DVD Review: Charlie Chan collection volume 2

Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 2
Fox Home Entertainment

“Talking to cow on wall is like train with no wheels. Soon get no-where.”

That is my favorite line from Murder By Death, uttered by Peter Sellers doing a spoof of Charlie Chan, the famous Chinese detective from the Earl Derr Biggers novels.

That was my introduction to Charlie Chan, a spoof. I thought it was funny and a little on the edge…I mean a white man playing a Chinese detective…THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS! Now that I have watched four REAL Charlie Chan movies and the extras that come with them, I realize it was not as outrageous as I thought. In the four I watched: Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937), Chalie Chan was played by Warner Oland, a Swede. And he was pretty damn good. There were clips from other Chan movies where the Chinese detective was played by a white man wearing VERY obvious make up to make him look Asian. It looked horrible. But Warner Oland, who wore no make up (he just turned up his eye brows and mustache), looked natural. He once said it was because he had Mongolian blood on his mothers side…but I digress. The movies were very good. Due to the age of the films, there are few odd moments–such as a black stable hand saying in a high voice “Yeahssir, right away misser Chan!”–where you sit back, your mouth agape, going “I…um…well…uh…hmmm…I am alone watching this and I am uncomfortable!” But for the most part they are a lot of fun. Warner Oland’s interaction with his “Number One Son,” played by Keye Luke (who went on to play David Carradine’s Kung Fu teacher in…that’s right…Kung Fu) is worth the price of admission. Charlie Chan is a low key, slow talking personality with an old time-y Chinese accent; his son is a hyperactive, fast talking, and totally Americanized, but lovable personality.

In the extras we learn that Mr. Oland, in real life, was a very fast talker; and that the director H. Bruce Humberstone would sometimes have to get him drunk to slow down his delivery of the lines…not that this presented much of a challenge, as Warner Oland LOVED to drink. In one scene in Charlie Chan at the Race Track, they had to prop him up against a fence and have a crowd around him to hold him up. In that same scene, they used a starter gun to startle him into moving his head to mimic watching a race, because he was leaning on the fence staring straight ahead.

One line I enjoyed in particular is from Charlie Chan at the Opera. Boris Karlof plays a madman that escapes from an asylum and hides in a theater. The stage manager trying to get the opera on track says: “This show is going on, even if Frankenstein walks in!” (Oddly enough Warner Oland played a character named Dr. Boris Karlov in The Drums of Jeopardy in 1931. I LOVE YOU IMDB! You make me sound smart!) Also watch for Charlie riding on the Hindenberg in Charlie Chan at the Olypics–which was filmed not to long before…you know. (Hint: OH! The humanity!) Makers of the movie spliced in real olympic footage from the Berlin games; watch for all the swastikas that were blurred out by the producers. (We do see, however, a couple of Nazi salutes during the torch lighting footage.)

It was kind of interesting to watch Charlie interact with the German police while trying to solve a murder. The main German keeps saying, “THIS KIND OF THING DOES NOT HAPPEN IN BERLIN!” What I did not realize (but learned in Charlie Chan at the Olympics) was that, apparently, EVERYONE who worked in Berlin hotels in the 30’s spoke English with a perfect American accent! To quote Fran Tarkenton, “that’s incredible!”
Purchase Charile Chan Collection volume 2 here.
Randy Otteson