MGM finally makes available the first Charlie Chan movies on DVD, though this collection features 5 of the 17 Monogram productions, made between 1944 and 1949. Originally appearing in a silent 1925 production, Earl Derr Biggers' famous Asian sleuth became a regular character from 1931 to 1942, in a series of 23 films originally produced by 20th Century Fox.
The first sound films starred Swedish actor Warner Oland, who played Chan with stylized makeup until his death in 1937, and was replaced by another Swedish thespian, Sidney Toler, until Roland Winters took over the role after Toler's death, in 1947.
The key conundrum in releasing any film with Caucasian actors playing major ethnic roles is more than political incorrectness; these films showcased stereotypical ethnic characters that today seem offensive, racist, or just plain absurd. While MGM's set contains a minor caveat, carefully worded as a Fact From The Vaults, it may be an easier move to simply release these films without historical essays and let audiences separate the enduring qualities of Charlie Chan as a key figure in pre-World War II mystery fiction from the racial caricatures that represent the studios desire to create films for the broadest possible market: North America, and Europe.
Monogram's Chan debuted in "The Secret Service," which took advantage of the need to be on alert for evil German Spies or Japanese villains. A straightforward and plodding drawing room mystery, the film contains wartime references, and makes several efforts to remind audiences that, while the Japanese are the enemy, the Chinese are worthy allies against the evils of Fascism. (Unfortunately, the undercurrent is that only Chinese-Americans can be trusted, with Charlie Chan depicted as a respected colleague of American justice.)
MGM's DVD is a bare bones release, and one wonders why the studio chose to place each 65 minute film on single layer discs, rather than create a series of dual layer, double-bills, as was done for several of the Midnight Madness titles. The print transfers, however, are quite nice, and while the grain in the print's stock quality reveals some active compression, it's still a decent mastering. (Collectors should note, however, that each film is preceded by a revised UA logo from the late-Eighties, indicating these are older, extant transfers.)
The next film in Monogram's series is "Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat."
This title is available separately or as part of The Charlie Chan Chanthology, and includes The Shanghai Cobra, The Scarlet Clue, Meeting At Midnight, The Jade Mask, The Chinese Cat and Charlie Chan In The Secret Service.
Follow-up sequels are availble in the TCM / Warner Bros. collection, including " Dark Alibi" (1946), "Dangerous Money" (1946), "The Trap" (1946), and "The Chinese Ring" (1947).
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan