Wednesday, March 28, 2012

LATELY I'VE HAD A TASTE FOR 30s and 40s PROGRAMMERS - WHAT WITH THE TARZAN FLICKS AND "OLD DARK HOUSE" VIEWING EVIDENCED IN THE LAST TWO POSTS. NO BUNUEL OR BERGMAN OR KUROSAWA THIS WEEK. And among these B-programmers are some Charlie Chans as well. Sometimes considered the best among them is CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND (1939). Earl Derr Biggers' great detective from Honolulu is still to be found at 20th Century-Fox so the production values are higher than we'll find once Chan moves to "Poverty Row" at Monogram. Sidney Toler, of course, has taken over quite capably as Chan from Warner Oland and we also have boyish Sen Yung as Number Two Son after Keye Luke's more mature Number One Son earlier in the series. Both Toler and Yung came aboard at the same time in an earlier film. The background of the film, as evidenced from the title, is the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair at Treasure Island; this is the lesser-known counterpart to the famous 1939 New York World's Fair with it's iconic Trylon and Perisphere and "The World of Tomorrow". However, we hardly see any of Treasure Island in the movie as it is not a focal point but merely a background notion. The real meat concerns an otherworldly occultist/spiritualist named Dr. Zodiac who is rarely seen by the general public and wears an eerie face mask and a turban. Flying into San Francisco's Treasure Island on a clipper ship, fellow passenger/Chan acquaintance/mystery novelist Paul Essex (Louis Jean Heydt) keels over dead of an apparent suicide after receiving a radiogram from Dr. Zodiac threatening "disaster if Zodiac obligations ignored". It is discovered that Essex's briefcase containing a manuscript of his mystery novel concerning a fake mystic has gone missing. Down at the police station, Chan's friend Deputy Chief Kilvaine (crusty old Donald McBride) introduces the sleuth to crusading reporter Pete Lewis (Douglas Fowley) and Chan's old friend stage magician Fred Rhadini (Cesar Romero). Both men are out to expose charlatan table-tappers and Dr. Zodiac is tops on their hit list; they suspect Zodiac is behind the recent suicides of three men who were his clients and Chan begins to suspect that Essex may be number four. Chan, Lewis and Rhadini goe to Dr. Zodiac's mansion in the guise of a "consultation" where they meet the turbaned mystic with the false face who sees through their motives and requests their departure at gunpoint. Later that night at a party Rhadini is throwing at the Hawaiian Club on Treasure Island, we are introduced to Pete Lewis' girlfriend Eve Cairo who is also Rhadini's magical assistant and a true psychic who defends Dr. Zodiac as genuine and not a fake. During the party, an ornate knife is thrown at Chan and just misses him. After the party, Chan returns through the fog to Zodiac's mansion (as a black cat walks across his path) and is met there first by Lewis and Rhadini and then by Number Two Son Jimmy (Sen Yung). Zodiac is nowhere to be found but the detective soon discovered files containing blackmail information supplied by Dr. Zodiac's many clients in all states of the union. Chan burns the damaging information with the explanation "Am asking flames to keep secrets of many unfortunate people". The next day Chan tries to trap Dr. Zodiac by having Rhadini issue a challenge in the newspapers to match their psychic/magical powers at Rhadini's nightly performance. Zodiac agrees to appear in a mysterious note written on the back of the last page of Essex's manuscript pinned to the theater wall with an ornate knife. As the magic show begins, Dr. Zodiac mysteriously appears in the theater and makes his way to the stage. The theater lights are doused as Rhadini leviates Eve Cairo above the audience's heads; just then Dr. Zodiac is murdered by a "pygmy arrow": the very maguffin used in Paul Essex's manuscript! Chan asks everyone to resume their places in order to see where everyone was by having Rhadini once again do his levitation trick. With Number Two Son Jimmy standing in for Eve Cairo on the levitating platform, the lights once again go out and Rhadini is struck down by a knife!
CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND moves at a lightning fast clip (provided by director Norman Foster) which doesn't allow time for any lulls. I've always found Sidney Toler quite good as Charlie Chan and not a patch at all on Warner Oland; I may even prefer Toler but I'm still not sure. A few more Chans under my viewing belt will help me decide. As always, when Charlie Chan films include anything remotely suggesting the horror genre I become much more interested and TREASURE ISLAND does that quite well with several scenes involving seances (a favourite device in several Chan films including CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM and BLACK MAGIC aka MEETING AT MIDNIGHT). The extremely creepy Dr. Zodiac in his unmoving false face mask is genuinely unnerving and a great visual. Of course, added interest is generated by the theory held by many that this film may have actually been seen by the actual Zodiac Killer who terrorized 1969 San Francisco well into the 1970s; many of the real Zodiac's methods (cryptic notes, newspaper challenges, masks and disguises and the name "Zodiac" itself) are shared with the Charlie Chan film. Another interesting theory (provided in a special feature mini-documentary on the dvd which compares the film with the real life killer) mentions that Cesar Romero also played the Joker on an episode of BATMAN broadcast in January 1967 entitled "The Zodiac Crimes" which also includes some ideas used only two years later by the real life Zodiac Killer including sending coded messages to the newspapers. It is by no means a stretch to posit that whoever Zodiac was he may have quite easily watched both a TV broadcast of this old Charlie Chan movie as well as the recent BATMAN episode and used some of the ideas set forth therein. We'll probably never know but this conjecture certainly adds an added mystique to CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND.


wellyousaythat© said...

Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang in Murder by Death is a loving homage to this neglected oeuvre. Nice post

Cerpts said...

Yes, loved MURDER BY DEATH since I was a kid!!!! Thanks