Category Archives: 1940s

My Darling Clementine (1946)

*. The mythic West, which is to say the landscape of the Western. The town that’s a single street hosting a saloon and a hotel and a barbershop. The marshal with his tin badge. The stagecoaches and the covered wagons. The cowboys. And Monument Valley as a backdrop.
*. And those are just the props. Then there’s the story and its themes. The forces of order and civilization supplanting the wildness of the cattle-rustlin’ outlaws. The hooker with a heart of gold and the budding schoolmarm. The showdown between good and evil.
*. John Ford did more than anyone to establish the grammar of the genre, and it’s fitting that a movie like My Darling Clementine is considered by many to be the greatest work of a man whose most famous line (from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) was that when a legend becomes fact you print the legend. And how does a legend become fact? By being represented as such in movies like this.

*. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one such myth, perhaps the best known outside of the Alamo, based on an event that took place in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. By the time Ford came to make this movie it was already a legend, the fiction having replaced the fact in an early Wyatt Earp bio written by Stuart Lake. Ford said that he talked to Earp back when he (Ford) was a prop boy working on silents, but by that point I doubt even Earp himself had an accurate picture in his head of what went down.

*. The historical accuracy of the movie doesn’t concern me a bit, though it’s something David Thomson really takes exception to in his essay on it. When someone once asked Ford why he didn’t shoot the events as they really happened he testily replied “Did you like the film? What more do you want?”
*. Fair enough, but there are other myths that may be at play as well. For example, this movie is now put very much on a pedestal by film critics and historians, but is it that good? I think it is, but it’s also awfully hokey. And that’s not just how it seems eighty years later. That’s how it struck many people at the time. Even the test audiences hooted at the handshake at the end, forcing Darryl Zanuck to do a reshoot.
*. Nor were critics in 1946 wholly on board. Manny Farber: “John Ford’s slow-poke cowboy epic, My Darling Clementine, is a dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie making. Made almost unrecognizable by this super-schmaltzing by 20th Century Fox, this is an account of how Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers rode herd on the badmen in Tombstone. Given almost equal billing with the Earps in this version of old Tombstone are cloudscapes which are as saccharine as postcard art. Typical of director Ford’s unimaginative, conforming tourist sensibility is the setting he uses — dead, flat country with Picassoesque rock formations jutting dramatically here and there — that has happened in Westerns ever since Art Acord was a baby.”
*. Another way this movie gets drawn into the world of myth is due to the story of its release. There’s a lengthy feature on this included with the Fox Studio Classics DVD (I think it’s also part of the Criterion package) by film restorer Robert Gitt that I’ll crib from here. Basically, Zanuck was disappointed with the preview version and insisted on what he described as “a major and radical cutting job.” This meant chopping some 30 minutes out of Ford’s original cut, as well as adding some material reshot by Lloyd Bacon and then tinkering with the score. Gitt concludes that Zanuck “undoubtedly improved” the film, but I don’t know how he can be so sure. It’s unlikely Zanuck did much to damage it, but I don’t think we can say more than that he made some changes that are at least defensible.
*. What I watched this time was what’s known as the pre-release version, but even that’s a controversial claim. Gitt had a free hand with restoring this version, even taking a scene from part of the movie, darkening and cropping it, and then reinserting it later to help paper over a point where something was obviously missing. He says a restorer normally “would not and should not do this.” I’d say! I mean, it’s well done and it works but it’s taking quite a liberty.
*. But enough with the back story. Let’s say something about the film.

