(The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Classic Movies Blog Association’s Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon, currently underway from May 15-17 and supervised by ClassicBecky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. For a list of the participants and the movies to be reviewed, the CMBA has a list available here.)
1939 is considered by countless film buffs to be a watershed year for movies—even more consider it to be the peak in cinematic history. The film often referred to the greatest of all time, Gone with the Wind, was released that year…not to mention timeless classics such as Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Only Angels Have Wings, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Just a cursory glance at a list of the releases from that year is sure to turn up a favorite or favorites in any classic movie fan’s library.
But there were also films released that year that may not have had the prestige of the movies I mentioned in the first paragraph yet are every bit as valuable to movie buffs…and most importantly, to us here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. For example, the first and second films featuring Basil Rathbone as “the world’s greatest detective” were seen in theaters that year: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. W.C. Fields made one of his funniest films—with his radio sparring partners Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy yet—in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Bob Hope starred in the movie comedy that put him on the map, The Cat and the Canary, in addition to a film that’s every bit as funny (and written by Preston Sturges), Never Say Die. Finally, 1939 marked the debut of the feature that some fans consider to be one of the hallmarks of the long-running film Charlie Chan film series: Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.
Master detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is traveling from his Honolulu stomping grounds to San Francisco aboard the China Clipper with both Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) and a friend of the family who’s been vacationing with the Chans, mystery novelist Paul Essex (Louis Jean Heydt). Essex receives a radiogram while the plane is still making its way to Frisco—and it contains a mysterious message that reads: “Sign of Scorpio indicates disaster if zodiac obligations are ignored.” The troubled Essex asks the sleuth when the month of Scorpio is due and Charlie helpfully points out that according to the Chinese calendar, tomorrow will mark the first day. Come morning, as the Clipper flies over the titular atoll—the site of the San Francisco franchise of the 1939 World Exposition—Essex is found dead in his seat.
Jimmy’s suspicion is that insurance actuary Thomas Gregory (Douglass Dumbrille) is in some way connected to Essex’s death, especially when Gregory makes off with the novelist’s briefcase…which contains a manuscript Essex was working on before his demise. After Charlie breaks the unfortunate news to Essex’s widow (Sally Blane) and her uncle (Charles Hatton), he hails a cab for the hotel and finds himself in the company of two menacing men (Fred Kelsey, Frank Meredith) who turn out to be detectives with the San Francisco police force, sent to pick up Chan as a practical joke concocted by Charlie’s pal J.J. Kilvaine (Donald MacBride), the department’s deputy chief. While reuniting with his colleague, Charlie also has a bit of Old Home Week with newspaper reporter Peter Lewis (Douglas Fowley). Lewis is hard at work on a story that is determined to debunk phony psychics—none more so than a man mysteriously known as “Dr. Zodiac.” Zodiac is “person of interest” in connection with a series of suicides (all of whom happened to be his clients) and when Kilvaine suggests that there may have been a connection between Dr. Z and the deceased Essex, Chan, Pete and a mutual friend of theirs—Fred Rhadini (Cesar Romero), a renowned magician who’s assisting Pete in his expose—are determined to pay the medium a social call.
The trio arrives at the home of Dr. Zodiac and after being greeted by his manservant Abdul (Trevor Bardette) are ushered into a séance room to meet the mysterious Dr. Z, who puts on quite a show by apparently contacting the “spirit” of Essex, who “tells” Charlie that his death was not set in motion by foul play. Zodiac’s presentation is pure con game, much to Charlie’s amusement, and it comes to an end when an angry Pete threatens Zodiac after the fake medium advises him to end his romantic involvement with Eve Cairo (Pauline Moore), who works as an assistant to Rhadini. Charlie will soon learn that while Zodiac’s act may be hokum Eve is the real deal—she demonstrates remarkable powers of telepathy later that evening during a party Rhadini throws on Treasure Island shortly before someone makes an attempt on Chan’s life.
Charlie heads back to Dr. Z’s crib to learn some answers, with Pete and Rhadini in tow. In the house, our hero is none too pleased to find that Number Two Son is fulfilling his all-too-familiar role in the series by being more hindrance than help, but after making a search of Zodiac’s surroundings Chan reveals to his accomplices that the good Doctor is indeed a 24-carat fraud, demonstrating the devices he uses in his phony séances. Further examination of the house reveals a secret room where Zodiac has kept detailed dossiers in various file cabinets filled with incriminating details on several prominent figures. One of these individuals being blackmailed by Zodiac was the late Mr. Essex—who has a secret Charlie doesn’t want his widow to learn, so he gathers up the files and torches all the blackmail evidence. Chan justifies this by declaring: “We are destroying web of spider—now let us find spider.”
