Category Archives: 1930s

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

*. The title was the result of a clash of egos between two of Warner Bros. biggest stars. The source play by Maxwell Anderson was Elizabeth the Queen. Errol Flynn, however, demanded that his character be acknowledged. Bette Davis then objected to the studio’s compromise, The Knight and the Lady, because it gave Flynn precedence in what she felt, correctly, was “a woman’s story.”
*. All of this is juicy stuff for film historians or anyone interested in tales of old Hollywood. What I found puzzling, given Flynn’s objections, is why he even wanted to be in this picture, playing this character. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was a fool and his life ended in a bathetic attempt at a coup. On top of that, the romance here was a decidedly odd sort, as Essex was a pretty toy-boy and Elizabeth a toothless horror held together by corsets and face paint. In real life Flynn and Davis were nearly the same age, but the historical Elizabeth was more than thirty years older than Essex. They were never lovers. The “romance,” in other words, was just another chapter in the Tudor myth.
*. Well, the movies have always loved the Tudor myth. Given a choice between filming the fact or the legend, they’ll go with the legend. Hence The Private Life of Henry VIII and, closer to our own time, Shekhar Kapur’s double-barreled Elizabeth biopics (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age). But the thing is, in this case wouldn’t the actual historical story have been more interesting? Maybe not in 1939, but today? I think it would. I mean, even Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) was more historical than this, at least in some ways.
*. One has to wince at the palpable dishonesty in the romantic coupling. Davis and Flynn disliked one another pretty intensely, with bad blood spilling over from The Sisters, a movie they had played together in a couple of years earlier. Davis had wanted Olivier to play Essex but the studio wanted a bigger name.
*. To say that the two have no chemistry would be an understatement. Flynn in particular seems to almost recoil within their passionate embraces. Even their acting styles are awkwardly juxtaposed, with Davis creating an affected Elizabeth all tremulous voice and fidgety hands, with a nodding head suggesting senility. Thrown in a scalp shaved back two inches off her forehead and eyebrows plucked and you’re not far from the grotesqueness of her turn in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

*. Flynn, playing opposite, looks as though he isn’t even trying. Which in itself might have been interesting, as Davis is seen doing all the work while he just has to strut about in tights looking good. This, in turn, would have fit with a more realistic interpretation of the historical events being dramatized, with the foolish Essex trying to play the queen and ending up getting burned. But as it is I think we’re meant to take seriously the idea that the two are in love, with poor Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) left to pine in the wings (actually, Lady Penelope Gray was Essex’s sister).
*. So instead of really digging into this weird anti-romance we’re stuck with “a woman’s story,” full of clenches and protestations of love that can never be consummated. The dialogue is hard to take, at least at this distance. Saith the earl: “If things had been different, you simply a woman, not a queen, and I a man, with no crown between us, we could have searched heaven and earth for two perfect lovers and ended the search with ourselves.” A warning: It’s all like that.
*. Directed without much imagination by Michael Curtiz. Shot in Technicolor with lots of cardboard sets and heavy costumes (literally heavy; apparently some of Davis’s dresses weighed 60 pounds). Plenty of veteran hands in the background: Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon, Alan Hale, Sr. (the Skipper’s dad) as the Earl of Tyrone, Henry Daniell as Sir Rober Cecil (the snake who would survive), and Vincent Price just introducing himself as Raleigh in pink tights. I doubt Clive Owen was taking notes. A great score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
*. I’m not sure what people thought of Davis’s performance at the time. Today it’s too much, especially piled on top of such a melodramatic script, which even gives her a mirror-smashing scene to go full diva in. I’d call it camp, but when you set it alongside something like Elizabeth: The Golden Age it doesn’t seem that out of place, making me think that maybe camp was somehow of the essence of the Tudor myth. And further wonder why the silliest parts of that myth have been so long lived. I understand the perennial appeal of the Tudors, but the way we see them really should have evolved more than it has.

