|The Black Camel (1931)
Run time: Passed | 71 min | Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Hamilton MacFadden
Writers: Earl Derr Biggers, Barry Conners
Stars: Warner Oland, Sally Eilers, Bela Lugosi
An early Charlie Chan whodunit, with Oland probing the murder of an actress and a beachcomber on his home turf of Hawaii. Picturesque locations and exceptional cast are highlights.
Toronto Film Society is back in the theatre! However, we’re still pleased to continue to bring you films straight to your home! Beginning Season 73 until now we have...
The 2nd real Charlie Chan film, the earliest to survive of the 38 that Warner Oland and then Sidney Toler churned out over the next 16 years for Fox and Monogram. Pretty faithful to Earl Derr Bigger's book, this only suffers mildly from the echoey staginess associated with early talkies, with some erratic acting but also some lovely smoky visuals of "Honolulu".
A woman with a dark past is stabbed to death at a hotel – of course all of the guests along with the butler and maid are involved for Charlie to sort through and mull over. Unravelling the threads of the mystery Charlie proved his eyes had microscopic capabilities (wonder how much DNA fingerprinting would've slowed him down?) – and that he was one of those "very clever men able to bite pie without breaking crust". There's a beautiful scene with the entire Chan Clan at the breakfast table that's worth a look on it's own. It all runs delightfully true to form, the excellent polished cast playing up well, especially young Robert Young and Bela Lugosi.
I can't speak for everyone else of course but I still cherish the hope films 1/3/4/5 will one day be found for the additional 5 hours pleasure.
With the character loosely based on Chang Apana (1887-1933), a police officer of Chinese heritage, author Earl Derr Biggers wrote six Charlie Chan novels between 1925 and 1932. House Without A Key and The Chinese Parrot were filmed as silents in 1926; Behind That Curtain was filmed, with Chan reduced to a minor character, in 1929. Starring various actors and filmed as individual pieces, none of the films can be described as entries in the series, but in 1931 Fox Studios cast Warner Oland in Charlie Chan Carries On–and with its success Fox Studios discovered a money spinner. Between 1931 and 1942 the studio would create no less than 27 Charlie Chan films, first starring Warner Oland and then starring Sidney Toler.
Charlie Chan Carries On has not survived. The earliest Chan film of the series that still exists is The Black Camel, which is based on the 1929 Diggers novel. The film follows the book quite closely. Shelia Fane (Dorothy Reiver) is an actress who has come to Hawaii to make a motion picture. She has fallen in love with a wealthy man and wants to marry–but she is troubled by something that has occurred in her past. She accordingly sends for psychic Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi), who warns her not to marry–but no sooner does she refuse the marriage than she is found dead, stabbed, in her beachfront home.
Like most of the later Chan films, The Black Camel has a remarkable cast that includes an unexpected number of notables. Bela Lugosi has already been mentioned, and other up-and-comers include Robert Young and character actor Dwight Frye. But this film is very early in the game, and Fox is still tinkering with style and characters; instead of being assisted by a son, Chan is saddled with inept junior officer Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka), a character drawn directly from the Biggers novel. The chemistry is not effective, and although most of the cast offers good performances much the same might be said of the project as a whole.
Part of the problem is the story itself. Apparently suggested by the 1920s murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor, the plot itself is more than adequate, but the "how and why" details of the investigation are awkward. The script itself has an occasional zinger (at one point Chan warns Kashimo that "the wages of stupidity is search for new job!") but by and large it never manages to strike the balance between mystery and comedy for which the series was ultimately famous. It is also a film very much of the early sound era, which is to say visually static, and although it was partly filmed on Hawaiian location one sees little of the islands.
Overall, and while it has its moments, this is really a film best left to Chan fans, who will be interested to see the character at an early stage of development. Unfortunately, however, Chan fans will have a problem latching onto it: it is not presently available on either VHS or DVD and it is seldom broadcast.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Hollywood star Shelah Fane is filming her latest movie in Honolulu, while keeping her name in the papers with her whirlwind romance to Alan Jaynes, traveling playboy. Shelah decides to send for her psychic consultant, Tarneverro, to advise her if marrying Jaynes is the right thing for her to do, but while consulting with him, Shelah hints of a murder she committed a few years earlier, one Denny Mayo. Later she is found dead by her friend Julie, and the case is turned over to Inspector Charlie Chan, who has to figure out the Denny Mayo connection to both Shelah and the murder suspect. Nice entry in the Chan series, helped immensely by the on location shooting in Hawaii. Even with Lugosi as Tarneverro (a suspect no doubt) the suspects do not really give any sinister or worth-a-closer-look performances here. Yamaoka is really annoying as Chan’s bumbling assistant (the latter word used loosely) Kashimo. The main problem with the film is too many characters with their own story in a movie that can’t quite crack the B movie mold. Later remade as Charlie Chan in Rio. Rating, based on B mysteries, 4.
This film, taken from one of Earl Der Biggers original novels is one of the very best of the Chans. It is the second of the series, and the first, third, fourth and fifth are lost films. We can see the early Chan only through this film, and we see a very human Chan, rather than the more restrained Chan in the later films.
It also features a near tour-de-force scene by Bela Lugosi in which he, as the fortune teller to the stars Tarnaverro, forces a confession from Shela Fane, a movie star making a film in Honolulu. A confession that he witholds from Charlie Chan…