The Black Camel (1931)

*. Infosheet, pretty much cut and paste: The Black Camel was one of five Warner Oland Charlie Chan films based on the original Earl Derr Biggers novels, and the only one of these which survives (and indeed a print was only discovered in 1970). It was also the second Chan film starring Warner Oland, the first being the now lost Charlie Chan Carries On (not a Carry On movie).
*. This background is relevant for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the fact that it’s based on one of the novels gives the proceedings a bit more solidity in terms of a plot. It’s not just the line-up of the usual suspicious types crammed into the phone booth of a one-hour feature that would become the formula. Also, motive gets fuller development. Of course it’s all a bit far-fetched, but it’s better than anything that was to come in this department.
*. The other reason I mention this background information has to do with this being the second film in the franchise. John Cork on the DVD commentary (which he shares with Ken Hanke) calls The Black Camel his favourite in the Chan series, and has good reasons for rating it so highly. They were actually trying on this one, including sending the cast and crew to Honolulu to shoot on location (something Fox wouldn’t be keen on doing again).
*. The fact that it was the second Oland film might be taken as a bit depressing. I mean, there were many more to come so they were peaking early. But then I remember saying much the same thing in my notes on From Russia With Love, which was only the second James Bond film and the one I think may be the best of an even longer-lived franchise. Interestingly enough, this is a subject that comes up on the commentary, where they talk about how the sophomore entries in a film series are often the best because “they know what to do, but it hasn’t become stale or tame.” They also reference From Russia With Love, as well as Tarzan and His Mate. They don’t mention The Empire Strikes Back, though many people (not me) would say it fits the same pattern.
*. Do I think this the best of the Chan movies? I wouldn’t call it my favourite. It’s not so much better, though it is in many ways, as it is different. I don’t see Oland as wearing more pronounced make-up than in the other films, or as much less cuddly, as the commentators do, but they’re probably looking with sharper eyes.
*. Some of the direction (by Hamilton MacFadden, who appears in a cameo as the movie director in the first scene) is impressive, at least for the time. You didn’t see many tracking shots back then, and even fewer of the quality you see here. This is another part of what I meant when I said they were trying.
*. Bela Lugosi as co-star, though since Dracula was only released a few months ahead of this film he wasn’t a name yet. But he still looks sinister enough to be the red herring, much as Boris Karloff would be used later in Charlie Chan at the Opera (when Karloff actually was a star).
*. Also coming directly from Dracula is Dwight Frye as the butler Jessop. Oddly uncredited since he’s a pretty important character.
*. Instead of Keye Luke as Number One Son we have a Japanese subordinate named Kashimo who runs around madly like some kind of semi-articulate dog, barging into rooms and barking out “Clue!” Luke would be more endearing, and not suffer such pointed abuse as Charlie directs at Kashimo here.
*. I was surprised by the reference to a lie detector machine, but they actually were playing around with such devices in the 1920s. Watch and learn.
*. The title comes from some proverb Charlie cites. I think it might have made more sense in the book. It’s actually a pretty lousy title for a movie. It would later be remade as Charlie Chan in Rio, which at least has a better sense of branding.
*. Perhaps not a landmark work, but check the date. It’s really a cut above the vast majority of movies coming out around this time. Things like the camera movement I mentioned, and the sound, are first rate, and the story better than you’d expect. Even Lugosi turns in a credible and effective performance, not just falling back on being a ham. Not as much fun as a few of the later entries, but perhaps a better movie, and well worth digging up.

24 thoughts on “The Black Camel (1931)

    1. Alex Good

      It’s pretty simple stuff, but if you’re into the vintage serial stuff it works quite well. The other nice thing about these movies is they’re usually only an hour long, so they all move pretty quickly.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Just doing my bit to save the last shards of our cultural inheritance from being swept away by the dark and destructive forces of the digital barbarians.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I’m afraid you’ve already gone over to the dark side. Might as well go all in now. I’ll try to keep the lamp of learning lit though.

      1. Bookstooge

        I was familiar with most the characters behind the characters, but Chan I’d only ever heard the name and Sam Spade I’d only heard about through other’s book reviews.

        Still a good amusing movie πŸ™‚

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