(3/10) In a nutshell: Charlie Chan solves yet another murder mystery in this reasonably well made Monogram cheapo, aided by his #4 son and legendary black comedian Mantan Moreland. A whodunnit with a sci-fi MacGuffin in an old dark house with a fairly interesting cast led by Sidney Toler. Light fun, an incredibly convoluted and absolutely unrealistic plot, with some casual racism thrown in.
The Jade Mask (1943). Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by George Callahan. Starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Edwin Luke, Hardie Albright, Frank Reicher, Janet Warren, Cyril Develanti, Al Bridge, Ralph Lewis, Dorothy Granger, Edith Evanson, Joe Whitehead. Produced by James S. Burkett for Monogram Pictures. ÏMDb score: 6.9
Famous Chinese detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is called in to investigate the murder of a scientist (Joe Whitehead) working on a top-secret government project for a gas that can turn wood into metal. Chan, with his sidekicks Edward, or #4 son (Edwin Luke), and Birmingham (Mantan Moreland), stumble in to the professor’s old, dark mansion, filled with secret and deadly gas chambers, hidden staircases, eerie masks of all the house’s residents on the walls, a circus strongwoman, a deadly ventriloquist dummy, strange bells and spooky voice recordings. It doesn’t help that all of the household heartily hated the professor and all seem to have secrets of their own. And that’s really all the plot you need to get the gist of this film.
This was the 37th instalment of the long-running Charlie Chan crime and mystery comedy films, and the fourth produced by Poverty Row studio Monogram, after it picked up the rights from Twentieth Century-Fox. It was the 14th Charlie Chan production for Sidney Toler, who took over the role from Swedish Warner Oland, who played the character during the film series’ prime in the thirties.
The film has several science fiction trappings, and also sort of taps into the mad scientist genre, although in this case the mad scientist dies at the beginning of the film. But most of the vaguely sci-fi stuff could really be taken from any old dark house mystery plot. The one thing that really validates this film’s appearance on this blog is the secret gas experiment, but when it all comes down to it, it is really just in the movie as a MacGuffin, and even as such it isn’t very well used. The gas never really comes to play, it is the formula for the gas that the plot sort of revolves around, except it doesn’t really. The formula is locked away in the secret gas chamber behind several locked doors with voice-operated locks. Anyone trapped inside, who is not the good professor, will be gassed to death. But that’s really beside the point, as there is so much going on in this film that even though I have watched it five times, I still don’t understand how everything is connected, if indeed it is at all.
It is, however an entertaining romp with some nice B horror movie atmosphere, and the small set at which the film enfolds lends it quite a claustrophobic atmosphere. Veteran director Phil Rosen relies on smoke, shadows and surprise frights, as well as some canned horror movie music, but doesn’t do much in the way of cinematography to help the suspense. Most of the film consists of static shots of people talking, but it is not as bad as some of the movies that quickie directors like William ”One-Shot” Beaudine or Sam Newfield made for Poverty Row. Rosen’s direction is workmanlike, but not bad.
I’m not a Charlie Chan expert, and won’t pretend to be one, but I did like Warner Oland in the titular role better than Sidney Toler. For one thing, Oland’s unique features lent him a slightly Asian look even out of makeup, and if you squinted, he could almost pass for Chinese in black and white. Toler looks decidedly non-Chinese. He tries to counteract this by squinting and wearing a strange smile all through the film, which is how Asian people were portrayed at the time, squinting and smiling. But it doesn’t make him look Asian as much that it makes him look as if he constantly thinks something smells funny. It is difficult to look at these films today and not cringe at the thought that over 40 Charlie Chan films were made in Hollywood and in almost all of them the title character was played by a white actor. On the other hand, Christian Bale recently played an Egyptian. Sidney Toler does however have good comedic timing and delivers the one-liners with more panache than the laid-back Oland.
On the down-side, Toler seems extremely bored throughout the film, which may result from him trying to emulate Oland’s knowingly composed and minimalistic approach to the role and failing, or he was just simply bored with the declining quality of the series and didn’t give a crap. On the other hand, it is the Monogram Chan-films he is remembered for, as the clunky B movies have garnered something of a cult status over the years, and at Fox he could never compete with the excellent work done by Oland and the studio in the series’ heyday. Toler does get all the best lines in the movie, as script-writer George Callahan goes bonkers with Chan’s grammatically incorrect fortune cookie-like exhortations. One classic line is when Chan rebutts the incompetent #4 son: ”Every time you open your mouth you put in more legs than centipede. Remain here and produce nothing but silence.” Another one, also a comment for Edward, who appears in his PJ’s: ”Please. Pajamas loud enough without you make extra noise.” Toler’s best moments, however, are with Al Brigde, who plays the assisting Sheriff Mack, putting in a better-than-average effort where these Poverty Row supporting roles are concerned. Bridge and Toler share so many witty one-liners that it is hard to imagine that at least some of them weren’t ad-libbed.