And find him they will—for Charlie has concocted a scheme to wash the spider out by appealing to Zodiac’s ego and vanity: Rhadini issues a public challenge to Dr. Z, daring him to turn up at the Temple of Magic—Rhadini’s theater at which he performs his magic act—for a showdown. With a curious audience watching and the suspects in attendance as well, Charlie unmasks Essex’s murderer in one of the series’ most unforgettable climaxes.
The Charlie Chan film series had been a positive gold mine for the Fox studios ever since they committed themselves to making movies based on the exploits of the Occidental sleuth created by Earl Derr Biggers with 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On. The actor who took on the role of Chan was Warner Oland, who despite his non-Asian status had previously played onscreen a goodly number of Chinese characters (many of them villains) and slipped into Chan’s sartorially splendid white suit as if it were the part he was born to play. The Chan films were pretty much Oland’s bread and butter for the rest of his career onscreen, and most fans of the movie series acknowledge that if he wasn’t the best of the Chans he certainly starred in most of the finest entries, notably Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), and Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937). Oland died of pneumonia in 1938 while Fox was making Charlie Chan at the Ringside, and so the studio refashioned it into a vehicle for their equally popular Mr. Moto series (1938’s Mr. Moto’s Gamble) with star Peter Lorre and “Number One Son” Keye Luke appearing as Lee Chan.
The title of the Moto film was sort of a precursor to how 20th Century-Fox approached the Charlie Chan franchise after Oland’s passing—they took a gamble on continuing the series by hiring another non-Asian thespian, Sidney Toler, to wear Oland’s Panama hat. When Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) became a success at the box office, the studio high-fived itself and continued cranking out Chans until 1942. Toler then purchased the rights to the character and took the series to Monogram, which continued making the films until 1949. (Toler died in 1947, and character actor Roland Winters took over until the series came to a end.)
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island may not be my favorite Chan film of all time (that distinction goes to Charlie Chan at the Opera) but it’s far and away the best of the Sidney Toler Chans, who in his dedication to keeping the inscrutable sleuth on movie screens admittedly made some of the weakest entries in the long-running series, particularly after the franchise started picking up a paycheck at Monogram. And yet, in many ways I prefer Toler’s interpretation to Oland’s because while Oland may have made better Chans his character was a little too gentle for my tastes—Toler’s take on Charlie had a little more bite, much in the way Charlie was portrayed in Biggers’ novels. (When Oland would utter Charlie’s signature “Thank you so much,” he sounded like he meant it—in Toler’s tones there was a slight sarcasm underneath.) Oland’s strengths lie in the fact that he was fortunate to work in tandem with Luke, who as Number One Son displayed a real rapport with the series’ star, an affection that was still present when Luke would reminisce about Oland in interviews years after the actor’s death. Toler had the misfortune to be saddled with progeny that didn’t display the same amount of moxie as Luke’s Lee…and on many occasions, it’s not hard to comprehend why Charlie’s disposition become sourer with each film that followed. (Toler’s Chan has one of my all-time favorite lines in Island when he comments after one of son Jimmy’s screw-ups: “If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.”)
Treasure Island succeeds so well as a great Chan picture because of several factors—a tight script by John Larkin that superbly blends elegant wit and nail-biting suspense; first-rate direction by Norman Foster, who was at the helm of several of the top Mr. Moto entries, including Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) and Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937); and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography courtesy of Virgil Miller. At an economical seventy-two minutes, Island doesn’t waste any time getting started (but by this point in the Chan series, you pretty much knew what to expect once the opening credits had finished) and the film also feels no need to pad itself with a lot of unnecessary comedy relief. Sure, there are plenty of comic contributions from Sen Yung (I like his magician’s coat bit) and Wally Vernon as Romero’s stooge but they flow with the plot, and never appear to be superfluous for the sake of giving someone a little extra screen time.
The plot of Treasure Island is similar in many ways to the previous Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) but it improves on the original by making its proceedings faster and funnier. Romero, Fowley, Moore, MacBride, and Dumbrille all lend fine support, and old movie buffs will have a lot of fun picking out some of the uncredited players like Kay Linaker and Mack Sennett veterans Heinie Conklin and Hank Mann. And if at any point in time you expect the person playing Dr. Zodiac to say: “Get this and get it straight—crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave…” it’s none other than old-time radio’s Philip Marlowe, Gerald Mohr, in one of his earliest film showcases (though he appears without credit). Since the Fox Movie Channel will often find itself besieged by individuals who interpret the Charlie Chan films as insensitive to Asian-Americans (despite that the main character is a positive role model and often the smartest freakin’ guy in the room at any given time) the series doesn’t get the showcase it once did but has for the benefit of fans been released to DVD, and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is the jewel in the crown of the box set Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4. Buy or rent it today!