*. It’s very much a star vehicle, and I think Henry Fonda does a terrific job as Wyatt Earp. Because let’s face it: does Henry Fonda look like a gunslinger? He’s not an imposing figure, and I had to smile at the size of the heels on his cowboy boots in the shots where those are visible. Yet he still manages to exude a sense, some would say a preternatural sense, of authority and confidence.
*. This may not be far removed from the reality. As Earp’s modern biographer, Casey Tefertiller, puts it: “He loved to be amused, yet almost never laughed; his dour countenance covered an air of supreme confidence in his ability to deal with just about any problem.”
*. I wonder if it helps that Fonda’s playing alongside Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. Mature was a big, burly fellow but really no great shakes as an actor and he’s no good at all here. In fact he feels like an anchor in nearly every scene he’s in. Set next to Fonda you never doubt for a moment who has real authority, on screen or in Tombstone.
*. The womenfolk are the usual Western clichés. Linda Darnell is the sultry singer Chihuahua (really), who never loses her glow even when being operated on without anesthetic. Indeed, she never even breaks a sweat. I don’t think ladies did sweat back in the 1940s. Cathy Downs is Clementine, and she’s the good girl who’s going to be the new schoolmarm. She’s so innocent she almost didn’t get a kiss at the end, having to settle for a chaste handshake from the terribly decent Wyatt.
*. I like the supporting cast too. Walter Brennan is another actor who feels like he’s playing against type. At least I always see him as being a somewhat comic figure, and he’s a nasty piece of work here as Pa Clanton. That opening scene where he and Grant Withers (Ike Clanton) are sizing up Fonda is so full of menace it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole movie. You can feel the tension there, and all the bad things that are going to come out of it.

*. Ford’s eye is, as usual, superb. I love the way he creates a sense of space, for example with the long receding diagonals of the bar or the porches lining the street. The creation of space goes underappreciated I think, but the best directors always handle it well. Look at all the different angles Ford uses, for example, to shoot the iconic image of Fonda leaning back in his chair on the porch. We feel he’s really there because the camera is walking all around him.

*. It’s interesting how often that action of leaning back in the chair gets worked into the film as a leitmotif for Earp’s character. From the faulty barber chair at the beginning to his sitting at the poker table, in the box at the theatre, and at his desk in his office. It’s a nice way of expressing both the dangerous situation Earp finds himself in and how confident he is at being able to handle it.
*. I’m less sure of the meaning behind the placing of so many of the character’s faces in extreme shadow. Is this meant to represent a dark fate? Maybe. Earp of course doesn’t die, but he’s in shadow during the operation scene and Chihuahua isn’t long for this world.

*. So much of the history of the Western for the past sixty years has been de-mythologizing that it’s fun to go back and see such a classic representation — maybe the classic representation — of the myth before it was deconstructed and undercut by irony and bowls of spaghetti. It’s a treasure of a film, but very much of its time. Or, as Farber thought, some time previous to 1946. Previous to 1881 even. It belongs to an archetypal past that’s no less impactful for being imaginary.

Hamlet (1948)

*. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is one of the totemic works of Shakespeare on film. Not just for having England’s Greatest Actor playing the title role but for its commercial success and critical accolades — it was the first British film (and the first non-American film) to win the Best Picture Academy Award, with Olivier also winning for Best Actor. That a Shakespeare movie could actually make money was something that before this time had seemed unlikely. Such prestige pictures were seen as sure-fire box office losers.
*. If it was lionized at the time — Pauline Kael: “Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen” — some of the blush is off the rose. Many now consider this to be the least of Olivier’s big three Shakespeare productions (Henry V and Richard III being the others). I’d probably rank myself among them, for various reasons. Also, the then trendy notion of playing up the Oedipal theme has grown tired, to the point of almost seeming put on by the time of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film and Mel Gibson locking lips with Glenn Close.

*. Even as a teaching supplement to be fed to schoolkids its limitations are stark. Not just because of the radical pruning of the plot, eliminating, most notably, Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely, but for the dumbing-down of the text. They call us drunkards, not clepe us. The ghost wears his visor up, not beaver. “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me” becomes “hinders me” (the meaning of “lets” being pretty much the opposite of what we take it to mean today). The cock is the herald to the morn, not trumpet. “Recks not his own rede” becomes “minds not his own creed.” “Very like” becomes “very likely.” And so on.
*. Were Olivier’s instincts, or motivations, suspect in making these changes? He felt that “one great whacking cut had to be made” to keep the running time manageable, and that’s fair. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version played the full text but clocks in at four hours. Both versions work, but I’m all for letting productions of Shakespeare cut what they want and move at their own pace, a matter of tempo that is not to be slighted. Also, as previously noted, this Hamlet did open up the box office. And finally, at this point Larry Olivier could pretty much do as he pleased with the Bard.

