Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)

Toronto Film Society presented Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937) on Monday, August 10, 2015 in a double bill with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as part of the Season 68 Monday Summer Series, Programme 5.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Director: Eugene Forde. Producer: John Stone. Screenplay: Charles Belden and Jerome Cady based on an original story by Art Arthur, Robert Ellis and Helen Logan. Cinematography: Harry Jackson. Editing: Alfred DeGaetano. Art Direction: Lewis H. Creber. Costume Design: Herschel McCoy. Music: Samuel Kaylin.

Cast: Warner Oland (Charlie Chan), Keye Luke (Lee Chan), Joan Marsh (Joan Wendell), J. Edward Bromberg (Murdock), Douglas Fowley (Johnny Burke), Harold Huber (Inspector Nelson), Donald Woods (Speed Patten), Louise Henry (Billie Bronson), Joan Woodbury (Marie Collins), Leon Ames (Buzz Moran), Marc Lawrence (Thomas Mitchell), Toshia Mori (Ling Tse), Charles Williams (Meeker), Eugene Borden (Louie).

In New York to attend a police testimonial in his honor, Honolulu detective Charlie Chan runs smack dab into another murder. The victim is a blackmailing nightclub singer who had listed the names of all known criminals in Manhattan in her diary. The diary disappears, and Charlie joins a glib newspaper reporter (Donald Woods) and a photojournalist (Joan Marsh) in hunting down the killer. Several false leads and red herrings later, Charlie puts the pieces together and fingers the killer–who true to form is the least likely suspect (especially for a “typical” New York murder case). Charlie Chan on Broadway represented the 15th appearance by Warner Oland as the aphorism-spouting Oriental sleuth.

Hal Erickson, Rovi

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Inspector Charlie Chan of Honolulu Police Department is a rotund Chinese detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers modeled Chan after the real-life Chinese detective, Chang Apana, who lived with his large family in Honolulu on Punchbowl Hill, and is the most prolific detective to appear on film with exception of Sherlock Holmes.

From the original silent film The House Without a Key (1925) to the series’ finale, The Sky Dragon in 1949, none of the six actors who were to play Charlie were Chinese. In the three earliest films, where Charlie Chan was not even the main character, two actors were Japanese (George Kuwa and Kamiyama Sojin in the silent films) and one was British (E.L, Park, although some think he was Korean, in the first Chan talkie). For the movie series that began its run in 1931, none of the Chan actors was even Oriental. One actor was Swedish (Warner Oland) and two were Americans (Sidney Toler and Roland Winters).

Charlie Chan’s physical attributes were not typical of most movie detectives and he often relied on a mixture of brains, good manners, and charm to solve many of his murder cases. With the three actors in the role of Charlie Chan as the film’s main character, there evolved three distinct interpretation of Chan’s character. Because many of the films featured one or more Charlie Chan’s ever-present children, it is not surprising then that most of the well-celebrated aphorisms are directed at them.

Warner Oland is perhaps the best-known and best-liked of the actors who portrayed Charlie Chan. He was born Johna Värner Őlund in the small Swedish village of Nyby. Although born to Swedish and Russian parents, a previous Mongol presence in Sweden provided Oland with uncanny but natural features that suited the portrayals of Orientals when a mustache and beard were added.

In the 16 Oland Chans, Charlie is a humble, polite policeman with the Honolulu Police Department, but rarely does he do any actual work for them. Instead, he usually pops up in various locales around the world such as London, Paris, Egypt, Shanghai, Berlin, New York, Monte Carlo, Reno, Panama, and Rio. The one notable exception is The Black Camel (1931) {shown at this year’s TFS’s May Movie Magic weekend} which was filmed entirely on location in Honolulu, although there were other films that would have Charlie start out from Honolulu. In the Fox films made before Charlie Chan in London (1934), Charlie is generally left alone to solve the cases, is more energetic in tracking the culprits, and often uses himself as bait in catching the murderer. With the London entry, Chan now begins to adopt a more methodical approach by gathering all the suspects that are still alive for the reconstruction of the crime.

