Category Archives: 1930s

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

*. I wonder if there’s a bigger name in film history that has pulled as dramatic a vanishing act as that of Leo McCarey. In his heyday he was one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood, respected by his peers and awarded Oscars for both writing and directing.
*. Today I think he’s almost entirely forgotten outside of certain film circles. He thought Make Way for Tomorrow his best work, but today it too is “forgotten” (Peter Bogdanovich) or “nearly forgotten” (Roger Ebert). I think the only people who do know about it, and again we’re within those same certain film circles, are those who know it was the inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Some, maybe a lot, of McCarey’s fall from the heights of fame and critical acclaim has to do with the anti-communist tear he went on in his later years, but I think in the case of this movie it’s more to do with the subject matter, its lack of big stars, and its downbeat ending.
*. Make Way for Tomorrow didn’t do well when it came out and hasn’t gathered much of an audience since. Because let’s face it: who wants to watch a movie about an elderly couple on the verge of being sent into a retirement home? That’s part of the point the movie is making though: that we just want these people to disappear, or at least stay in their bedrooms and not make much of a fuss while we’re entertaining guests.
*. At the same time, you can tell why so many people champion this movie today. A lot of it still packs quite a punch. There are a number of memorable moments that will resonate with anyone who has experienced similar situations. There’s Bark’s sad reflection on hearing the letter from someone in a retirement home that “those places must be terrible.” There’s his rejoinder to the man at the employment office that he didn’t used to be a bookkeeper, he still is one. An impossible sell, at his age. There’s Ma telling her granddaughter that facing facts is easy when you’re young, but as you get older it’s better to pretend. And most of all there’s Ma telling George, aware that he’s sending her away, that he was always her favourite child. It’s a moment like that that makes you feel along with Orson Welles that you’d have to be a stone not to cry at this movie.

*. The thing is, these moments work, at least to my eye, despite the performances and McCarey’s direction. I honestly don’t think Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are very good here. They both seem to be playing the parts in an affected manner, and along with the obvious make-up (Moore was 60 and Bondi only 48) they come off as almost caricaturish old folks, no less so for his occasional grumpiness and her passive aggression. Nor does the supporting cast stand out in any way. Meanwhile, the direction is capable and gives everyone room but doesn’t add very much beyond what I would have expected from any old studio hand. As Peter Bogdanovich admits, it’s not a movie that’s directed with any real sense of style.
*. I didn’t even think the plot made any sense. Why is it that Ma and Pa have to be split up and live 300 miles apart? Why would it be too great a burden on the kids to take both of them in when they’re willing to accept one? Wouldn’t they be easier to manage if they were together as a couple and (at least to some extent) looking after each other?
*. What the performances get right is how difficult Ma and Pa can be. They aren’t all sweetness and light but can both be real pains in the ass. Like Ma ruining the bridge lesson or Pa refusing to say the number 99 and biting his doctor. Even at the end, where I think we’re supposed to be firmly on their side as they enjoy a last night on the town while their kids worry about them had me thinking they were being selfish. It’s a big deal if you’re cooking a roast and someone doesn’t show up on time!
*. As with any morality tale though the point is to force us into making judgments, however much McCarey wants to put his finger on the scale. Especially by having that Biblical injunction to honour your father and mother looming over things. Still, the roast has been ruined and while nobody would be against them having a good time, somebody has to take care of them moving forward. Like a lot of old people in the same boat they want to keep going the way they always have and not face up to facts. As Ma points out, it’s nicer to pretend. But that’s not being responsible to themselves or to others. So you get things like the situation that kicks things off, where they haven’t told the kids that the house has been foreclosed on until it’s too late for them to do anything about it except in emergency mode.
*. Worth seeing, but not a great movie, mostly for being such an uneven ride, jarring between a tough-minded realism and sentimental fluff. Most of the supporting characters, like the car salesman and the band leader, are perhaps unbelievably sympathetic to Ma and Pa, but then they don’t have to live with them and I think that’s the larger point. Family, or love itself, is both a source of strength and support and a trap. In the end, you really can’t win.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

