The scene quickly establishes itself as nighttime in an insane asylum, and we witness a solo figure (Boris Karloff) seated at a piano playing a tune. One of the sanitarium’s guards enters the man’s sanctorum to hand the patient his evening newspaper, and when the man sees a picture of opera diva Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) on the front page, he flies into an uncontrollable rage. He overpowers the guard and escapes, with a trail of newspaper headlines trumpeting the escape of a madman following close behind. The audience will soon learn the man’s identity as the great operatic baritone Gravelle, who checked into the asylum as an amnesia case; no one has been aware of his long stay because the singer allegedly perished in a theatre fire in Chicago.
The gendarmes are naturally brought in to investigate Gravelle’s departure, and comic-relief Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is none-too-pleased to hear that his superior, Inspector Regan (Guy Usher), has brought in Honolulu Chief of Police Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) for help. “Wait a minute! You haven’t called Chop Suey in on the case? Have you, Chief?” Kelly demands, letting us know from the get-go that he’s not a particularly politically correct flatfoot (he also refers to our hero Charlie as “Egg Foo Yung”). When Chan arrives and demonstrates his powers of deduction to a skeptical Kelly, the three men also receive a visit from Mme. Rochelle and her lover, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). (“Borelli” sounds as if he’s a distant relation to one of the characters played by ‘Chico’ Marx.) Rochelle lets the police know that she received a bouquet of flowers with a card (containing a death threat) attached, prompting Regan, Kelly and Chan to agree that a stakeout at that evening’s performance is in order.
A production of the great opera Carnival is scheduled to go on that evening and Gravelle invades the theater, intending to don Borelli’s costume (as Mephisto) and take his place. Upon the completion of the first act, both Borelli and Mme. Rochelle have already rung down the curtain…permanently—and so it would seem that Gravelle is the murderer. But there are several other suspects: the respective spouses of the slain lovers, Mme. Lucretia Borelli (Nedda Harrigan) and Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy). In addition, a young couple (Charlotte Henry, Thomas Beck) are also wanted for questioning—with the young man eventually being arrested when most of the evidence points to him. Can Charlie and Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) track down the real killer in a fast-moving sixty-six minutes? (Is there any real doubt?)
Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) is considered by many fans of the Asian super sleuth to be the best of the Warner Oland Chans, and I might even go as far to say that it’s my favorite of all the Chans, period (though a large majority will probably hold out for Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ). Again, it’s the presence of Boris that makes me favor the movie so—I love how the two stars share top-billing as “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff” in the opening credits—and at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t seen the film I’ll let you know that Karloff is pretty much a red herring. (I guess it won’t hurt if I also point out his singing is dubbed.) I really do enjoy his performance in Opera, though; that patented melancholia of his serves him well in one touching scene when he attempts to reconnect with his long-lost daughter (Henry) after being away for so long. Oland is my favorite of all the actors who played Charlie Chan (I like Sidney Toler all right, but his interaction with Number Two Son Victor Sen Yung lacked the heart of the Oland-Luke relationship) and my favorite scene in the film is when son Lee is taking items out of his pocket and presenting them to his father in order to obtain fingerprints. Charlie is fumbling through his pockets and Lee asks him: “What’s the matter, Pop—lose something?” Charlie’s response: “Not yet…but light fingers of Number One Son most alarming.”
I jokingly referred to the fictional Carnival as a “great opera” only because the music was written by composer/curmudgeon Oscar Levant—who allegedly agreed to do it after asking if he could use “Silencio!” in the work. Opera is a movie whose sumptuous sets belie its B-origins; director H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone wisely chose to save 20th Century-Fox some scratch and utilized standing sets for Café Metropole (1937) for the filming of the staged opera scenes. Demarest’s character is a little hard-to-take at times (but eventually acknowledges a grudging respect for Chan by the picture’s end) but he manages to compensate with some nifty slapstick pratfalls and a face-wipe that would do Edgar Kennedy proud. (And of course, I can’t forget the in-joke line that always brings down the house, spoken by stage manager Maurice Cass: “I’m stage manager here and this opera’s going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!”)
And because I always like things at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear to be nice and tidy, Boris Karloff got the opportunity two years later at playing Asian detective James Lee Wong in a short-lived series at Monogram: Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), and Doomed to Die (1940); a sixth film, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), was supposed to star Karloff but ended up as a vehicle for—wait for it—Keye Luke instead. To me, the hallmark of a true Boris Karloff fan is being able to sit through any Wong picture.