Playing Edward Chan, #4 son, is Edwin Luke, brother of the more famous actor Keye Luke. Keye had previously played the sidekick son of Charlie Chan in a number or films. Edwin’s #4 son is an educated dimwit who likes to use big words, and could potentially have been a fun addition. Unfortunately the script doesn’t give him much good material, and what good there is, is destroyed by Luke’s stiff acting. This was Edwin Luke‘s first and biggest role, and he went on to play bit-parts in 17 other films. Black comedic veteran Mantan Moreland was without doubt one of the best comedians of the thirties and forties, but because of his skin colour he was doomed to play valets and drivers his entire career. He turned the stereotypical black role of the stupid, easily-scared black character to his advantage, creating a whole routine around it and made dozens of movies basically doing the same skit over again. Moreland, along with the rest of the capable black cast, was one of the saving graces of the otherwise painfully bad Revenge of the Zombies (1943, review). In this film, though, the material he gets is so bad that even he can’t do anyting with it.
Another delight of the film is the professor’s assistant Walter Meeker, blissfully happy over his tormentor’s death, who is happily teasing and taunting all the other suspects during the film. He is played by a madly grinning Hardie Albright, a respected Broadway actor and writer, who would later teach acting at UCLA, and wrote a number of books on the subject. Albright got his first film role in 1931, and the peak of his film career came in 1934, when he played the lead in The Scarlet Letter. By 1943 he was – evidently – slumming in at Poverty Row. Sci-fi fans might have seen him as the secretary general in the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone, To Serve Man, featuring Richard Kiel (Jaws from James Bond).
Other interesting characters in the otherwise bland cast are one of our old friends, German-born actor and director Frank Reicher (see King Kong, 1930, review), and Cyril Delevanti, best known for his role as grandfather Nonno in Night of the Iguana (1964), for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. The British character actor was known for his wiry frame, lined face and numerous cockney-impersonations. He made an impact in four episodes of The Twilight Zone between 1961 and 1963, and appeared in supporting roles or bit-parts in Buck Rogers (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), the TV shows The Science Fiction Theatre (1956), Adventures of Superman (1957), and one of his last roles was as Book #4 in the sci-fi classic Soylent Green (1974).
In a small part we see Jack Ingram, one of those bit-part actors that turned up in almost all western serials in the thirties and forties, as well as the serials Undersea Kingdom (1936, review), Batman, 1943, review), Brick Bradford (1947), Superman (1948, review), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), and Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951). Henry Hall, whom we have mentioned on the blog, but never really covered, had a similar career trajectory. He played the Muranian high priest in the bizarre early science fiction western musical comedy The Phantom Empire (1935, review), a general in The Lost City the same year, the country doctor in the abysmal George Zucco/Glenn Strange vehicle The Mad Monster (1942, review), another doctor in the even worse Bela Lugosi film The Ape Man (1943, review) and a sheriff in the hilarious Voodoo Man (1944, review).
As the widowed wife of the professor we get Edith Evanson, a woman who began acting in her middle ages and often had bit-parts as maids, housekeepers and secretaries in the 120 films, serials and series she appeared in, including blockbusters like Citizen Kane (1941), Rope (1948), Perfect Strangers (1951), and The Big Heat (1953). She appeared (uncredited) as Mrs Crockett in the hugely influential 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still (review), appeared in an episode of the TV series Space Patrol in 1953 and might be recognised as the innkeeper from Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). The leading lady of the film was the rather unknown actress Janet Warren, whose most memorable role lasted not much more than a minute, when she appeared as the goose girl in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review).
Screenwriter George Callahan actually co-wrote the sci-fi cult classic This Island Earth (1955, review). Some original music was written by Dave Torbett, who four years later ended up orchestrating the music for the film that more or less kicked off the sci-fi craze of Hollywood in 1950, Destination Moon (review). Director of photography Harry Neumann filmed around 300 western films and serials, and dabbled in other genres in about 50 films. These included the 1951 film Flight to Mars (review), and his very last movie, schlock master Roger Corman’s immortal masterpiece The Wasp Woman (1969).
So, how to sum this up? A decent dose of light-hearted fun, a few good puns, uneven acting, professionally directed and shot, well-lit and with a good atmosphere, for a Poverty Row B movie. The dialogue is mostly extremely clunky and the script is much too convoluted. The characters are too bland and I never quite remember who is who and how they’re related to the dead professor. The ending is simply too incredible to be believable. But all in all, a very enjoyable B mystery comedy. Unfortunately it gets an automatic point reduction for the casual racism.
And here’s one for the trivia buffs: The staircase around which most of the film revolves is definitely the same one that is used in The Ape Man (1943).
The Jade Mask (1943). Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by George Callahan. Starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Edwin Luke, Hardie Albright, Frank Reicher, Janet Warren, Cyril Develanti, Al Bridge, Ralph Lewis, Dorothy Granger, Edith Evanson, Joe Whitehead, Henry Hall, Jack Ingram, Danny Desmond. Music: Dave Torbett. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: John C. Fuller. Set decoration: Vin Taylor, Production management: William Strohbah. Sound recordist: Tom Lambert. Produced by James S. Burkett for Monogram Pictures.