*. There were six Mr. Wong movies all made by Monogram within a couple of years, which gives you some idea of how carefully they were turning them out.
*. Basically James Lee Wong (played by Boris Karloff in the first five films) is a stately and urbane Charlie Chan rip-off. But since Charlie moved to Monogram it was a case of share and share alike, as the script here was remade almost shot-for-shot eight years later in the Chan vehicle The Chinese Ring. They’d also re-use the bit about trying to blow Mr. Wong up in a cab that’s ditched in an alley in Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat. So they were ripping off the rip-offs by that point.
*. The story that was so nice they had to do it twice has a Chinese princess showing up on Mr. Wong’s doorstep. While she waits for Mr. Wong to finish dickering around with some experiment in his lab a hand sticks through a window and uses a “sleeve gun” to shoot her with a poisoned dart. Needless to say, killing someone in Mr. Wong’s own house is playing dirty pool indeed. “Now this is a payoff,” the police inspector says. “Murder in the house of Mr. Wong! Now we’ve seen everything.”
*. Before she dies, the princess is able to write a cryptic note for Mr. Wong about a “Captain J.” Alas, as things turn out there are two Captain J’s! No one saw that coming.
*. In fact, you’ll see most of this one coming (just as you’d see it coming again with Charlie Chan in the lead role). There are, however, a few nice touches. A lot of attention is given to the back-and-forth between dumb-as-a-brick but handy with the fisticuffs police inspector Bill Street (Grant Withers) and intrepid lady reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). Reynolds is great, though what she sees in Withers is beyond me. Our Bill isn’t much of a charmer. Mostly he keeps telling her to “beat it” or “be quiet.” Their best bit of repartee has him asking her “Do you know something I don’t know?” and her replying “That wouldn’t have to be much!” Otherwise he just fills the role of one of Charlie’s sons, jumping the gun in proclaiming every false lead proof of guilt.
*. Other bonuses include the exploding cab, which actually looks pretty good for Poverty Row, and the bizarre wrap-up at the end. Basically, Mr. Wong finds out who the killer is because he ties the disappearance of the dwarf witness together with the fact that the main villain had recently said he buried one of his giant guard dogs. He knows this is wrong because “one does not bury the body of a vicious dog in a pet cemetery under an expensive headstone.” To be fair, this was before Mondo Cane and Gates of Heaven, but why Wong would think it must have been the dwarf that was getting buried in the doggy grave is beyond me. Why would the bad guy think the dwarf needed an expensive headstone?
*. Not a bad entertainment of its kind and period, but by that I only mean that it’s cheap, stupid fun and Reynolds is a treat.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)

*. The set-up to The Mystery of Mr. Wong seemed awfully familiar to me. At a swank party a brief amateur drama is presented after a round of charades. The play has a man being shot at the end, but after the applause has settled the victim doesn’t get up because he’s been shot for real!
*. I was sure that the fake killing that turns out to be real had been done before. I seem to remember it popping up in some old novels, like Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer (1935). The most likely source here though was a 1931 movie called Murder at Midnight, which I hadn’t seen. So not a new idea, but still a good one. There’s a murder committed in front of a room full of witnesses and nobody knows whodunit. Unfortunately for the murderer. Mr. Wong was in attendance.
*. Mr. Wong was a transparent attempt to piggyback on the Charlie Chan franchise, though given the low quality of many of the Chan efforts the Wong films don’t fall short of the original. That’s particularly the case here, as Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong is superior to anything Sidney Toler was doing at the time and in this outing we don’t get bogged down with any of the crazy murder methods that became a kind of running joke in the later Chans. This latter point is all the more surprising, as the first Mr. Wong movie had one of the craziest killer scenarios ever. But in this one, perhaps because they were borrowing from an earlier, simpler source, they dialed that part down.
*. The plot is also relatively straightforward. Somebody gets killed and a rare sapphire, the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, is stolen. There are the usual upper-class suspects assembled — even a Russian named Strogonoff, which you’ll be shocked to learn is actually an alias — but at least I could keep most of them straight. The Asian supporting players are presented respectfully and there’s none of the minstrel-show comic relief that the Chan series adopted.
*. In short, they kept most of what works in the Chan movies (like the trap set for the killer at the end, and a ballistics scene for the proto-CSI crowd) and got rid of a lot that doesn’t. The production is pretty barebones, but some interesting camera angles are thrown in. And for once the killer has a comprehensible motivation. So they ended up with a not-bad old-school mystery that’s maybe a notch above the Chan movies coming out around this time. But does that make it worth watching? No.

