on “Charlie Chan in London (1934)

    1. Alex Good

      He’s from that same golden age of mystery writing. And you get that vibe with this entry in particular with the English country house and assembling all the suspects at the end. In the later movies they fall into a slightly different formula, but it still has that same air.

      Reply
  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Hmm…and I thought my Fu Manchu season was on shaky ground. I feel that these films should be discussed, but as you ably point out, the language and casting choices are problematic.

    Could retfordshire be some kind of typo of Hertfordshire?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Retfordshire actually appears on a title card so I don’t think they made a typo. I think they just wanted a fictional place that sounded plausible. And yeah, this definitely plays up stereotypes but seeing as Charlie is the hero it’s at least not too insulting. Unlike the portrayal of black characters in later films in the series. Charlie Chan in Egypt has Stepin Fetchit and Charlie Chan at the Race Track has a Stepin Fetchit stand-in and they’re pretty bad.

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        Eventually I’ll be doing all of them. Not doing them all at once because there are a lot of ’em and it would get tiring.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        They’ll be coming out sporadically. No warning! When you least expect a Charlie Chan review, there will be a Charlie Chan review.

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