Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)

*. The Charlie Chan movies produced by Fox in the 1930s weren’t big pictures, but they were professionally turned out and still offer some entertainment value today. But Fox (Twentieth Century-Fox as of 1935) stopped making them in 1941 (their last entry was Castle in the Desert), perhaps because of the difficulty of selling an Asian hero to American audiences at a time when the U.S. was at war with Japan.
*. The rights to Chan were then bought by Sidney Toler, who took them to Monogram and planned on making two Chan movies a year moving forward, a schedule they pretty much stuck to throughout the 1940s. Monogram, however, was not Fox. Monogram was considered Poverty Row, and even though they had announced with the acquisition of Chan that they wanted to make “fewer and higher budgeted pictures” moving forward, you can immediately sense the falling off in this, their first effort.
*. A good indication of where things were heading was the Mr. Wong series put out by Monogram starting in 1938 with Mr. Wong, Detective. There were five Mr. Wongs, all starring Boris Karloff as the titular hero, and they were obviously just cheap Charlie Chan rip-offs. Acquiring Charlie Chan just allowed them to deliver the same product under a more distinguished brand name.
*. The script actually has a few cute and clever lines, but the plot is the usual wartime hook about stealing some cutting-edge military technology. Here a scientist is killed and a blueprint stolen for a new kind of torpedo. Chan (and Sherlock Holmes) had already done this sort of thing in previous films.
*. What’s new? Charlie is now onto his Number Three Son Tommy (Benson Fong), who is joined this time out by his sister and Number Two Daughter Iris (Marianne Quon). I’m glad they gave Tommy a sister as he’s a much duller fellow than either Keye Luke or Sen Yung. As Iris says to him at one point, “Are you a detective, or a dud?” A dud, I’d say. Though the siblings consider themselves to be “hip cats of a new generation” they don’t have much character at all.
*. Mantan Moreland in his first appearance as Birmingham Brown. The most talented player, though relegated to the usual racist mummery, jumping and fainting in fear, and stuttering lines like “a m-m-m-murderer on the l-l-l-l-loose?”
*. Everything about this movie is cruder, cheaper, and more rudimentary than the usual Charlie Chan fare. Monogram may have tried to up their game (I think that’s debatable) but the results are still a big step down from Fox. The acting is stiff (Sidney Toler, who had been growing into the role, has never been worse), the direction awkward and uncomfortable. There’s a series of shots at the beginning of Toler walking (seemingly with some difficulty) to the crime scene that set the tone. In a number of later scenes you have the sense that the actors are just standing around waiting to deliver their lines.
*. The murders are set up by way of ridiculously complicated contraptions, and all the usual series signature moments (a hand holding a gun sticking out from behind a curtain, the lights suddenly being switched off) are repeated several times. A low point for the series thus far.

9 thoughts on “Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)

  1. film-authority.com

    There’s some great pull-quotes in this…’Toler…has never been worse’ ‘…a low point for the series thus far…’ This would certainly encourage today’s hip-cats to take a look…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      This is truly awful. There are literally scenes where people are standing around not knowing what to do. But things did improve a bit. Benson Fong is a good proxy. He’s beyond bad here, but he gradually grew into the role of Tommy Lee.

      Reply

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