Tower of London (1939)

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*. Shakespeare didn’t invent the monstrous, Machiavellian, hunchback figure of Richard III. By the time he got to telling the story there was a long tradition going back at least to Sir Thomas More of presenting him as a stock villain.
*. So Shakespeare didn’t mess with the formula but exploited it. For some reason it took Hollywood, no enemy to formulaic crowd-pleasers, to make a hash of it.
*. I think they were too literal. Screenwriter Robert N. Lee (brother of director Rowland V. Lee, an interesting sibling collaboration repeated in the 1962 version produced by Gene Corman and directed by his brother Roger), read up on the history of the period and the resulting script is in some ways a more faithful account than Shakespeare. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a better drama.
*. The thing is, the history of this period is incredibly complex. Whenever I go back to read Richard III I find myself having to go over a lot of introductory material first just so I can keep the various players straight. That confusion isn’t sorted out here, though the business of Richard’s dollhouse is a nice visual aide.
*. It’s not a horror film or melodrama, though there are glances in this direction. Boris Karloff as the executioner/dungeonkeeper Mord belongs in this other world, a clubfooted figure whose hair has all slid down to his eyebrows. But Basil Rathbone is positively restrained as Richard of Gloucester, and the part really demands a ham.
*. Instead of being determined to play the villain, Richard ends up being just another figure in a historical costume drama and the story has no real focus. I guess the young lovers are the heroes, but I had trouble even remembering their names. I also found it surprising that the climactic death on the battlefield at Bosworth was not Richard’s but that of Mord.
*. Is that the world’s fasted hourglass? It’s huge, but empties in about five seconds.
*. I like the historical detail of the soldiers carrying pikes. It might even be historically accurate. The grunts in olden times tended to use whatever was at hand that could serve the function of a weapon, so if they were being drawn from a mining district it would make sense.

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*. Another interesting connection to the later Corman version is the presence of Vincent Price as the Duke of Clarence (he would play Richard in 1962). This was back in the day when Price was still more a foppish heel than a bad guy, and it’s an interesting take on Clarence, who we’re almost glad to see get stuffed in the butt of malmsey.
*. Universal spent some money on this one, but despite the talented cast it really doesn’t work. Taking a higher road for this sort of material was a mistake.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

*. It’s easy to deride the Charlie Chan movies today, if we think of them at all, but in the 1930s they were a pretty big deal and did, after all, constitute a studio-hopping franchise that resulted in¬†over forty pictures spanning three decades. Not only that, there were also two spin-off — or really rip-off — franchises in the Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong movies.
*. Mr. Wong was another Chinese-American detective, this time created by the author Hugh Wiley. His first appearance was in a story in 1934. Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures bought the rights to Mr. Wong and would put out six movies starring the character before buying the rights to the Chan franchise from 20th Century Fox in 1943, thus obviating the need for continuing the series.
*. In what Leonard Maltin says was considered a casting coup at the time, Boris Karloff was signed to play Mr. Wong. Karloff, of course, doesn’t look Asian, and certainly doesn’t sound Asian. Thankfully, the movies don’t try very hard to conceal this. He has a bit of eye make-up and what looks to be a layer of shellac on his head but that’s it, and he speaks with his usual urbane accent. But this is at least partly in keeping with the stories, where James Lee Wong is described as being Yale educated and looking like a Yankee. He’s not Fu Manchu.
*. Trivia: Karloff had appeared in Charlie Chan at the Opera just a couple of years earlier, and when he left the Mr. Wong series after five pictures he was replaced by Keye Luke, who had been Charlie’s Number One Son in the Warner Oland films.
*. As Maltin says, it’s Karloff’s presence “that lends these films what meager distinction they have.” I would say he’s the only thing that makes them watchable today. Mr. Wong, Detective was the first, and may be the best of the bunch, but it’s not very good. Then again, the Monogram Chans were terrible too. But I do think they were trying. I just think this was the best they could do.
*. Every great detective needs a sidekick, and even not-so-great ones need second bananas. For Mr. Wong it’s Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) who is just as inept and eager to jump the gun as any of Charlie’s sons but less ingratiating.
*. The plot here is typical of the Chan series, involving a complex murder scheme making use of glass balls of poison gas that explode with the right sonic cue. This is actually rather clever, but there are too many suspects crowded together into too small a room and it’s hard to keep straight what all is going on. The production values are dismal. You get Karloff sniffing his boutonni√®re, but the rest is dross.