*. Perhaps the most famous change is a pure invention: the opening voiceover that tells us “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” That’s another reading that’s available on the evidence, though it’s since been called into question. Actually, Hamlet stays pretty active throughout the play. It’s also the case, as many critics have pointed out both then and now, that Olivier has so much energy that it’s hard to buy him as a ditherer.
*. Even more to the point, Olivier doesn’t emphasize the parts in the play that highlight Hamlet’s indecision, for example cutting the entire “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech. This makes you wonder why he wanted to foreground this particular reading by suggesting that indecision is the “mole” in Hamlet’s nature.
*. I mentioned the Oedipal angle. This is helped along by the fact that Olivier was 40 when the movie was filmed and Eileen Herlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was only 29. This is weird, but I don’t think it registers that strongly. Olivier had a face that could be young or old on command. The kisses on the mouth, however, even bother Claudius. They’re a bit of a giveaway.

*. Another interesting note with regard to the casting. This was the first of 22 movies that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in. Cushing is easily identified, as Osric is a substantial part and he plays him very well. Lee, however, is only credited as Spear Carrier and I wasn’t able to pick him out.
*. Olivier didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director. That year it went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think they got it right. What sets the tone here is more the black-and-white photography, which has been compared, perhaps a bit lazily, to expressionism and noir. I guess there are notes of both, but the influence of Welles, especially in the use of deep focus, is more direct. I saw a restored version this time and it really made the high contrast stand out.
*. But mostly it’s a production that just seems kind of a stagey in a cheaper and less artistic way than the canvas and plywood of Olivier’s Henry V. I kept looking at that circular platform and wondering whether medieval castles actually had helipads. I also thought the lack of editing chops showed in some of the scene changes and the amount of time spent looking at the back of the actors’ heads.

*. Also keeping with something Olivier did, I think more effectively, in Henry V are the soliloquies presented as voiceovers. I didn’t think this worked as well here because it made more sense for Hamlet to be talking out loud to himself rather than musing. But perhaps Olivier thought it was a signature move he had to include.
*. Things get off to a rough start. This has to be one of the most disappointing Ghosts in the history of Hamlet productions. It doesn’t hold a candle to Grigori Kozintsev’s spectacular figure. Indeed, it’s just a blur, with the lines read by Olivier but played back at reduced speed.
*. Why, given all that was left out, did they include the pirate battle? It looks kind of silly and feels out of place. But I guess they figured if they were making a movie they had to get something like that in there just to let people know they were watching a movie and not a play.

*. One part that I think really does work well is the play-within-a-play. This stood out for me the first time I saw the movie and I like it even more now. Olivier still doesn’t want to do anything by way of editing but uses a masterful camera movement around the stage that erases the difference between the performance and the audience, letting us watch all the watchers and their intersecting lines of vision. I don’t think the scene has ever been done better.
*. There’s a new wrinkle added in Gertrude drinking the poison cup presumably knowing what’s in it. I’m not sure where she got the idea (if she knew of the plot why didn’t she warn Hamlet in advance?), but I think it works here because the way the play is stripped down there’s more of a focus on her relation to her son.

*. Though heavily cut, it’s still a long journey. 154 minutes. But it holds tempo pretty well and it is a great performance from Olivier. He does seem to be channeling a black-box production at times but it also has some original ideas that Branagh didn’t mind borrowing for his version nearly fifty years later (Hamlet’s jump onto Claudius at the end, and his corpse being carried off).
*. Is it still the most exciting and alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on screen? I don’t think so. Watching it now I could still appreciate it but felt that with all “the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes” Branagh’s film, despite its excess and overreaching, has surpassed it. In any event, given that it’s now 75 years old you can’t really judge it by contemporary standards. At the time it was a gamechanger, and it still plays today not as a historical curiosity but a production with its own distinct presence and vitality.

Fantasia (1940)

*. I don’t think I’d ever seen Fantasia before this. At least not all of it. I know I’d seen the Sorcerer’s Apprentice episode with Mickey Mouse, but that’s it.
*. That episode was actually the germ of the film, as it was originally slated to be one of Disney’s Silly Symphony shorts but its production costs were so high they had to bundle it together with a bunch of other musical pieces and sell it as a feature. This turned out to be a smart move, as the box office was great, and would stay great for numerous re-releases over the years.
*. Critics ate it up too, as much then and now. It received two Academy Honorary Awards and regularly makes those lists of best and most important films of all time. Today, it’s status as a classic is pretty much undisputed.
*. So I was quite looking forward to the experience and was surprised to find it a chore just to sit through. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was still enjoyable, even if so familiar I wasn’t that interested in it. The Dance of the Hours with hippos, elephants, and alligators all doing a ballet was OK. Murnau’s Mephisto showing up for Night on Bald Mountain, same. But aside from that, I didn’t care for any of it.

