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.