Grand Hotel (1932)

*. Grand Hotel is one of those movies probably more famous now than seen. I guess everyone knows that Greta Garbo said she wanted to be alone (three times, actually), and that this was the first all-star dramatic vehicle, a huge box-office blockbuster, and holds the odd distinction of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category.
*. What should your expectations be on watching it today. Pauline Kael provides some helpful guidance: “anyone who goes to see this movie expecting an intelligent script, or even ‘good acting,’ should have their head examined. Most of the players give impossible bad performances — they chew up the camera. But if you want to see what screen glamour used to be, and what, originally, ‘stars’ were, this is perhaps the best example of all time.”
*. This is mostly right, but I’d want to shade it in a bit. It’s a very stagey production (Vicki Baum’s novel had already been a hit on stage), and looks it, though the set for the main desk is impressive. The editing is very choppy. The prolific and versatile Edmund Goulding directs it in a rather dull manner, with a number of shots very poorly framed. But these were the early days of sound and I don’t know how much of this could be avoided. As David Thomson writes, this is Goulding’s best known but not best film, “and it seems likely that on so prestigious a movie his control was reduced by executives and the stars themselves.”

*. Kael is typical in telling us that “Greta Garbo sets the movie in vibration with her extraordinary sensual presence.” If you’re a member of the Garbo Cult then this is holy ground, as she gets top billing and the delayed reveal (in a bed that’s a mountain of satin). I think she’s fine, but I agree with Thomson that “Contrary to legend, Joan Crawford is the best thing in [the] film.” Indeed, after one critical preview drew forth the comment from the Hollywood Reporter that Crawford was the real star (“Crawford has the feminine meat of the show, and how she does take advantage of it”) Irving Thalberg demanded more scenes with Garbo. I think Crawford’s negotiation scene with Preysing (Wallace Beery) is marvelous. Though apparently Beery stormed out of rehearsals saying he would only come back when Crawford learned how to act.
*. Garbo and John Barrymore (playing the gentleman thief Baron Gaigern) got along well on set, but I found their age discrepancy really bothering. She was 25 and he was 50. And 50 in 1932 was like 70 today. He looks much too old for her, or to be playing a cat burglar.

*. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Baum’s novel, which I’ve actually read. They’ve given Gaiger a dachshund to make us like him more, an early example of the pat-the-dog scene. Of course all the nudity is removed, and that was something Baum really dwelt on. Also gone is Kringelein’s crazy day on the town with Gaigern. No high-speed road racing or going up in an airplane. Which you might have expected them to work into such a big picture. But as I say, this is a stagey movie. It doesn’t take us outside the hotel at all.
*. The film follows Baum’s moral judgments pretty closely, and these are odd enough (at least to me) as to maybe call for comment. Preysing is the heavy — and perhaps not coincidentally the only character to affect a German accent, which was apparently a selling point for Beery — while Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a hero, at least of sorts. This strikes me as unfair.