*. I guess the animation was excellent for the time, but it doesn’t look like anything special today. It also didn’t seem to go with the music that well. I had trouble seeing the connection between Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the progression of geological time, for example. And the My Little Pony vibe of the Pastoral Symphony segment was borderline sickening, making Pauline Kael’s overall point about the movie that “the total effect is grotesquely kitschy.”
*. David Thomson: “What happened — and I think it was predictable — was that the better the music, the more trashy, second-rate, and absurd the pictures seemed. I’m not sure if Hollywood has so naked an example of the unbridgeable gulf between high art and low art.”
*. Is the gulf truly unbridgeable? Well, at least they tried. And the thing does have a couple of interesting aspects. The sexuality, for one, with the nude centaurettes and harpies with nipples. I don’t think Disney would get away with that today. Also, the general structure, moving from creation stories to a kind of apocalypse, was ambitious. But that’s as positive as I can be.

The Chinese Ring (1947)

*. There are two, and only two, things worth remarking about The Chinese Ring.
*. First, after Sidney Toler barely made it through the filming of The Trap and died soon after, this marks the debut of Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. Winters was an American of German descent (born Roland Winternitz) who was no great shakes as an actor. His turn as Charlie Chan is what’s best known for today, which tells you something. He also bears no resemblance whatsoever to an Asian man.
*. His nose gives the game away. As noted by author Yunte Huang, Winters’s “tall nose simply could not be made to look Chinese.” One gets the sense Monogram wasn’t even trying, as they didn’t bother much in the way of make-up either, or get Winters to speak with much of an accent.
*. In short, despite the low bar set by Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, who did at least grow on me a bit, Winters marks another big step down. But he would go on to star as Chan in five more films before Monogram finally threw in the towel.
*. Perhaps in the hope of providing audiences some continuity, Winters received back-up from Victor Sen Yung (who had previously played Jimmy Chan but who is now called Tommy), and Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown. Neither player is given much screen time though, which doesn’t help things.
*. The other point worth remarking has to do with another point of continuity, albeit not to the Chan franchise. The script here, by W. Scott Darling. is basically the same as was used in Mr. Wong in Chinatown, which Darling had written eight years earlier. Only the names have changed, so that “Captain J” in Mr. Wong in Chinatown has been cleverly changed to “Captain K” here.
*. You know you’ve dragged the bottom of the barrel when you have to remake Mr. Wong movies. What’s worse is the fact that Mr. Wong in Chinatown is a much better movie. To take just a couple of examples: the feisty lady reporter in the Mr. Wong movies is played by Marjorie Reynolds, and she was great. Louise Currie has the role here and she’s instantly forgettable. Second: in the Mr. Wong movie a dwarf witness is killed and buried, which gives the villain away when he claims he is burying one of his dogs. In this movie the witness who is killed is a small child, which is distasteful.
*. In short, a lousy movie that gives ample evidence no one cared about this franchise anymore. Winters should have been one and done and an immediate replacement sought, but that would have required a level of interest Monogram couldn’t muster. So things would continue for another couple of years before the series would be put out of its misery.

The Trap (1946)