Very often in public, Oland would talk in the stilted speech pattern and used mannerisms that were associated with his Charlie Chan characterization. He would quote sayings that he used in the films and often referred to himself as “humble father,” giving many the impression that he actually though he was Charlie Chan. Oland made 16 films as Charlie Chan. {Charlie Chan on Broadway was both Warner Oland’s second last Chan and life film.}

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PROVERBS BY CHARLIE CHAN IN CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY

  • Etiquette ignored when lady in distress. (Billie Bronson)
  • One cabin too small for two detectives. (Lee Chan)
  • Will feel like sparrow perched on limb with peacocks. (Speed Patten and Inspector Nelson)
  • New York like mouth of great river—many reefs in channel to break small sightseeing boat from Honolulu. (Lee Chan)
  • Camera remember many things human eye forget. (Inspector Nelson)
  • Position of body sometimes gives solution of murder. (Inspector Nelson)
  • Missing key may fit door to solution. (Inspector Nelson)
  • Mud of bewilderment now beginning to clear from pool of thought. (Inspector Nelson)
  • No poison more deadly than ink. (Lee Chan and Inspector Nelson)
  • Murder case like revolving door—when one side closed, other side open. (Inspector Nelson and Murdock)
  • Puppy detective perhaps now realize snooping very dangerous business. (Lee Chan)
  • Triangle very ancient motive for murder. (Marie Collins and Johnny Burke)
  • To know forgery, one must have original. (Speed Patten)

Charlie Chan’s Words of Wisdom: A collection of 600 proverbs spoken by the cinema’s favorite Oriental detective by Howard M. Berlin (2001)

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Coming hot on the heels of the trio of {director H. Bruce} Humberstone films, the flaws of Charlie Chan on Broadway, undeniable though they are, are perhaps magnified out of their true proportion, for there are a number of positive points about the film and quite a few delights along the way. Moreover the screenplay does attempt to do something a little different in dropping Charlie smack in the middle of a “typical” 1930s newspaper comedy-mystery, and providing the film with a rather surprising mystery killer (though the latter very probably was inspired by W.S. Van Dyke’s After the Thin Man the previous year). Unfortunately the execution of the concept falls somewhat short of the idea, since Charlie is never really integrated into the newspaper milieu, and the very real surprise of the killer’s identity leaves an unusually bad taste in the mouth, making it seem a brave but ill-advised attempt at best.

Hurting the film almost as much is a general air of sloppiness, noticeable almost from the first. Charlie Chan on Broadway opens very promisingly with Charlie and Lee aboard a ship (apparently returning from Berlin) bound for New York where Charlie is suffering from a bout of mal de mer. (“Please stop!” he barks at Lee, who insists on describing a meal in ghastly detail. “Mention of food more painful than surgeon’s knife without anesthetic.”) From this, however, we are quickly led into the mystery with a speed that is an admirable evocation of the newspaper film, but which is handled with such ludicrous melodrama that it seems positively silly. The furtive actions of an exceptionally shady character, Thomas Mitchell (Marc Lawrence), trapping a woman in the bathroom while he rifles her stateroom, are very overplayed—a fact emphasized no end by bolstering the soundtrack with music from the séance in Charlie Chan’s Secret. The man’s subsequent dash into the hallway just in time to join Charlie and Lee when they emerge to investigate the ruckus the lady has started to raise is cut so close and is so clumsily presented that one begins to suspect Charlie’s seasickness has affected his mental abilities, since he notices nothing unusual.

The object of the search turns out to be an insignificant looking book, which the lady in question, Billie Bronson (Louise Henry), decides might be safer in other hands. Taking a tip from Charlie Chan at the Olympics, she makes an obvious excuse to later visit the Chan cabin (ostensibly for aspirin, though we have seen a close-shot of a bottle of the same in her cabin earlier) and hides the book in Charlie’s luggage. (Series enthusiasts are here allowed to proclaim, “She must have seen the last movie.”)

Much fresher and better handled is Charlie’s arrival in New York, where he is greeted by Inspector Nelson (Harold Huber), a blustering, fast-talking, thoroughly Hollywoodized version of a Manhattan detective, who, failing to find out what the Chinese national anthem is, decides the band at the dock should greet Charlie with “Chinatown, My Chinatown”! Without doubt, Huber’s Inspector Nelson is one of the best things about Charlie Chan on Broadway, but his presence tends to push Charlie into the background. However, his manic characterization is used to neatly contrast with the methodical Oland, especially here in a beautiful bit where wise-cracking reporter Speed Patton (Donald Woods) translates his Brooklynese (“The big-wigs expect you to tear a duck apart with them tonight”) into English for Charlie (“New York English too baffling for humble detective”), while Lee unravels Charlie’s aphorisms for Nelson!