*. Why? Preysing is in a bad situation through no fault of his own and is scrambling to keep his business afloat. Kringelein, on the other hand, though dying, is a whiny cheat who is scamming the company (and, though this doesn’t get mentioned in the movie, his wife) by blowing all his savings on a wild exit. Preysing is a lech, but Crawford’s Flaemmchen is for hire so there’s no foul there. Meanwhile, Kringelein is just as culpable, or more so, in running off with her to Paris as Preysing was going to be in taking her to Manchester. And with a good lawyer shouldn’t he beat that murder rap? The circumstances seem in his favour.
*. Still entertaining, which is quite an achievement after 90 years. And some of it has stayed fresh, including the relationship between Flaemmchen and Preysing and the way Grusinskaya is bundled out the doors, cocooned from reality by her entourage and still holding on to her dreams. Billy Wilder might have been taking notes for Norma Desmond.
*. But if our interests and sympathies lead us to view it differently than contemporary audiences did, that’s still a tribute to something in it that has stayed relevant long after its star power has been extinguished.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

*. It’s curious how Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t usually get considered alongside the other great horror films of the period. Like the others it had a literary source, and it was made in the wake of the success of Dracula and at the same time as Frankenstein was in production (1931 was an annis horribilis, in a good way). I believe this movie marked the tenth time Stevenson’s story had been filmed. It was a big commercial hit and even netted Frederic March an Academy Award for Best Actor, a feat that wouldn’t often be repeated by an actor in a horror movie.
*. Maybe it’s that Oscar cachet that sets it apart. This wasn’t a Universal film (like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man) but a well-budgeted prestige picture from Paramount. That said, it has a lot of the same feel as the Universal pics, which is a compliment to both. What I mean is that it has the same economy in its storytelling, and inventiveness in the direction.
*. Rouben Mamoulian had come from theatre, but took to film like a fish to water. You can tell he was having a lot of fun here, right from that long point-of-view opening. Had there ever been anything like that done before? I honestly don’t know. I love the way it builds up to Dr. Jekyll entering the lecture hall, with a quick moment in the mirror to introduce us to him as he puts on his cape. And such an opening isn’t just meant to show off. Mamoulian uses mirrors throughout the movie in important ways, from Jekyll watching his first transformation (it’s our first glimpse of Mr. Hyde as well) to his appearance behind Ivy near the end.
*. Not all of Mamoulian’s gambles work. Those slow wipes that momentarily stick into a split-screen effect halfway through strike me as ill-advised and ineffective. But they give some idea of how free a hand he was taking.
*. Then there is the economy. Being more a prestige picture this is quite a bit longer than Dracula or Frankenstein, but it still moves pretty quickly (I like how they cut off Jekyll’s opening lecture and let the people leaving finish it talking among themselves as they leave) and the release version ran a fair bit shorter because the censors made significant cuts. The Production Code wasn’t in full swing yet but in some scenes here Mamoulian was going over the line. Albeit not without more playfulness. Look at the suggestive pose the waiter adopts to uncork the champagne, or the pot being brought to a boil (an image the movie will end on, with the pot boiling over).
*. But I can understand the censors raising more than an eyebrow at the scene where Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) transfixes Dr. Jekyll with her garters. There’s a lot of bare thigh on display, and this was at a time when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.

*. The studio wanted John Barrymore, star of the 1920 film, to reprise the role but he was already under contract at MGM. Mamoulian was right to want someone younger, and got someone just as handsome in Frederic March. This is a fellow who you can believe is in need of some release. And that’s very much who Hyde is: a randy alter ego looking for the sexual satisfaction he is frustrated in attaining by Victorian codes of behaviour. Ivy, in Kael’s phrase, showcases “the attractions of the gutter.” So while Hyde can be violent when provoked, he really just wants to be Buddy Love.
*. The sexual angle is also part of the Promethean theme. By that I mean scientific curiosity is directly linked to sexual desire, with Dr. Jekyll wanting to pierce the veil of nature. He doesn’t want to play God so much as have a good time. Though he does play God, and there’s an obligatory scene at the end with March holding a Bible and praying for the Almighty to forgive him his presumptions in trying to go further than man should. Ah, but it was God who gave you those hormones Dr. J.
*. The special effects are justifiably famous, holding up well nearly a hundred years later. The main trick was the use of tinted filters to reveal progressively darker make-up. As for the appearance of Mr. Hyde, he’s a Neanderthal that foreshadows the primitive man in Altered States, down to the way he jumps and clambers about like a monkey. The inner man is a reversion to a natural state, taking us back to our days swinging in trees.
*. One of the most remarkable things about this movie is the fact that we nearly lost it. When MGM returned to the property with Spencer Tracy in 1941 they bought the negative and rights to both this film and the Barrymore version and tried to destroy every print of both in existence. For many years it was believed to have been lost. An Oscar winner! I can’t believe people do this. It goes to show what people thought of movies as an art form back in the day. It also made me think of how Bram Stoker’s widow went to court and actually got a judgment ordering the destruction of all prints of Nosferatu for copyright infringement. Today we look on this as madness, but at one time it was quite acceptable.
*. The best version of this oft-told tale? Many people think so. It’s hard to make such a judgment though because there have been so many variations played on its theme, in so many different eras. I think it does nearly everything well: Mamoulian was on, March’s performance is solid, the effects are great, and the lure of the gutter is as strong as ever. Though I think Jekyll today would be less repressed and more pathetic.

