Daily Archives: April 28, 2021

Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)

*. Mystery movies, like mystery novels, operate in a weird sort of way. They are essentially just puzzles whose sole purpose is to take you on a journey to their solution. So you wouldn’t expect them to be enjoyable on repeated readings or viewings.
*. They are, however, because so many of them are so very formulaic that they’re almost instantly forgettable. Yes, it’s likely you remember the solution to such clever Agatha Christie classics as Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But aside from those? I can re-read a Christie novel every couple of years (I don’t, but I could) and still have forgotten it so completely that I could enjoy it just as much as I did the first time.
*. I was thinking of this quality mysteries have while re-viewing the Charlie Chan film canon. I’d seen all these movies five or six years previously but coming back to them now I could barely remember anything about them. I might as well have been seeing them for the first time. There is the formula I mentioned — with elements like someone trying to drop a giant stone on Charlie, a gloved hand appearing out of a doorway to fire a shot, and the young couple being united at the end after the villain is taken away by the authorities — but as for whodunit or what he did I had no recollection at all.
*. I’d also forgotten the appearance of Stepin Fetchit, who plays the idle assistant “Snowshoes” in this movie. The distance of nearly a hundred years makes the phenomenon of Fetchit all the more difficult to understand. And he was a phenomenon, reportedly the first black actor to become a millionaire. But what was so funny or appealing about him? Was it just playing to a stereotype of Blacks as lazy and scared of ghosts?
*. What I did remember from Charlie Chan in Egypt was the secret chamber that could only be accessed by a quick underwater swim. This was neat. And of course the presence of Rita Hayworth, from back before she was Rita Hayworth (indeed, she’s here credited as Rita Cansino).
*. Was there anything in Hayworth’s performance here, as the sexy servant girl Nayda, that would make you think she was going to be a star? If there was it would be in her eyes. They glow even brighter than those of jeweled Sekhmet.
*. The actual murders here are so involved and confusing as to aid in their forgetting. The business with the violin was “ingenious” indeed, though I might have called it ridiculous. Hats off though to making the native Egyptians, despite their suspicious behaviour, into people just wanting to hold on to their cultural patrimony from looting European museums. That doesn’t quite make up for Stepin Fetchit, but it was progressive for the time.
*. There’s no Number One Son, which is a shame. I mentioned in my notes on Charlie Chan in Paris how he made such a nice foil. Great detectives tend to be arrogant and larger than life. Then there are some, like Charlie, who can be annoyingly humble (they even make a running gag here out of his bowing to the Egyptian official). The only other famous fictional detective I can think of with the same degree of humility is Chesterton’s Father Brown, and I can’t stand Father Brown (mainly because I find his humility fake). What this means is that the characters and story surrounding Charlie have to be more exotic to compensate. I think they are here, and while this is an almost totally forgettable entry in a B franchise, it’s still a pleasant enough time waster.