Thursday, October 8, 2009

Old School Cinema: "Charlie Chan at the Race Track" (1936)

The hometown library is devoting Thursday nights in October to classic mysteries. I missed out on "Hound of the Baskervilles" last week, but there was no way I'd pass this up. I'd obtained an interest in Earl Derr Biggers' Honolulu-based sleuth as a youth, and was blessed with a 4-pack of Charlie Chan DVDs earlier this year for my birthday.

"Charlie Chan at the Race Track" starts in Honolulu with Chan (Warner Oland, the definitive Chan in this writer's opinion) demonstrating how to discern the cause of bloodstains. Son Lee (Keye Luke, later of Kung Fu) bursts in with a hot tip on an Australian horse race. The room empties, and Chan chastises #1 son for violating a basic rule on the door ("Knock first"). Many miles away in the land Down Under, the race goes awry amid suspicions of a fix. The jockey suffers a 2-year ban, which in this case only lasts the length of the movie, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The horse owner is an old friend of Chan's, and he suspects there is a strong stench of the influence of gamblers, so he sends for Chan. However, he's killed en route, and his prized horse is suspected of the deed. Chan quickly dismisses this, finding evidence to the contrary.

The producers assumed theatregoers would be bored silly without a distraction, so one is created with hijinx on board a ship bound eventually for Los Angeles, where Lee poses as a cabin boy to find evidence, which leads to him turning into a stereotype. He ends up leading the steward on a merry chase that includes Charlie being used, however convienently, to send the steward sprawling. Just the sort of thing you'd normally associate with the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy.

Rare is the time when Chan is at the mercy of a criminal, but it happens here, as he & Lee are taken prisoner by members of the gambling ring. However, they're not held for long, and Lee sees to that by clocking their captor with a wine bottle. Now, it's off to the race track for the grand finale. Suffice to say, Chan gets his man, as per usual.

Aside from the use of stereotypes, the one negative about the Chan series is that the lead is not played by an Asian. Oland happens to be Swedish. Nearly 40 years later, Keye Luke would become the first actor of Asian descent since the silent era to play Chan, albeit the detective's animated personage, in the 1972 series, The Amazing Chan & the Chan Clan. There, Charlie finally had mastered the full use of the English language, but also continued to use the proverbs we've come to know and love. This film provides one of my favorites:

"Suspicion is often father of truth."

Oh, that is so true.

Edit, 5/3/17: Here's the movie:

Rating: A.


Samuel Wilson said...

About Oland: I read an interview with Keye Luke in which he said that Oland once told him that he could play Asians so effectively because he actually had some Mongolian blood courtesy of a distant ancestor. He does look more plausible than some other non-Chinese performers.

hobbyfan said...

I wonder, though, if the same can be said of Sidney Toler......