*. An ending. Not the end of Charlie Chan on screen, but the last turn taken by Sidney Toler as the great Asian-American detective, and indeed Toler’s last screen appearance. He’d been diagnosed with intestinal cancer and was effectively dying on his feet through the last several Chan movies, apparently in such ill health he could sometimes barely walk or deliver his lines. So in addition to The Trap being a lousy movie, it’s sad too.
*. Efforts had been made to have Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) and Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) carry more of the load. This they do (Toler doesn’t even appear until 16 minutes in), but they do so in only the usual ways. Birmingham walks around scared to death at everything, including his own reflection in a mirror. while Jimmy hits on a pretty Chinese girl. But neither of them accomplish much.
*. This is one of the more disappointing things about the Chan movies in general. It’s not like they present a bunch of suspects and then build them up with distinct motivations while throwing in some red herrings along the way. Instead, none of the players are clearly distinguished and at the end Charlie usually just plays a hunch or sets a trap to catch the killer. You’re left with no clear idea of what was going on. The Trap (and I’m not sure what the title refers to) is better than most in this regard, as the killer does have a motive that at least makes sense, but it’s reveal also just feels dropped in at the end.
*. The story has a female troupe of . . . entertainers (singers? dancers? I wasn’t sure what they were) renting an oceanside property in Malibu, where a couple of them end up being garroted. One of the girls knows Jimmy Chan and this inadvertently gets Charlie on the case.
*. Just a sad conclusion to a series of films that were never very good to begin with. The mystery isn’t worth paying any attention to and the moments of comic relief all fall flat. They weren’t putting any effort into these at this point and it shows. But just because Toler was gone didn’t mean there they were going to stop. At least not quite yet.

Dark Alibi (1946)

*. Believe it or not, I was looking forward to this one.
*. Yes, by this point the Charlie Chan franchise was well and truly worn out. But Dark Alibi marked the return of director Phil Karlson, who I thought did good work on his previous Chan effort The Shanghai Cobra. Plus I was watching a colourized version, which I thought would make things a little easier.
*. Alas, even Karlson’s efforts, the slapdash colouring that churns like a lava lamp, and an interesting premise can’t save Dark Alibi.
*. I said the premise is interesting. What we have here is a gang of bank robbers forging the fingerprints of released convicts and leaving them (the prints) at the scene of the crime, thus framing the ex-cons and sending them back to the big house. The process of forging fingerprints is, however, a very complicated matter and even the scientists at the crime lab have a hard time figuring out how to do it. Which makes you wonder why the bank robbers are going through all this trouble. Like, why not just wear gloves and not leave any prints in the first place?
*. Charlie is, of course, on to their little scheme, noting that all the cons who have been framed came out of the same prison. From there he uncovers the whole plot, but not before several people get killed along the way just as a way of jolting the audience awake.
*. It’s some indication of just how little material they had here that the comedy routine we got in The Scarlet Clue between Mantan Moreland and his partner Ben Carter where they each finish off each other’s sentences is repeated three times in this film. It’s a good bit, but this is overkill.
*. Another sign of the lack of new ideas is how often we’re left with Tommy Chan and Benjamin Brown (Benson Fong and Moreland) just hanging out together. These moments were, however, the best parts of the movie. It was actually nice to see them laying back on the couch killing time, or playing rock-paper-scissors. And when they get in trouble and start calling out for Charlie (“Pop! Pop!” “Mr. Chan! Mr. Chan!”) it’s actually kind of sweet and funny.
*. But then Moreland is back jumping at his own shadow and Sidney Toler is sleepwalking through his role and the plot makes no sense and can’t be followed anyway so it’s all just a waste of time.

A Double Life (1947)

*. Probably doomed from the start. Ronald Colman was a fine actor, within his limits, but playing an actor playing Othello was not within those limits. He won an Academy Award for this movie but he’s hopelessly miscast. Pauline Kael: “Colman is not at his best, and the role of Othello is so far out of his range that he’s gentlemanly and dispassionate when he means to be fiery hot.” They had wanted Olivier, whose own Othello was odd enough but still worked. Colman was reluctant. He had never done Shakespeare and it shows. Not to mention that he just doesn’t have the requisite weight for the part of Othello, or for the passion killer Anthony John.
*. The casting isn’t the only odd fit. What we have here is a crime noir about the stage world. How do these two genres go together? Not comfortably.
*. The central conceit is that famous actor Anthony John has a problem over-identifying with the roles he plays. “The part begins to seep into your life . . . imagination becomes reality!” Tony is happy and fun to be with when performing in light comedies. As his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) explains, they were engaged while doing Oscar Wilde but broke up doing O’Neill and divorced doing Chekov. Since he’s now trying to get back together with her, she tries to talk him out of playing the Moor: “I know if we ever got mixed up in an Othello thing, it would be the end.”