Mary of Scotland (1936)

*. Katharine Hepburn had a long career that began strong but, by the time of this film, it was entering into a bit of a slide. The press was turning against her (dubbing her “Katharine of Arrogance”) and she had never cared much for them. This movie was one of a few flops she had come out at this time, leading to her being considered box office poison.
*. Well, she was a great actor, and she’s very good here. But I can see why Mary of Scotland didn’t take off. While Hepburn tries to breathe some life into the proceedings (literally with some heavy breathing in her big love scenes), this is a stiff historical costume drama, which is a genre not known for being very supple in the first place.
*. I don’t think I’m wrong in attributing most of the film’s failures to its genre. Hepburn is good and Frederic March (playing the Earl of Bothwell) is at least in there trying. Director John Ford apparently had no interest in the project at all, occasionally leaving the work for others, but it’s still reasonably well put together. And yet it’s thick and sticky as pitch.
*. The story itself has always been a draw. Mary Stuart’s life is presented as having only one chapter, beginning with her arrival in Scotland and ending with her quick execution. Her childhood here is, as would become usual, left out (and she’d been Queen of France!), as is her long imprisonment (some twenty years in England, as Elizabeth tried to figure out what to do with her). Instead we get marriage to the fop Darnley, the murder of David Rizzio (a towering John Carradine) and her husband, marriage to Bothwell, and then a quick trip to the chopping block.
*. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the dramatic highlights of such a life, but Mary of Scotland goes further than most of her biopics in taking historical liberties. And by this I don’t mean the meeting with Elizabeth at the end, a bit of fiction that has become obligatory in every Mary movie. What I’m talking about here is how Mary is forced to marry Darnley against her will, all the while pining for her true love Bothwell. This is pretty much the opposite of what really happened.
*. But what drags Mary of Scotland down the most is its script. This was written in blank verse (honest!) and it’s fully of fusty stuff that must have had audiences laughing even at the time. When Bothwell comes on to an imperious Mary he begins with “Do you expect me to bow and scrape and make pretty speeches? I’m a soldier! I love you!” Mary, getting all breathy, can only rejoin: “You forget I’m your queen!” To which there can be only one proper response: “Have I ever forgotten that? But I remember you’re a woman! Don’t ever forget that yourself!”
*. It’s all that silly. When Bothwell is dying in jail he wants his servant to go to Mary and tell her that he’s still planning on rescuing her from her prison in England this is what he says: “Tell her she’ll hear the pipes when I come for her! Tell her to listen! Tell her my pipers . . . my pipers are coming . . . ” And then he expires. As we hear bagpipes playing, somewhere in the distance. So obviously he isn’t going to rescue Elizabeth. But the message is faithfully passed along, with the servant telling Elizabeth that Bothwell will always be waiting for her where the bagpipes are a-playin’.
*. Troops of pipers march across the stage (it really is a stage) several times throughout the film, letting us know where we are. We also get some actors who throw in the odd burr, because nothing says you’re in Scotland like hearing people rrrrrrroll their r’s.
*. Yes, it’s all this silly. And at the end it’s even a bit surreal, with a gigantic courtroom set that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and a long, long climb up the scaffold at the end, as though Mary’s going to meet her fate on a mountaintop. As the lightning sparks in the sky and the thunder rolls and the music soars.
*. Perhaps, no matter how hard you try to twist this story, there just isn’t a great movie in it. Heaven knows they’ve tried and tried with some regularity over the last hundred years. I’d call this one a production of its time, but it actually feels a bit older than that. And while it doesn’t play at all well today, I can’t say it’s much worse than what was to come.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

