Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TCM SPOTLIGHT: CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

Between 1931 and 1949, more than forty mystery films featuring author Earl Derr Biggers' Chinese-American police detective, Charlie Chan, were produced by Fox (then, 20th Century Fox) Studios and, beginning in 1944, the "Poverty Row" outfit Monogram Pictures.

Over the last several years, Fox Home Video has released the surviving Chan films from their archives in very nice box sets, and, prior to those packages, MGM put out a set containing the first six Chan flicks produced at Monogram.

Well, now Warners, as part of their "TCM Spotlight" line, has released their own CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION, containing four more of the Monogram installments. While these films do not represent the series at its best - star Sidney Toler was literally on his last legs, and Monogram's low budgets and accelerated shoots resulted in noticeably threadbare productions - they can still provide considerable entertainment for the vintage B-movie buff.

The first film in this 4-disc set is also the best. DARK ALIBI (1946) involves the detective (Toler) in a convoluted mystery involving a bank robbery, some incriminating forensic evidence, and a bunch of curious suspects. With the assistance of Number 3 Son, Tommy (Benson Fong) and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (the brilliant Mantan Moreland), Charlie must clear an innocent man - a man who's scheduled to be executed in just a matter of days. Directed by Phil Karlson, who brings some genuine filmmaking flair and film noir styling to the standard Chan formula, DARK ALIBI also features several great comic scenes between Moreland and his vaudeville partner Ben Carter.

DANGEROUS MONEY (1946) is a shipboard tale of South Seas counterfeiters and marks the return of Number 2 Son Jimmy from the Fox films (Victor Sen Yung) to the role of dutiful-but-bumbling offspring. Unfortunately, Moreland isn't in this film - Willie Best instead portrays his character's cousin, Chattanooga Brown. Although not as stylish Karlson's film, director Terry Morse delivers a perfectly satisfactory hour of old fashioned intrigue and mystery. (For once, the identity of the killer really caught me by surprise!)

THE TRAP (1946) marked Toler's last performance as Chan; in fact, he died shortly after its completion and was extremely ill during its production. His illness barely shows, though, as he goes about solving a murder in a seaside mansion filled with attractive showgirls. Jimmy & Birmingham are on hand to help, and serial Superman, Kirk Alyn, has a featured role as a State Police officer aiding Chan's investigation.

THE CHINESE RING (1947) doesn't quite feel like a proper Chan film, and there are several reasons for that. For one, Toler is replaced by the much younger, taller, and duller Roland Winters in the role of Chan. For another, the script is actually recycled from one of the studios' "Mr. Wong" movies from earlier in the decade. Those films starred Boris Karloff as the eponymous James Lee Wong, and, in every installment, teamed that somewhat drier Chinese sleuth with a plucky girl reporter and gruff police detective. Those characters reappear here (with different names and actors), but their prominence in the story means that Number 2 Son and Birmingham Brown get short-shrift. Directed by the notorious William "One Take" Beaudine, THE CHINESE RING just kinda plods along, with little of the series' trademark wit or familiar characterizations. Of all of the films in this set, it's the one that most feels like a Poverty Row exercise.

Warners DVD collection is very nice, if bare-bones. Each film is presented in 1.33:1 Academy ratio on their own discs. The image quality is remarkably good - with the exception of one troublesome reel in THE TRAP, the prints are in great shape, with very little damage, dirt or debris. Detail and contrast is very satisfactory, as well. Audio is a clear, fairly noiseless mono. There are no extra features whatsoever.

If you're a Charlie Chan fan, then adding this set to your collection is a no-brainer. If you enjoy old B-mysteries, then it's also worth checking out. These Monogram entries are generally considered among the weakest in the series, but they're still really quite entertaining, and I'm astounded that they're available on legitimate commercial DVD at all. I hope they sell well enough that Warners digs some more of the Monogram Chans out of their vaults soon for a Volume 2.

Recommended.

BUY: TCM Spotlight: Charlie Chan Collection (Dark Alibi / Dangerous Money / The Trap / The Chinese Ring)