*. Well, it’s actually worse than that. Playing Othello drives poor Tony mad with jealousy. This is where things get very silly. He ends up getting involved with a coarse waitress (Shelley Winters, with an “s” at the end of her name for the first time and playing a part that would come to define this stage of her career). He kills her in a fit of transference, giving her the “kiss of death” treatment from the play. But it’s not clear why he should kill Winters, since he’s obsessing over Brita having an affair with his pal Bill (Edmond O’Brien). We know this because his eyes start bulging out and he hears voices in his head chanting “Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill! Brita-Bill!” So . . . Winters must die. O’Brien then takes on the role of dogged detective, coming up with an elaborate (and ridiculous) scheme to prove Tony is a murderer.
*. It sounds crazy, and it is. The script is by the married team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and as Kael correctly points out it’s better suited for satire. Instead it’s played as a melodrama that is impossible to take seriously, with several moments that are unintentionally funny to liven up the hamminess.
*. This is all a long way of saying that it’s a movie that just hasn’t aged well. The noir elements don’t work as noir. There’s some effective lighting, but the killer is a kindly, sympathetic fellow, the “detective” isn’t likeable at all (we must suspect Bill “Friend”‘s game), and the police inspector is unbelievably obliging. Then, on the other hand, the theatre stuff is overwrought and clichéd, finally treating us with that old battle cry about how the show must go on. Together, the two generic strands don’t add up to anything more than their failed parts. Tony dies worrying that the audience would be calling for him to “die again.” I just wanted him to die once and make an end of it.

Dangerous Money (1946)

*. I’ve remarked before (many times) on how hard it is to follow the plots of the Charlie Chan mysteries. They are complicated, poorly explained, and cluttered with too many suspects who all look and sound the same. Even after Charlie’s quite abrupt wrap-ups it’s hard to be clear about what just happened.
*. I thought I’d really make an effort with Dangerous Money to understand what was going on. Mainly because the Monogram Chan movies are so bad anyway I wanted to find a way of staying interested.
*. It didn’t work. I’m really not sure what was happening. Charlie’s on a ship sailing to Samoa and meets a treasury agent who is on the trail of some counterfeiters. The agent tells Charlie that someone is trying to kill him. Someone tries to kill him but fails. Then they try again and succeed. So we have a murder investigation.
*. There’s the usual crowd of suspects. Even the innocent ones — innocent, that is, of murder — are up to no good. It’s all a muddle and by the end, as I say, I’d totally lost the thread. One doesn’t watch a Charlie Chan movie for the thrill of gathering clues and solving the mystery. Indeed, by this point in the series you may well wonder why one does watch a Charlie Chan movie.
*. For the aphorisms? They’ve run out of spirit and wit. “Good wife’s place should be at mate’s elbow in time of trouble.” Got it. “Kangaroo reach its destination by leaps and bounds.” Groan. “Hasty man could drink tea with fork.” Huh?
*. For the comic relief of Mantan Moreland? Well, he’s not here, having been replaced by Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown. Best is probably best known as playing the character of Sleep n’ Eat. He’s just a racist cliché here, trembling in fear at every sign of danger and given no funny lines. For example, he confuses “Jamaican” with “shoemaker.” I must be missing something but I can’t see what’s funny about that.
*. On the plus side, welcome back Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son Jimmy Chan. This is his first appearance in a Chan film since Castle in the Desert (1942), at the end of which he was heading off for military service. I guess he’s no longer in the army, but nothing is said about where he’s been the last four years, and there’s no mention made of Tommy Chan, who had been taking his place in the Monogram pictures up till now.
*. Speaking of the war, I wonder if the scientist’s line “I said that I’d return, and I’m returning” was meant as a nod to MacArthur’s famous speech about getting back to the Philippines. It seems forced, and Charlie smiles at it, so I suspect it was a joking reference.
*. At one point a thick wad of bills is pulled open to reveal only a bit of money on the outside and a bunch of newspaper strips on the inside. Jimmy calls this a Kansas City bankroll. I’d always heard this referred to as a Detroit roll. I looked it up and apparently both locations are used. Probably other cities lay claim to it as well.
*. A worthless film, poor even by the standards of the later days of this franchise. Toler really looks like he’s not even mailing it in. One of the villains is actually a man dressed as a woman. When captured and his disguise revealed one of the authorities exclaims “Why Mr. Chan, she’s a man!” To which the transvestite replies, “So what?” As comebacks go, that struck me as incongruously postmodern. But it’s answered with a belt to the chops that knocks him out, so we never get any clarification.