*. I hadn’t seen this in a while and was surprised at how well it held up. But I shouldn’t have been. Have the Tudors ever gone out of style? When The Private Life of Henry VIII came out it was a gamble for producer-director Alexander Korda because historical costume dramas weren’t considered a big draw. But he knew if anyone was going to buck that trend it would be Henry. That this would also be the first non-Hollywood picture to win an Academy Award (Charles Laughton for best actor) and to be nominated for best picture was just icing on the cake. (It was only the sixth Academy Awards though, so this distinction has to be qualified somewhat. Also, the best picture winner that year was Cavalcade, a movie few people today have seen or I suppose would even want to see.)
*. I also shouldn’t have been surprised because Charles Laughton is good in everything, and he’s everything here. There have been plenty of Henrys since (and Emil Jannings had been excellent in the 1920 Anna Boleyn), but Laughton owned the part, and has owned it for nearly a hundred years now. In appearance he might have stepped straight down from a Holbein canvas. And the way he tears that chicken apart was a piece of business that he apparently dined out on for quite a while. Who can forget it?
*. But there’s more to Laughton’s performance than just the way he eats. And it’s not all “larger than life.” Acting styles have changed quite a bit in the last hundred years, but the way Laughton plays Henry stands up both in the more boisterous moments and for the quieter ones. I don’t think he overplays his reaction being told of Catherine’s infidelity, for example, and that’s not an easy scene.
*. The best part of the movie, and it’s all pretty good, is the wedding night of Henry and Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife). Which is also not surprising given that Korda had come to the project wanting to find a Laughton-Lanchester vehicle and that the story was originally only going to be about the marriage of Henry and Anne. As it is, they can’t resist bringing her back at the end, however unhistorical that may be.
*. The only off note in the wedding night scene is that it’s so obvious the two are getting along it’s hard to understand why they didn’t stay married. But this is very much a cartoonish take on Henry’s reign, to the point where there’s no sense even bothering trying to figure out how it all holds together, either as history or just judged on its own terms.
*. The Tudors, much like the Julio-Claudian emperors, remain popular because they were a real-life soap opera. Sex. Power. Ambition. Violence. People who can be charismatic or engaging on a superficial level, but underneath you know they’re bad. Plus the fact that dynastic and court politics are still very much with us, even in a democratic age.

*. I think it’s a commonplace that the more you read about Henry, or any of the Tudors, the less there is to like. They were all shits. Even Edward VI was a little prig. This is the wonderful thing about Laughton’s performance. He is a bluff, hearty fellow but at the same time you never lose sight of the fact that he’s a bully and a despot and that he really doesn’t care about much of anything except satisfying his own appetites. Look at his face as he watches the scaffold being built for Anne Boleyn. He’s not a sadist, but he has no feeling for others. Which is the prerogative of royalty. Everyone laughs at your jokes, even when they don’t hear them.
*. Merle Oberon, in her first major role, makes quite an impact playing Anne Boleyn. Rouben Mamoulian would say “I don’t think in the history of the theater or the movies, has such a small part made such a great impression.” I wouldn’t go that far, but she is good. But credit Korda too for framing her so well on the scaffold.

*. Korda does what he can without a lot of production value to work with. There are flourishes. I like how the cock fight sets up the wrestling match where Henry displays his own virility, and the way its broadcast in giant shadows on the tapestry walls. That works on several levels. And the way the laughter of the court spreads down below stairs works well too. It tells you a lot about how a court operates (and I don’t mean how the meals are prepared).
*. As you’d expect, it’s talky. But the talk is good. Henry sighs about what he has to do for England when going to his bridal chamber with Anne. He scoops Samuel Johnson a quarter millennium by referring to another marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. All of this stuff just rolls along.
*. The lack of a big budget gives it even more of the feel of a play. The sets are probably what date it the most, as they just look like stage walls knocked together. But still it all works because it really couldn’t miss with Laughton in such a role. He could have been playing the part in a barn and without any costumes and it still would have been alright. And so the movies have kept coming back to this material, again and again. Even Laughton would be back twenty years later in Young Bess. It’s good to be the king.

Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)

*. A real shame. In many ways Charlie Chan at the Race Track was one of the best Chans yet. It has a script that, while complex, I actually managed to follow pretty well. There’s the interesting introduction of technical matters like blood-spatter evidence and light-triggered photo guns at the track. Charlie’s folksy wisdom is colourful and direct (“Man who flirt with dynamite sometimes fly with angels”). Director H. Bruce Humberstone uses some delightful whip pans in the final act to add to the sense of a swiftly approaching climax.
*. But I say it’s a shame because of the character of the indolent and cowardly Black groom Mainline, who is clearly a stand-in for Stepin Fetchit from Charlie Chan in Egypt. He doesn’t have any essential role to play but is only included for comic relief. And I suppose audiences at the time got some laughs out of him. But he sure doesn’t play well today.
*. What makes this all the more difficult to take is the way Keye Luke’s Number One Son on two separate occasions makes fun of Asian stereotypes to get out of trouble, with lots of bowing and “oh, vely solly!” apologies. So Asian stereotypes are to be turned on their head while Black stereotypes are fully indulged. It’s jarring.
*. Of course there are other cultural assumptions that are easy to glide by too. When Charlie tells the young man at the end that “Good wife best household furniture” we’re meant to laugh along with that as well. But at least that’s meant as a joke. I think.
*. The plot is a bit far-fetched, though apparently there really was a problem at the time with substitute horses being used as ringers that was only solved by tattooing IDs onto their inner lip. In any event, it’s basically a straight lift from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Production values are relatively high, with some good race track stuff mixed in and a fire in a horse stable (on a ship) that’s pretty impressive. Apparently Warner Oland was drinking heavily and was barely awake in some of his scenes but Humberstone found some workarounds so you don’t notice too much. It’s a shame about Mainline but I don’t believe in cleaning these things up so you’ll either have to put with him or pass.

Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

*. “Charlie Chan . . . needs no recommendation. The films in which he appears are all genuine detective films as distinct from thrillers, they are always well-made and well-acted.” That’s the novelist Graham Greene in a review of Charlie Chan at the Circus that ran in The Spectator in 1936. Something to keep in mind when considering the split between high and low culture in the first half of the twentieth century.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release of this movie a pair of film historians (Rush Glick and Courtney Joyner) describe the run of Charlie Chan movies that came out in 1936-37 (Charlie Chan at the Circus, at the Race Track, at the Opera, and at the Olympics) as when the series “hit full stride,” and that these four indeed were “the best of the Charlie Chans.” It’s not a judgment I’d want to argue with, not because I find myself in full agreement with it but because I think it would be splitting hairs. Were these movies really that different from what came before or after?
*. Still, if you are a Chan fan, like Greene, you’ll probably enjoy this. There’s lots going on, from the introduction of Charlie’s entire family to a raft of suspicious looking circus types. Ten minutes after it was over I couldn’t remember any of the basics, the plot being somewhat tangled, to put it mildly. Despite only being 72 minutes there’s a lot to keep track of. There are threatening letters, forged documents, an insurance policy, a co-owner of the circus who is in financial straits, a shifty snake-handler, a pair of little people trying to keep the show going, a snake deposited in Charlie’s sleeping compartment, a trapeze artist being shot from the sky, a gorilla running loose (twice), and Number One Son chasing after a contortionist and dressing up in drag.
*. The scene in drag has him pushing a pram with a little person (George Brasno) in it who is smoking a cigar. I wonder if that’s where they got the idea for Baby Herman puffing on a fat one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
*. Yes, this is a movie with a gorilla character in it. The gorilla’s name is Caesar, not to be confused with the chimp leader in the Planet of the Apes franchise. And he looks like most gorillas in movies of the time: like a guy in a gorilla suit. But it’s even worse. Because you suspend your disbelief, going along with the idea that Caesar is indeed a gorilla, but then you find out that sometimes he’s a gorilla and sometimes he actually is a guy in a gorilla suit! And nobody can tell the difference! Which is a hurdle that disbelief can’t be suspended above.
*. It’s familiar ground, to be sure. Things end with the same ruse or trap of luring the villain into revealing himself at the end, a device used in many of the other movies. Odd that the series went back to this same ending so many times, but I guess it works well enough.
*. As for the wisdom of Charlie Chan, the script is now so thick with aphorisms that he seems incapable of communicating in any other way. Most of these are tedious. “Silent witness sometimes speaks loudest.” “One grain of luck sometimes worth more than whole rice field of wisdom.” “Cannot tell where path lead until reach end of road.” “Man who seek trouble never find it far off.” “Question without answer like faraway water — no good for nearby fire.” I can’t say I feel enlightened by any of these. But then, man who seek enlightenment from Charlie Chan movie looking in wrong place.

The Raven (1935)

*. When I was a kid I memorized all of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.” I can still do a few stanzas, a couple of which are shoehorned into this movie, which otherwise has little to do with the poem, or indeed with Poe. The blade-on-a-pendulum device is the only substantive connection, and it of course does not come from “The Raven.” As a contemporary review in the New York Evening Post had it, this movie “has no more bearing on the original source than a stuffed bird has to an elephant.”
*. In their defence: (1) the credits only say that the film was “suggested by” Poe’s poem; (2) the script went through many drafts, with at least seven writers working on it; and (3) most Poe adaptations play this way. There’s as much Poe here as there was in the previous two Poe films (Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat) put out by Universal that are usually taken with this one as forming a trilogy. Which is to say, considerably less Poe than you’ll get in the 2011 horror anthology P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie.
*. The pre-title credits announce “Karloff and Lugosi.” No first names necessary (and indeed Karloff doesn’t even get a first name in the list of Players, as they were then called). Apparently Lugosi was angry that Karloff got top billing despite Lugosi having the larger role. I would have thought the fact that Karloff was being paid twice as much ($10,000 to Lugosi’s $5,000) would have been all the evidence he needed as to where he stood on the totem pole.
*. Aside from the two stars there’s very little to see here. Of the three films in the Poe trilogy The Raven is by far the least distinguished, without any of the atmosphere and disturbing transgressiveness of Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Black Cat. The only thing I really enjoyed here was the bedroom elevator set, which is revealed in an accomplished process shot when it reaches the basement. Aside from that, the sadistic Dr. Vollin’s torture chamber is a yawn, including the aforementioned pendulum and a room where the walls close in. How is he supposed to enjoy the suffering of his victims in that contraption? He can’t even see them.
*. It was considered shocking stuff, at least by some. The Code had come in and the producers got a warning about “running the risk of excessive horror.” In Britain it was strong enough to lead the Board of Censors to consider a complete ban on horror movies, mainly for Karloff’s slightly disfiguring make-up. Innocent days indeed.
*. In his book The Monster Show David J. Skal points to an interesting critique leveled by the London Times. Why were doctors being made into monsters? “Very rarely is the purpose [of a movie doctor] to save a life or effect a cure . . . The favourite purpose of an operation on the screen is either disfigurement or the creation of a monster . . . Ghosts and goblins that used to lurk in dark corners to pounce upon the unwary pale into ineffectual shadows before the grim figure of the demon surgeon brandishing his scalpel.”
*. I guess that’s a fair complaint to make, but I don’t think it was new in the 1930s. It also ignores the fact that doctors are scary people. We don’t usually interact with them unless we’re anxious about something in the first place. And surgery! How is that not scary? You don’t have to play up those trays of gleaming knives to feel a shiver. Medicine and horror go together like a hand in a rubber glove.
*. Not that this is a scary movie today. It isn’t. I’m not even sure how frightening it was, despite the concerns of the censors, at the time. Apparently audiences laughed at the man swinging from the door handle over the elevator shaft the bedroom has just dropped through. And then there’s a strange comic ending with the drugged couple sleeping through all the excitement and the youngsters enjoying a lame joke about crushing each other in loving embraces. A couple of good parts — Karloff shooting the mirrors and growling like Frankenstein’s monster being the highlight in my book — but otherwise its quite forgettable.

Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

*. A Charlie Chan movie with a different feel to it. Not because many of the formula elements are missing. There’s no Keye Luke, his place as sidekick taken by a bumbling butler (Herbert Mundin), but otherwise it goes pretty much according to script. There’s the use of science (chemistry, geometry, physics), a trap laid to catch the killer (so obvious by now that you’ll see it coming long in advance), and the gathering of suspects in a drawing room at the end to reveal whodunit. There are even a couple of Chan’s fortune-cookie aphorisms (thought not as many, or as imaginative, as usual). But it’s different this time.
*. I think this is mainly down to a different genre inflection. This is a less light-hearted film, taking its lead more from the horror genre. Its main setting, for example, is an old dark house that is, if not haunted, inhabited by a glove-wearing, knife-throwing killer working from “a regular honeycomb of passages that start everywhere and end nowhere.”
*. More to the point, this part of the film is very effectively done. The trick of the gloved hand at the window disappearing is great, and the musical cue playing beneath that scene is surprising in its modernity. Also quite chilling is the reveal of the ghostly face at the séance and the glimpse in the mirror of the gun pointing at Charlie.
*. You probably wouldn’t expect a Chan movie to look this good, but it was shot by Rudolph Maté, who would not often work on a movie like this. He’d go on to get five Oscar nominations in five consecutive years, one for Foreign Correspondent. He also directed D.O.A. (1949). Obviously this was more of an assembly-line product, but you can still tell it was made by someone who knew what he was doing.
*. As good an entry as it is, I don’t think it rates with many as a favourite. It just seems less Chan-like. I also had trouble sorting out the family relations, and the opening scene exploring the wreck seemed completely superfluous, as though they were either looking to pad out the running time or had some underwater footage lying around that they wanted to use.
*. Everyone is a suspect since, as one of the talking heads in the accompanying featurette puts it, “the detective story is founded on the principle of universal suspicion.” Alas, the killer turns out to be the least interesting of the lot. By the time he’s revealed though, we’ve had our fun.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)

