It’s usually easy to say exactly where a film franchise begins. Universal Studios’ Jaws (1975) movies officially started with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (though we can see early traces of the film’s formula on display in Spielberg’s Duel) and came to a hilariously anticlimactic conclusion in Jaws: The Revenge (1987). However, numerous foreign-made “sequels” and outright ripoffs have managed to confuse people who evidently find it difficult to differentiate the real deal from a school of blue fish. In the case of another film franchise ‒ that of the Charlie Chan legacy ‒ it truly is difficult to pinpoint what began where, since several studios (Universal included) unsuccessfully tried to bring the character to life before the Fox Film Corporation cast Warner Oland in the “official” birth of the B-unit mystery series, starting in 1931.
The fact the Fox/Oland Charlie Chan series kept changing hands/stars doesn’t help one’s math any, either. Most of the movies made under the original Fox Film Corporation banner ‒ before the studio became known as 20th Century Fox in 1934 ‒ have been declared lost. Several Chinese (and some Spanish) productions added titles to the list (unofficially, of course), even after Warner Oland passed away in 1937, whose successor, Sidney Toler, bought and carried the series (which was officially pronounced as dead by Fox in 1942) over to Monogram Pictures in 1944. It was there Mr. Toler faithfully served as Earl Derr Biggers’ now-controversial Asian sleuth until he himself passed away in 1947, wherein the torch was passed onto actor Roland Winters. Winters whipped out six increasingly cheaper productions for the Poverty Row studios until everyone finally decided to lay the character to rest in 1949.
Of course, Charlie Chan never really died. He returned, usually on television, sometimes on the big-screen, often as a parody of his humble self. Sadly, no one ever thought to lend some credibility to the part by casting an actual Asian in the part after the Fox/Monogram days, the sole exception being Hanna-Barbara’s animated series in the 1970s. Well, while those aforementioned lost films are unlikely to ever surface, Chan fans can finally lift their heads with great pride at the Warner Archive’s latest (and in many ways, last) DVD set to bear the controversial fictional detective’s name: Charlie Chan 3-Film Collection. Of course, I should point out these three ditties from the latter-day Monogram era ‒ The Red Dragon (1945), The Feathered Serpent (1948), and The Sky Dragon (1949) ‒ are regularly regarded as some of the cheapest films in the lot.
And they really are cheap! Don’t get me wrong: I have always been a fan of the Charlie Chan movies (questionable casting choices aside, though I need only remind myself that’s simply the way classic racist Hollywood was), but these films were cheap even by the already low standards of a Poverty Row outfit such as Monogram Pictures. In fact, it’s easy to see why and when that final nail in Chan’s filmic coffin was administered when one compares these outings to the earlier 20th Century Fox fare. Ironically enough, the first title in the set, The Red Dragon (not to be confused with a certain Hannibal Lecter story), hails from the better days of Monogram’s productions, replete with Mr. Sidney Toler as our witty, wisdom-quoting gumshoe (the actor would succumb to a lengthy battle with cancer a little over a year after the film was released in early ’46).
The Red Dragon feels like it is a movie constructed entirely from outtakes. Actors miss their marks, step on each other’s lines (as well as their own), and generally appear to be reading from completely different, totally unrehearsed scripts. Director Phil Rosen, who had helmed the first six Monogram films, was apparently out to lunch during the entire production and amid the editing process to boot. Story-wise, this lamentable outing finds Toler’s Charlie Chan in Mexico, accompanied by his Number Three Son, Tommy (Benson Fong), and Monogram’s temporary (poor) Mantan Moreland replacement, Willie Best (in one of his two appearances). An exceptionally annoying Fortunio Bonanova smiles his way to a quick paycheck as the Mexican detective who accompanies terminally-ill Toler throughout. Former Dale Arden Carol Hughes co-stars, along with character actor George Meeker.
The second and final disc in this set sports both Roland Winters titles, which themselves represent the very (official?) end of the series (at least from the Fox/Monogram perspective), The Feathered Serpent and The Sky Dragon. And, despite Mr. Winters’ reputation as the least popular Charlie Chan of all (in this series, at least), to say nothing of the fact he was a good five months younger than actor Keye Luke, who had portrayed Chan’s Number One Son, Lee, in most of the Warner Oland/Fox films from the ’30s. But here is what makes The Feathered Serpent the most interesting of all the Chan films combined: it was the first and only time we would see Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung (who had been portraying Chan’s Number Two Son, Jimmy throughout the bulk of the Sidney Toler films) together in the same film. (And it’s directed by William Beaudine, too!)
