*. A real shame. In many ways Charlie Chan at the Race Track was one of the best Chans yet. It has a script that, while complex, I actually managed to follow pretty well. There’s the interesting introduction of technical matters like blood-spatter evidence and light-triggered photo guns at the track. Charlie’s folksy wisdom is colourful and direct (“Man who flirt with dynamite sometimes fly with angels”). Director H. Bruce Humberstone uses some delightful whip pans in the final act to add to the sense of a swiftly approaching climax.
*. But I say it’s a shame because of the character of the indolent and cowardly Black groom Mainline, who is clearly a stand-in for Stepin Fetchit from Charlie Chan in Egypt. He doesn’t have any essential role to play but is only included for comic relief. And I suppose audiences at the time got some laughs out of him. But he sure doesn’t play well today.
*. What makes this all the more difficult to take is the way Keye Luke’s Number One Son on two separate occasions makes fun of Asian stereotypes to get out of trouble, with lots of bowing and “oh, vely solly!” apologies. So Asian stereotypes are to be turned on their head while Black stereotypes are fully indulged. It’s jarring.
*. Of course there are other cultural assumptions that are easy to glide by too. When Charlie tells the young man at the end that “Good wife best household furniture” we’re meant to laugh along with that as well. But at least that’s meant as a joke. I think.
*. The plot is a bit far-fetched, though apparently there really was a problem at the time with substitute horses being used as ringers that was only solved by tattooing IDs onto their inner lip. In any event, it’s basically a straight lift from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Production values are relatively high, with some good race track stuff mixed in and a fire in a horse stable (on a ship) that’s pretty impressive. Apparently Warner Oland was drinking heavily and was barely awake in some of his scenes but Humberstone found some workarounds so you don’t notice too much. It’s a shame about Mainline but I don’t believe in cleaning these things up so you’ll either have to put with him or pass.