The Red Dragon (1945)

*. Or Charlie Chan, Still In the Secret Service, in Mexico City. Mexico being evoked only by a single opening stock-footage shot and the presence of Fortunio Bonanova as a Mexican police inspector who gets to be Charlie’s sidekick. As usual Charlie has Benson Fong as Tommy Chan with him too, but this time Mantan Moreland’s Birmingham Brown has been replaced by Willie Best as Birmingham’s cousin Chattanooga Brown.
*. I don’t know how skilled a comic actor Best, also known as Sleep n’ Eat, was. He is stuck here doing the usual shtick of chasing after girls and being afraid of pretty much everything that moves. “My hair is getting tired,” he says at one point to Tommy, who responds “Your hair?” “Yeah, because for the last ten minutes it’s been standing on end.” Har-har.
*. It’s the usual wartime Charlie Chan plot. A scientist who is working on a new kind of super-atomic bomb using a previously unknown 95th element is killed and his research notes have gone missing. A group of suspects are assembled who are barely differentiated at all. When the killer is finally exposed your reaction is likely to be “Who’s he?”
*.  Also following the usual script, especially in these later Chan films, is the killer’s method. “One shot heard, two bullets fired, but not from a gun, how can that be?” That is a puzzler. Indeed, it’s complicated to the point of being nearly impossible to make sense of, and seems like the killer’s plan could hardly manage to go right. You see, there’s a gimcrack device containing exploding bullets that gets surreptitiously placed on the victim and which is then remotely triggered by a wall-mounted relay. Or something like that. I’m honestly not sure how it was supposed to work.
*. There’s nothing good to say about this one. It’s just a dull, confusing mess. I suppose if you’re looking for a highlight it might be Charlie dancing the rumba. He does not dance well, but it’s nearly all this movie has going for it.

The Shanghai Cobra (1945)

*. I’ll confess that I went into The Shanghai Cobra with very low expectations. I’d enjoyed the previous Charlie Chan movie, The Scarlet Clue, but mainly because I was watching a restored and colourized print. The print I saw of The Shanghai Cobra was in a dismal state, with a blurry picture and a soundtrack filled with bubble-wrap popping sounds. This, I thought, was going to be painful.
*. The opening scene, however, actually looked like it was done with style. And style is not a word I have often employed in my notes on the Charlie Chan filmography. There are a couple of men in trenchcoats, a woman, a rainy street, a diner. It’s very noir and, allowing for the poor quality of the print, looked good. I made a note to check the name of the director because this all seemed a notch above the usual Chan fare.
*. As it turns out, the director was Phil Karlson and this was his first Chan movie. He’d only go on to do one other, Dark Alibi. The only other film by him I’ve seen is Kansas City Confidential, an underrated noir of the same period. So full credit to Phil for making it work, especially seeing as he had so little to work with.
*. The story here is only the usual war-time espionage guff about gangsters or spies or something like that trying to steal some radium from a bank vault. There is also a subplot which turns out to be a red herring involving some guy who crossed paths with Charlie years earlier when he was suspected of killing people with injections of cobra venom. Well, guess what? People at the bank are now dying of cobra venom.
*. If you think the cobra venom angle is ridiculous just wait. It gets worse. How do people get injected with the venom? Well, one way is that at this hole-in-the-wall diner there’s a new type of jukebox that has a camera in it, so when you put your coin in a female DJ in an office miles away can view you on a video screen. Why? Don’t know. I have no idea what the point of this is. If anything, I’d be less inclined to put a coin in a jukebox that was spying on me. Nor is it clear what sort of greater functionality such a remote camera system has for someone who just wants to listen to a particular song.
*. Anyway, here’s the thing: pushing the button on the jukebox triggers a needle that injects the victim with cobra venom, and in such a way that the victims don’t even realize they’ve been stuck. I’m not going to explain any more. It’s that stupid.
*. There’s not much to add. Mantan Moreland is back as Birmingham Brown but he seems tired of these shenanigans. Benson Fong actually appears to be getting more relaxed in the role of Tommy Chan. Karlson gives some of the sets, like the bank vault and a sewer, some atmosphere. But overall this is nothing special and the ridiculousness of the plot was a bit much even for this franchise.