*. The best of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan films? It’s considered so by many and I think it gets my vote. A polished entertainment that’s fun and has a decent plot. Plus Boris Karloff.
*. Film historian Courtney Joyner says Karloff gave us “the best villain of any Chan movie.” Given that I can barely remember any of the others that’s probably a fair assessment. He was certainly the biggest star, as Karloff (as he was often credited) was a big name by 1936. So much so that he shares top billing with Oland. Above the title they are announced as Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff.
*. You’d think that would give the game away. Plus the fact that Karloff’s character escapes an insane asylum at the beginning of the picture. But in fact Gravelle (Karloff’s character) is a red herring throughout, only part of a melodramatic subplot. A role he performs admirably.
*. Instead of the anti-Black racism in some of the earlier movies (Charlie Chan in Egypt, Charlie Chan at the Race Track) there’s a more progressive angle played, with the proletarian detective coming to admire Chan despite his prejudice, as well as a comic bit playing on the notion that all Chinese men look alike to the dull-witted cops. Other formula elements include the use of cutting-edge technology, the trick at the end to get the killer to reveal him or herself, and the way Charlie has to solve the crime in order for the young couple to be reunited.
*. The point about technology is maybe worth expanding on. In my notes on Where Danger Lives (1950) I expressed some surprise at the ability of the police to transmit a photograph over phone lines (what’s called a “telephoto”). But apparently AT&T had developed a system for doing this as early as 1924, which is, I suppose, what the police are using here. I wonder what the first movie to make use of this was. It might have been even earlier. Movies have always loved gadgets like this.
*. All this and a bit of opera (written specially for this movie) too. Not a classic, but good entertainment that marked a high point for the series with this star.