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Tag Archives: Charlie Chan

The Trap (Nov. 30, 1946)

Howard Bretherton’s The Trap, produced by James S. Burkett, was Sidney Toler’s last appearance as Charlie Chan. Toler died on February 12, 1947, at the age of 72.

He inherited the role of Chan, a Chinese detective created by the novelist Earl Derr Biggers, from Swedish actor Warner Oland, who died in 1938. Oland played the venerable old detective from 1931 to 1937. He died at the age of 58 from complications due to bronchial pneumonia, possibly related to his alcoholism. (According to Yunte Huang’s recent book about Charlie Chan, Oland like to throw back a few before playing the character, as it helped his fuzzy, drawling, faux-Chinese line delivery. When Toler took over the character, the producers encouraged him to do the same thing.)

The Trap is a run-of-the-mill B mystery from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. A gaggle of showgirls, their impresario, and their press agent all set up camp in a dusty old beach house in Malibu Beach.

After one of them is strangled with a silken cord, the hysterical women telephone Charlie Chan and reach his driver, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). If you enjoy politically incorrect humor, you’re in for a treat, as the bug-eyed Moreland mugs and twitches in ways black actors never would again.

Accompanied by Birmingham and his “number 2” son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), Chan arrives on the scene, and proceeds to unravel the mystery while spouting nonsensical aphorisms like, “Puzzle always deepest near the center.”

The Trap is a standard “old dark house” mystery, with the regular array of stock characters, such as a severe old battle-axe of a housekeeper and a doctor running away from his past. Kirk Alyn, who would go on to play Superman in two serials in 1948 and 1950, plays a tall, handsome motorcycle cop who assists Chan in his investigation, and doesn’t make much of an impression beyond his mustache and dark glasses. The beach setting doesn’t really jibe with the creepy old house — which has a basement and plenty of secret passages — and seems to exist mostly as an excuse for the pretty showgirls to go swimming whenever they can.

The Charlie Chan films remain a historical curiosity. Neither Toler’s makeup nor acting make him convincingly Chinese, but the series still has its fans, even its Chinese fans, such as Huang, the author I mentioned above.

The Jade Mask (Jan. 26, 1945)

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.