*. Charlie Chan returns to the home of his honored ancestors in order to break up an opium ring.
*. There’s nothing new or interesting to report here. Though it seemed for a while that there might have been. I’ve spoken before about how these movies often feature an attractive young couple heading toward getting married and that in solving the murder (or murders) Charlie helps them on their way. Well, for a while in this movie it looks as though the young man might be part of the plot. But you probably won’t be fooled because (1) it’s made too obvious, and (2) you’ve seen the previous movies so you have a pretty good idea how these things work out.
*. Opium was a drug forced upon the Chinese by Europeans in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it’s nice that this is a movie with no villainous Chinese gangsters. The bad guys are all Europeans, of a motley variety. On the other hand, Charlie does kick things off by singing a song to a group of kids about the Emperor Fu Manchu. Which is really dumb.
*. “More physical action than usual,” Leonard Maltin writes. I think this is referring to Keye Luke’s sensational flying tackle off the staircase. It is one of the highlights. Charlie himself isn’t a physical sort of guy. I’m not sure if he even fires his gun.
*. There’s little else to say. They do try to keep things a bit fresh and interesting. Number One Son turns into a master of disguise. There’s the old business of a door opening just a crack and a pistol pointing through, but they add a well-positioned mirror to the scene that helps Charlie get out of the way (this sequence would be repeated, more atmospherically, in Charlie Chan’s Secret). The bad guys really are quite resourceful. They know Charlie’s no dummy so they put a lot of work into fooling him. This works in the early going, but once he’s on to them it’s game over. And so . . . take them away! And keep the serial going.

Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)

*. Mystery movies, like mystery novels, operate in a weird sort of way. They are essentially just puzzles whose sole purpose is to take you on a journey to their solution. So you wouldn’t expect them to be enjoyable on repeated readings or viewings.
*. They are, however, because so many of them are so very formulaic that they’re almost instantly forgettable. Yes, it’s likely you remember the solution to such clever Agatha Christie classics as Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But aside from those? I can re-read a Christie novel every couple of years (I don’t, but I could) and still have forgotten it so completely that I could enjoy it just as much as I did the first time.
*. I was thinking of this quality mysteries have while re-viewing the Charlie Chan film canon. I’d seen all these movies five or six years previously but coming back to them now I could barely remember anything about them. I might as well have been seeing them for the first time. There is the formula I mentioned — with elements like someone trying to drop a giant stone on Charlie, a gloved hand appearing out of a doorway to fire a shot, and the young couple being united at the end after the villain is taken away by the authorities — but as for whodunit or what he did I had no recollection at all.
*. I’d also forgotten the appearance of Stepin Fetchit, who plays the idle assistant “Snowshoes” in this movie. The distance of nearly a hundred years makes the phenomenon of Fetchit all the more difficult to understand. And he was a phenomenon, reportedly the first black actor to become a millionaire. But what was so funny or appealing about him? Was it just playing to a stereotype of Blacks as lazy and scared of ghosts?
*. What I did remember from Charlie Chan in Egypt was the secret chamber that could only be accessed by a quick underwater swim. This was neat. And of course the presence of Rita Hayworth, from back before she was Rita Hayworth (indeed, she’s here credited as Rita Cansino).
*. Was there anything in Hayworth’s performance here, as the sexy servant girl Nayda, that would make you think she was going to be a star? If there was it would be in her eyes. They glow even brighter than those of jeweled Sekhmet.
*. The actual murders here are so involved and confusing as to aid in their forgetting. The business with the violin was “ingenious” indeed, though I might have called it ridiculous. Hats off though to making the native Egyptians, despite their suspicious behaviour, into people just wanting to hold on to their cultural patrimony from looting European museums. That doesn’t quite make up for Stepin Fetchit, but it was progressive for the time.
*. There’s no Number One Son, which is a shame. I mentioned in my notes on Charlie Chan in Paris how he made such a nice foil. Great detectives tend to be arrogant and larger than life. Then there are some, like Charlie, who can be annoyingly humble (they even make a running gag here out of his bowing to the Egyptian official). The only other famous fictional detective I can think of with the same degree of humility is Chesterton’s Father Brown, and I can’t stand Father Brown (mainly because I find his humility fake). What this means is that the characters and story surrounding Charlie have to be more exotic to compensate. I think they are here, and while this is an almost totally forgettable entry in a B franchise, it’s still a pleasant enough time waster.