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The construction of this scene is also thoroughly admirable. Instead of being no more than a comic interlude, it is cleverly designed to incorporate the introduction of Speed and plucky girl freelance photographer Joan Wendell (Joan Marsh) while elaborating on the mystery element of the book in Charlie’s baggage and deepening the mystery about Billie Bronson herself, who is known by the police and curiously anxious not to be photographed. (Nelson explains that she had “enough info to blow the lid right off this island,” but had skipped the country to avoid testifying.) Only upon the departure from the docks does the film slip back into dubious melodrama as Billie (with the unbidden company of Speed, who jumps into her cab) follows Charlie and her pursuer follows her in a virtual parade to the Carlton Hotel. Even here, though, the film largely retains a sense of balance in creating an aura of anticipation as Billie bribes Speed into temporary silence with the promise of “something you’ll have to print on asbestos.”

Quickly picking up on Joan arriving at Speed’s paper, the Bulletin, to sell the managing editor, Murdock (J. Edward Bromberg), a photo she snapped of Billie at the dock, the film moves with astonishing pace of its newspaper sub-genre, while managing to further set up the mystery element when Murdock meets her asking price of $100 only to suppress the photo in question. To top this off, no sooner has Joan left than Murdock gets a call from Billie, “You remember that little deal we discussed a year ago? Well, we may be able to do business now, but it’s gonna cost you twice what you offered last time.” Despite Speed’s protestations over missing an exclusive story, Murdock arranges to meet the mysterious lady at her hotel at 11:30 that evening to talk business.

Equally effective snippets setting things up—Speed and Joan arranging to go to the Hottentot Club that evening, Billie bribing a bellhop for the key to the Chans’ room—finally lead us back to Charlie and Lee, where the basic problem with the film is thrown into sharp relief. The breathless pace of the scenes without Charlie badly emphasize the movie’s almost schizophrenic nature as the more leisurely approach of the traditional aspects of the series takes over. The irony here is that the Oland of the earlier films would have been much more at home in Charlie Chan on Broadway, as would his increasingly acid-tongued followers, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, but at this point in the Oland series, his approach to the character has become so comfortable and lovable that he never quite seems to fit in. As a result, the enjoyable, but relatively thin, comic business over Lee misappropriating Charlie’s collar button seems abnormally slow.

Slightly better (because it is worked into the plot) is the subsequent bit where he gives Lee $20 to see the sights, which is immediately pilfered by a passing pickpocket. “Suggest you return to room and lock self in before dinner suit snatched from body,” Charlie advises his son, who seconds earlier was boasting how he could handle New York!

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Leaving Lee alone is, of course, begging for trouble, as one would think Charlie should know by this time. It therefore comes as no surprise that Lee, already suspicious of Billie Bronson, should be on her trail to the Hottentot Club, after he finds her trying to get into their room.

By the time the film moves to the Hottentot, it has become fairly obvious that we are being set up for the murder of the inconvenient Miss Bronson and, while it sets this up with some skill, deftly incorporating several new characters—Johnny Burke (Douglas Fowley), the club’s owner, Marie Collins (Joan Woodbury), the current object of his affections, Buzz Moran (Leon Ames), an apparent gangster—all with motives for dispatching the lady, as well as bringing in the ultimately important element of “Candid Camera Night” (camera bugs vying to win a free dinner with their amateur efforts), and placing Speed and Joan on the scene, there is an inescapable feeling of laziness about the whole thing. Even Lee’s obligatory meeting with a Chinese cigarette girl, Ling Tse (Tashia Mori), has an off-hand feeling. Unlike his romantic escapades in Shanghai and…at the Circus, the comedy is at a minimum, and the—at first—promising meeting where he terrifies her from the fire-escape dies before it starts, when she immediately falls in with his sleuthing plans.

It then comes as quite a relief when Nelson is called away from the banquet in Charlie’s honor to attend to the murder of Billie Bronson, dragging Charlie along with him since Lee is being held as a suspect. Their investigation runs pretty much to the pattern we have come to expect—Charlie quickly noting the potential value of “Candid Camera Night” (“Very interesting. Camera remember many things human eye forget”), dismissing the suspicions against Lee, who was caught peeking through the keyhole into the murder room (“Humbly suggest murderer not likely to go outside and contemplate victim through keyhole”), and generally pointing the official powers in the right direction when they stray (“One moment, please—observe picture more closely…”), etc. The difference is entirely in the presence of Nelson, who decidedly holds the floor for most of the proceedings. The atmosphere of this is so strong, in fact, that occasionally Charlie seems like an interloper in his own film! What had started out as a pleasant contrast of styles has now erupted into something best described as two films going on at the same time—one a hardboiled newspaper drama and the other keeping the plot line straight, pointing out how they might pursue the solution to the crime in between Nelson’s fast-talking grillings.

