Now available from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, the Charlie Chan Collection features the DVD debut of four Charlie Chan mysteries from the Monogram Pictures years. The titles here include Shadows over Chinatown (1946), Docks of New Orleans (1948), Shanghai Chest (1948), and The Golden Eye (1948), the first of which stars Sidney Toler as the venerable Chinese detective with Roland Winter reprising the role in the remaining films. Watching these films from a modern perspective inevitably causes one to cringe at the problematic casting of white men as Charlie Chan and the wealth of racial stereotypes otherwise employed. However, viewing these films as products of their time and making allowances accordingly reveals them to be surprisingly effective B-pictures, ones with terrific little mysteries and wonderful performances at their core.
For anyone able to dissociate him/herself from modern belief systems when engaging with a product of another time, the Charlie Chan Collection should prove great fun– providing the viewer also harbors a fondness for B-pictures, I suppose. Personally, I plowed through all four pictures in under 24 hours, and not because of the pressure of this review. I just simply couldn’t get enough of these mysteries with their obvious roots in film noir, occasional magnificent outbursts of violence, and their quirkily “lavish” sets adorned with reprints of famous paintings. What’s more, I found myself absolutely captivated by what Blair Davis, author of The Battle for the Bs, calls “the problematic genius of Mantan Moreland.”
With regard to this last point, watching Charlie Chan movies is all about context, really. In spite of their representation of racial minorities according to 1940s stereotypes, what we have here, from another perspective, is actually increased visibility for both Chinese American and African American performers in cinema as Victor Sen Young (or Yung) and Mantan Moreland star as Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son and Chauffer, respectively. And increased visibility, of course, leads to acceptance, which in turn allows us to overcome such stereotypes by confronting them through media. What’s more, although the pair is most often used for comic relief, there are a number of moments throughout these pictures where the two characters progressively rise above the stereotypes to valiantly save the day, as in Sen Young’s portrayal of Jimmy/Tommy, or reveal great intelligence through clever reasoning and wordplay, as in Moreland’s vaudeville-inspired portrayal of Birmingham Brown. It is not without good reason, after all, that Charlie Chan allows this bumbling duo to hang around. Fancying themselves detectives in their own right, they are often every bit the heroes Charlie himself is.
Although I enjoyed all four pictures immensely, the one that stands out among the rest is The Golden Eye, in no small part because of an epic shootout in which Charlie, Tommy and Birmingham all sport pistols, and the comedic performance of Tim Ryan as Lt. Mike Ruark. Like Charlie, Lt. Mike attempts to unravel the conspiracy surrounding the Golden Eye gold mine by going undercover at a private resort. But he does so under the most brilliant cover of all: a three sheets to the wind, womanizing lush!
By contrast, I found Docks of New Orleans to be a tiny bit of a disappointment. Admittedly, I did find a lot to enjoy in the film. For example, the murderer’s method of execution is pretty amazing, a wealthy businessman has the “Mona Lisa” hung comically above his mantle as if no one would notice it isn’t the original, and you can clearly see the actors’ marks on the set floor in one shot. Honestly, I was just a bit put off by the fact that it featured an iteration of Moreland’s “Incomplete Sentence” routine that falls horribly, irredeemably flat (unlike the versions seen on YouTube here, which are absolutely spot-on).
For this release, the four films come packaged in individual DVD cases housed in a cardboard case, and the artwork for each individual case is a take on the cardboard case artwork, featuring images unique to each film. As a result, the overall presentation is quite attractive. What’s more, the films have been stunningly remastered for this release. The picture is so clear and the blacks in the image so inky that you could almost mistake this for a Blu-ray release. Warner Bros. did a wonderful job there.
Unfortunately, the set includes no special features, but if you already own the five previous Charlie Chan collections from Fox, I think they’ve got enough special features to go around. Honestly, I have only one complaint regarding the Charlie Chan Collection, and it’s not one that should dissuade you from purchasing the set by any means. It’s a relatively minor complaint, and one I voice here only as a warning. You see, rather than put the subtitles/language options in a submenu, which is commonly how it’s done, every option is crammed onto a single menu screen along with the play button. As such, the menus are an incredible eyesore. But they ultimately precede four films for which I now harbor great affection. So dive in, I say. The Charlie Chan Collection is a terrific investment at under $30!