*. You know you’re well into formula territory when you can joke about it. There’s a scene included in almost all of these Charlie Chan movies where a group of people are gathered together in a room where some conclusive bit of evidence is going to be revealed when all of a sudden the lights go out and the killer escapes. Sometimes this even happens a couple of times in the same movie. In Dead Men Tell it happens, but off-screen, so that when Jimmy Chan tells his dad about what happened, Charlie can smile at what he calls “the old story.”
*. A simple enough plot, for a change, but one that I still couldn’t make any sense of. Old Miss Nodbury has it in her head that she’s going to dig up a treasure buried by a pirate ancestor on Cocos Island, and for some reason has invited a bunch of likely suspects to go with her. She thinks someone is out to rob her so she rips her treasure map up into four parts and gives the pieces to some of the other passengers on the ship she’s chartered.
*. That ship never actually sails, as she’s killed by someone dressed up like a pirate (peg leg, hook for a hand). Charlie, who has come on board looking for his irrepressible Number Two Son (I’m not sure what he was up to), finds himself leading the investigation into who killed the old lady.
*. I say I couldn’t make sense out of the plot because it has characters tossed at us who are just plain weird (like an escaped con posing as a newsman and a psychiatrist accompanied by her creepy patient) and who have nothing to do with the crime. In fact, Miss Nodbury’s treasure quest is all a red herring and the case comes down to a tale of old-school revenge being carried out by two fellows who have assumed new identities.
*. Apparently the pirate treasure is worth $60 million. That made me raise an eyebrow. In movies of this period $10,000 is usually considered a fortune. So I plugged $60 million into an inflation calculator and it said the same amount today would be worth $1.1 billion. That’s a lot of pirate gold.
*. There’s not much else to say. I found this a pedestrian outing, with the only dramatic highlights being Jimmy Chan falling into the water over and over again. But I have to note the presence of Kay Aldridge. She’s one of those actors from the golden age that never went on to become big stars but which, when you see them now, you’re struck by how beautiful they were. You’re just sitting there watching some hum-drum B-picture from the day and then all of a sudden you see someone who makes you go “Wow.”
*. Aldridge got her start as a model and was a cover-girl for some major publications before appearing on screen, sometimes as as what was called a “living statue” role where she basically just had to stand around and look pretty. She’d retire from movies a few years after this, when she married for the first time. Eye candy? She’s playing Laura Thursday, which is a tiny part, but in a movie like this her appearance is a treat.