In rapid succession, prime suspect Johnny Burke makes a getaway by having a henchman switch off the lights, a napkin on a food tray (absent in an early photo of the murder scene) appears and disappears, and another photographic clue leads them back to Charlie’s hotel room, where they arrive just in time to discover the murdered body of Thomas Mitchell. Thankfully this allows Charlie to take the helm again. “Mud of bewilderment now beginning to clear from pond of thought. This man follow Miss Bronson on boat to secure unknown object she possesses. To safeguard same, she used my baggage as hiding place.” Lee then remembers the episode of the aspirin. “Have hit tack on cranium. Tonight Miss Bronson try to regain possession here, but Number One Son prove stumbling block,” Charlie deduces. Nelson, of course, figures this all points to the elusive Johnny Burke, a belief not hurt in the least by Marie Collins’ subsequent identification of the corpse as her husband.

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Just as typically Charlie broadens the case considerably by discovering a page from the book in question, a diary, an item that could well provoke her murder by any number of people. Further complicating things for Nelson is the presence of Murdock in the dead woman’s room, despite the possibly valid reason for his presence, a 10:30 appointment to buy her diary, which cannot be substantiated now, and which is not helped in the least by Speed’s entrance and revelation of the meeting time as 11:30. Deftly brushing such “minor” complications to one side, Nelson is overjoyed to get a report showing Burke’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, happily assuming that this settles things. “Perhaps, but murder case like revolving door—when one side close, other side open,” cautions Charlie, something he gets to prove the next day when Burke (having been shot at by Moran and opting for the relative safety of the police) gives himself up and submits to a paraffin test, which proves he did not fire the gun. (The scientific demonstration so beloved of Humberstone is still with us.)

With marvelous perverseness, though, Charlie quickly explains to Nelson that the test doesn’t really prove anything, suggesting the missing napkin may have been used to hold the gun! The only thing Charlie has accomplished is to slightly open the inspector’s mind to get him to arrange for the gathering of the suspects at the scene of the murder. Otherwise his accomplishment is minor, succeeding in getting Lee roughed up (complete with a blackened eye) by Burke, wo returns unexpectedly to find Lee playing detective with Ling Tse in his office upon his release.

The gathering of the suspects is nicely handled, striking an interesting balance of the expected with the novel. “Excuse abrupt invitation here tonight,” Charlie commences, “but all present seriously involved in death of Miss Billie Bronson and Thomas Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell follow Miss Bronson from Europe to secure diary which contain much scandal. Plan using same to ruin Mr. Burke, who steal love of wife, Marie.” Vehement denials are useless in light of Charlie’s production of a “Candid Camera” shot of an intimate moment between Burke and Marie. “Triangle very ancient motive for murder,” he continues, adding, “but not only angle to present case. Sudden appearance of Miss Bronson cause perspiration on brow of another gentleman—name, Buzz Moran.” Another denial produces another photograph to the contrary! This slightly fantastic approach works nicely for Charlie until he gets to Murdock, of whom he doesn’t have an incriminating photo, and who demands to leave immediately. Unphased, Charlie reveals that Murdock has been constantly followed and that they are aware he has received a special delivery letter. Forcing his hand Murdock gives them the document in question, which turns out to be a page from the missing diary, or so it seems until one of the suspects claims it is a fake. “Can prove?” asks Charlie cannily. “Certainly—why even the paper it’s written on….” blurts out the unthinking suspect, walking straight into it. “You are murderer of Billie Bronson and Thomas Mitchell,” announces Charlie, who then proceeds to anger the culprit by revealing what led him to this conclusion and the trap of sending a bogus page to Murdock, nearly earning a bullet for his pains, but for the timely intervention of Lee, who winds up with another black eye. “Perhaps better to return to Honolulu,” Charlie ultimately notes, turning down Nelson’s invitation to stay on to see the sights, pointing out Lee’s condition, “Broadway evidently very bad on eyes.”

The slightly schizophrenic nature of its design aside, Charlie Chan on Broadway is not a bad little film. Its central flaw, in fact, demonstrates that the controlling voices of series heads Sol Wurtzel and John Stone were not content to let the films stagnate. That the attempt made here doesn’t entirely work is the price one pays for such thinking, though the logic of bringing Eugene Forde back to direct the film over Humberstone is surely open to question. There is little doubt that Humberstone could have gotten more out of the material than the workmanlike Forde, and he certainly would have made the Hottentot Club set look livelier and glossier than it appears in the film. Even so the film was successful and spawned the last Oland entry, Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, with almost identical production credits and the return of Harold Huber in a quite different role.

Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism by Ken Hanke (1989)

Notes compiled by Caren Feldman
www.carensclassiccinema.wordpress.com

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