City in Darkness (1939)

*. Coming after Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, widely regarded as the best of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies, City in Darkness has to register as a big disappointment.
*. It’s a mess. I found the plot impossible to follow. Victor Sen Yung’s Jimmy Chan is missing, replaced by veteran series hand Harold Huber, who this time is playing the enthusiastic but bumbling godson of the Paris police chief. An indispensable figure in a Charlie Chan movie, it seems.
*. The setting is Paris on the eve of the Second World War, specifically during the days of the political crisis brought on by Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. This context is, in turn, the only thing that makes the movie of any interest today.
*. An opening newsreel outlining rising tensions in Europe sets the scene. Paris is on high alert, having already put in place blackout precautions (giving the film its title, as well as a plot point near the end). I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but I think the bad guys are smuggling weapons to the enemy. Or something. Which in turn means that killing them isn’t really a crime.
*. The twist here is that, in John Cork’s words, this is “a World War Two propaganda film before World War Two had broken out.” The movie was made before fighting started, though it only opened in November 1939, just after Germany invaded Poland. This makes the final lines in the movie prophetic, as everyone celebrates the parties getting together at Munich to discuss peace in our time and Charlie isn’t buying any part of it.
*. Germans weren’t quite the enemy yet in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, but there were plenty of misgivings on display in that film. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t start fighting Nazis until 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. So give Charlie some points for being quicker off the mark. Unfortunately, such a footnote is all this movie amounts to now.

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.

Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

*. The banter from a loquacious cab driver (Eddie Collins, somehow even more irritating than he was playing the lion handler in Charlie Chan in Honolulu) lets us know what the purpose of Reno, Nevada, “the biggest little city in the world,” really is. Liberal divorce laws, passed in 1927, allowed people to divorce each other after six weeks of residency. So for six weeks you stayed at a Reno hotel and then left when your divorce was finalized. Maybe you gambled a bit while you were waiting. But in 1936 “Reno” was essentially shorthand for “divorce.”
*. Though this was common knowledge at the time, I think it was still a somewhat unseemly subject for movies to take on. But Charlie Chan in Reno doesn’t shy away from it. Indeed, it rubs our noses in the (then) shady business of divorce, as we’re immediately taken to a divorce hotel and introduced to Mrs. Bentley, a really unpleasant soon-to-be divorcee who is also soon to be murdered. This leads us into a plot where everyone is a suspect because the deceased was such a bitch. All Charlie has to do is get his chemistry set out (Number Two Son can help in this regard, as he’s studying chemistry at USC) and set his trap.
*. Not a bad entry, though Toler wasn’t warming up to the part yet. Director Norman Foster, who had been doing the Mr. Moto films, keeps things interesting on a visual level. It’s not much, but I like juxtaposing the high-angle shot looking down into the lobby when the body is discovered, and then the low-angle shot when Jimmy tackles Iris and they end up together on the floor. The cutting also seems to be a lot faster than in previous films.
*. The main story isn’t very interesting. Nor are some of the detours, like Jimmy having his car stolen. I’d like to know what happened with that. But the trip to the ghost town was fun and Slim Summerville as Sheriff “Tombstone” plays well as comic relief against Charlie. Ultimately though it’s not essential viewing for anyone but completists, and you should feel comfortable letting what happened in Reno to stay there.