Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

*. Fox did a great job bringing out the Charlie Chan movies on DVD, including lots of bonus featurettes on various Chan-related topics as well as audio commentaries. But while you get two featurettes for Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, and they’re both interesting, I didn’t think they added much to my appreciation of the film.
*. The first is a documentary on “The Real Treasure Island.” I’ll confess that when I went into this one I was actually hoping for something a little more along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson, with Charlie looking for buried pirate gold. But the real Treasure Island is a man-made island in San Francisco Bay (it’s still there) that was built to host the World’s Exposition in 1939-40. Apparently they gave it that name because they thought there might have been some gold in the muck they were dredging up to build it.
*. Anyway, like I say, this is interesting enough but kind of beside the point because the movie really doesn’t make any use of the setting at all. Treasure Island is seen in one aerial shot as Charlie’s plane lands in San Francisco but that’s it. I’m not sure Treasure Island is even mentioned again and the movie doesn’t make any use of the fact that the World’s Fair was going on.
*. The second bonus featurette tries hard to make something out of the fact that the killer here is named Dr. Zodiac, and that this might have some connection to the Zodiac Killer who terrorized northern California in the 1960s and ’70s (and about whom David Fincher later made a rather ho-hum movie). This is something I wondered about for a few seconds, but I quickly dismissed the thought of there being any connection. After watching the featurette I still don’t see it.
*. In this movie he’s Dr. Zodiac, after all, and a public persona. Specifically, he’s a charlatan magician who seems to be involved in the murder of various people as part of a blackmail scheme. What’s really going on is more complicated than that but I won’t bother to explain because it would take too long and none of it makes any sense anyway. As Ken Hanke and John Cork say on their DVD commentary, the matter of Zodiac’s motivation really doesn’t stand up to close examination.
*. Hanke begins the commentary by saying that Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is “widely regarded as the best of the [Sidney] Toler Chan films.” If so it marks another instance of what Cork and Hanke talk about in their commentary to The Black Camel relating to the superiority of films that come second in a series. This is also the case here, because even though it’s the third Toler Chan film Charlie Chan in Honolulu was a bit of a bridge picture and might not count.
*. What makes it the best of the Toler films? Well, Norman Foster’s direction is sprightly. The big reveal is quite theatrical, though it plays off all the usual formulaic elements (the lights going out, the hand holding a pistol appearing from a doorway). But a lot of the credit goes to the co-star. And I don’t mean Sen Yung (though he’s fine).
*. If The Black Camel was the one with Bela Lugosi and Charlie Chan at the Opera was the one with Boris Karloff then Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is the one with Cesar Romero. Romero is probably best known for playing the Joker in the Batman TV series (and the movie), but he was multitalented and had charisma and energy to burn. Admittedly it’s not hard to upstage Toler’s Chan, but while Romero’s on screen here he’s the only one you’re watching.
*. The plot really is kind of nutty but the movie as a whole is fun to be sure. I’ve said before that I don’t care for Toler’s Chan very much but he’s bearable here and at least doesn’t get in the way. The proceedings are interesting and there are lots of things happening. The behind-the-scenes look at how the magic trick was being done was the icing on the cake. I don’t know about it being the best of the Toler Chans, but it’s better than average and one to enjoy.

11 thoughts on “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

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