The Black Camel (1931)

*. Infosheet, pretty much cut and paste: The Black Camel was one of five Warner Oland Charlie Chan films based on the original Earl Derr Biggers novels, and the only one of these which survives (and indeed a print was only discovered in 1970). It was also the second Chan film starring Warner Oland, the first being the now lost Charlie Chan Carries On (not a Carry On movie).
*. This background is relevant for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the fact that it’s based on one of the novels gives the proceedings a bit more solidity in terms of a plot. It’s not just the line-up of the usual suspicious types crammed into the phone booth of a one-hour feature that would become the formula. Also, motive gets fuller development. Of course it’s all a bit far-fetched, but it’s better than anything that was to come in this department.
*. The other reason I mention this background information has to do with this being the second film in the franchise. John Cork on the DVD commentary (which he shares with Ken Hanke) calls The Black Camel his favourite in the Chan series, and has good reasons for rating it so highly. They were actually trying on this one, including sending the cast and crew to Honolulu to shoot on location (something Fox wouldn’t be keen on doing again).
*. The fact that it was the second Oland film might be taken as a bit depressing. I mean, there were many more to come so they were peaking early. But then I remember saying much the same thing in my notes on From Russia With Love, which was only the second James Bond film and the one I think may be the best of an even longer-lived franchise. Interestingly enough, this is a subject that comes up on the commentary, where they talk about how the sophomore entries in a film series are often the best because “they know what to do, but it hasn’t become stale or tame.” They also reference From Russia With Love, as well as Tarzan and His Mate. They don’t mention The Empire Strikes Back, though many people (not me) would say it fits the same pattern.
*. Do I think this the best of the Chan movies? I wouldn’t call it my favourite. It’s not so much better, though it is in many ways, as it is different. I don’t see Oland as wearing more pronounced make-up than in the other films, or as much less cuddly, as the commentators do, but they’re probably looking with sharper eyes.
*. Some of the direction (by Hamilton MacFadden, who appears in a cameo as the movie director in the first scene) is impressive, at least for the time. You didn’t see many tracking shots back then, and even fewer of the quality you see here. This is another part of what I meant when I said they were trying.
*. Bela Lugosi as co-star, though since Dracula was only released a few months ahead of this film he wasn’t a name yet. But he still looks sinister enough to be the red herring, much as Boris Karloff would be used later in Charlie Chan at the Opera (when Karloff actually was a star).
*. Also coming directly from Dracula is Dwight Frye as the butler Jessop. Oddly uncredited since he’s a pretty important character.
*. Instead of Keye Luke as Number One Son we have a Japanese subordinate named Kashimo who runs around madly like some kind of semi-articulate dog, barging into rooms and barking out “Clue!” Luke would be more endearing, and not suffer such pointed abuse as Charlie directs at Kashimo here.
*. I was surprised by the reference to a lie detector machine, but they actually were playing around with such devices in the 1920s. Watch and learn.
*. The title comes from some proverb Charlie cites. I think it might have made more sense in the book. It’s actually a pretty lousy title for a movie. It would later be remade as Charlie Chan in Rio, which at least has a better sense of branding.
*. Perhaps not a landmark work, but check the date. It’s really a cut above the vast majority of movies coming out around this time. Things like the camera movement I mentioned, and the sound, are first rate, and the story better than you’d expect. Even Lugosi turns in a credible and effective performance, not just falling back on being a ham. Not as much fun as a few of the later entries, but perhaps a better movie, and well worth digging up.