Phil Rosen directed this rather strange entry in the rather strange Charlie Chan series. The mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers created the Chan character as a Chinese-American, Honolulu-based police detective. The character was in some ways a corrective to “yellow peril” characters like Fu Manchu who represented only menace and danger.
Chan was a benevolent figure, but he was still a neutered, sycophantic “other,” the yellowface equivalent of the “good slave” archetype. The Swedish actor Warner Oland starred in a number of successful Chan films in the ’30s. I’ve only seen one of them, Charlie Chan in London, from 1934, and aside from the strange, stereotypical, “ah so” performance by Oland as a Chinese detective, the film is a typical drawing-room mystery with static camerawork and a predictable “whodunit” plot.
In 1938, Sidney Toler took over the role, and his portrayal of Chan (at least in the films I’ve seen) is more interesting than Oland’s Chan. He is less sycophantic to white authority and his humor has an edge. He’s still a white man in yellowface makeup, though, and the faux Confucian aphorisms are still stupid. Also, Mantan Moreland’s performance as Chan’s black driver, Birmingham Brown, is pretty stereotypical, and may offend modern viewers. Moreland is actually black and none of his scenes are meant to be mean-spirited, but a scene in which he outruns a moving car because he’s that afraid of ghosts is still kind of offensive.
Oh, and The Jade Mask is a seriously strange film aside from all the racist anachronisms. The plot concerns a scientist who has discovered a way to make wood as strong as steel. Naturally, the world’s superpowers want to get their hands on his secret, and his murder is what draws Chan in to the case.
This film has some great set pieces, such as corpses strung up and manipulated like mannequins, but there are a few things that are hard to figure out, such as the numerous billowing clouds of supposedly poisonous gas that the characters blithely stand around in while investigating the mystery. Oh, and Edwin Luke plays Chan’s “Number 4 Son,” and doesn’t make much of an impression.