In fact, this was the first time Keye Luke had appeared in a Chan film since 1937, back when Warner Oland was still alive and presiding over the series at Fox (Luke’s character of Lee Chan would return ‒ albeit once ‒ in Mr. Moto’s Gamble in ’38; a film that started out as a Charlie Chan vehicle). Eleven years, two lead actors, and one studio later, Luke found himself returning to the franchise. And, as soon as we bear witness to Mr. Moreland driving Mr. Winters, Mr. Luke, and Mr. Yung about ‒ as the latter attempts to sing a mariachi ballad on his guitar, much to the chagrin of all ‒ it seems that everything in the filmic universe (nay, the entire universe itself) is as close to perfection as it’ll ever be. The story? Well, this remake of the 1937 Republic Pictures oater The Riders of the Whistling Skull is not very good either, kids, but it’s much better after suffering through The Red Dragon!
Lastly we have The Sky Dragon. The final, original Charlie Chan film. Ever. Fortunately, considering the amount of odd and just plain bad films that had preceded it during the Monogram administration, this last outing is an enjoyable way to bring the curtains down with. Apparently, Keye Luke’s return in the previous film was enough for Monogram to have him replace Victor Sen Yung, who had been with the series since the late Sidney Toler was first cast to replace the late Warner Oland. Perhaps bringing back the only remaining original actor from the initial (official) series to guide the legacy’s proverbial “fade to black” was their way of coming to full circle. For Mr. Luke highlights the entire feature, coming dangerously close to becoming Hollywood’s first Asian action hero, even (literally) taking the wheel as the film ends. It’s almost as though he was set to take over the part from there in a series that never materialized.
Although, theoretically, you could follow up The Sky Dragon with Monogram’s Phantom of Chinatown from 1940 (wherein Keye Luke took over the part of Charlie Chan knockoff Mr. Wong, originally played by Boris Karloff of all people!) just to make it look like Lee Chan’s solo career went well. This tale finds Charlie and Lee ‒ along with all of the other people onboard a small commercial flight, passengers and crew alike ‒ being drugged by the film’s mystery villain, who makes off with $250,000 in cold hard cash. However, our guilty party ‒ who also kills the feller guarding the dough while everyone is out ‒ drugs the entire population of the plane as it is in the air. Pilots included. Clearly, the culprit is insane, though it will hardly seem out of place once you see an easily-accessible cockpit and pilots casually strolling about the cabin through our paranoid, post-9/11 eyes.
Noel Neill (cinema’s first Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (filmdom’s original Lex Luthor), Tim Ryan (who had been cast as the same character in two earlier Chan films, although he has inexplicably gone from police detective to pilot), Iris Adrian, Elena Verdugo, Milburn Stone, and a forgotten beauty by the name of Louise Franklin (cast here as Mantan Moreland’s comical romantic interest) also star in this picture from western oater regular, director Lesley Selander. All three films in the Warner Archive’s Charlie Chan 3-Film Collection hail from the best surviving elements available. There are a number of instances in this two-disc set wherein the film may get a little wobbly or whatnot, but when you stop to consider these final Monogram movies were once doomed to die (yes, that was a Mr. Wong reference) via miserable, sporadic, late night television airings and fuzzy bootleg dupes, it’s a hell of an upgrade.
Neither movie sports as much as a trailer, but that’s hardly an issue here. Nor is it hardly surprising, since I doubt any of the respective film’s original trailers survived as time went by and Monogram’s film library was divided up amongst those who genuinely cared about it. Various source material and copyright problems prevented these titles from garnering more home video debuts in any of the earlier box sets (be they from MGM, Fox, or Warner), so finally getting an opportunity to see these unremembered mysteries ‒ no matter how controversial the movies may be to this day, or how hilariously awful The Red Dragon truly is, for that matter ‒ is reason enough for me to recommend this Warner Archive Collection release.