Charlie Chan and Film Noir, Part 2

My deep affection for the Charlie Chan films began one summer Saturday afternoon in 1976, when my nine-year-old self found a Chan/Sherlock-Holmes double feature on Philadelphia’s now-defunct Channel 48. By March 1977, Channel 48 was rotating through the 22 films from Charlie Chan in London (1934) to Castle in the Desert (1942) every Saturday night (11:30 pm-1 am); I was hooked for nearly four years. My father (born 1935), however, only remembered the later, low-quality Monogram films from HIS childhood, the ones that cast African-American actor Mantan Moreland as Chan’s chauffeur, Birmingham Brown; Brown would unwillingly “assist” whichever Chan son was helping “Pop” that film. My father, being of his generation, found Moreland’s jittery apprehension hysterical (“Feets, do your stuff!” Dad would misquote). However, this “comic relief” only distracted focus from the best feature of nearly every Fox Chan film: the relationship between “Chan and son” (which my memory tells me is how Keye Luke’s Lee Chan once referred to his mutually affectionate relationship with Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan–though I am trouble finding the exact film moment). For all his protestations, the elder Chan loved having his son at his side, both as a gentle foil and as a surprisingly able assistant.

Not that this has ANYTHING to do with my late father and me, he demurred.

I ended Part 1 with this Facebook post from my visit to Noir City 13 in January 2015:

Not really noir…buuuttt…the first one features Harold Huber and Cesar Romero, and the second features George Zucco. All three appeared in at least one Fox Charlie Chan movie. Also appearing in this festival (so far) from those amazing movies: Victor Sen Yung, Keye Luke, Norman Foster (director), Henry Daniell, Leo G. Carroll, Jonathan Hale, Stephen Geray. Who am I forgetting??

Settle in comfortably: there is a LOT to unpack here.

Huber had appeared in Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937), Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), City in Darkness (1939) and Charlie Chan in Rio (1941). Romero had been in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) and Zucco in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), while Daniell (The Suspect [1944], shown earlier in Noir City 13) had appeared in Castle. Other than Romero’s 1951 appearance in FBI Girl (which falls just short of the inclusion criteria I outlined in Part 1), that is it for these actors’ noir connections.

One of Daniell’s costars in Castle, however, was Geray, who had appeared earlier in Noir City 13 in Woman on the Run (following up his Noir City 12 appearance in The Shanghai Gesture). The indefatigable Geray appeared in 15 other films noir: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944); Spellbound and Cornered (1945); Gilda, Deadline at Dawn and So Dark the Night (1946); I Love Trouble and The Dark Past (1948); In a Lonely Place, The Second Woman and A Lady Without Passport (1950); The House on Telegraph Hill (1951); An Affair in Trinidad; New York Confidential and A Bullet for Joey (1955).

Carroll had appeared in City in Darkness and Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940). His Noir City 13 entry was Suspicion (1941). Carroll also appeared in Rebecca (1940), Spellbound and The House on 92 Street (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), So Evil My Love, Strangers on a Train (1951), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Hale had appeared in Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1937) and Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937). His Noir City 13 entry was The Steel Trap (1952). Hale also appeared in the Fritz-Lang-directed films Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), as well as Call Northside 777 (1948), The Judge (1949), Strangers on a Train, and Scandal Sheet (1952).

Later in Noir City 13, Eddie Marr would show up in The Steel Trap and Julie (1956). Marr had earlier been in the casts of The Glass Key (1942), I Love Trouble and The Night Holds Terror (1955). Marr’s Charlie Chan connection: Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940).

When I returned for Noir City 14 in January 2016, I saw Humoresque (1946), which featured Oscar Levant. While Levant never appeared in a Charlie Chan film, he did compose the opera “Carnival” for, well, Charlie Chan at the Opera.

Speaking of Opera, its opening credit is “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff.” Five years earlier, Bela Lugosi had appeared alongside Oland in The Black Camel. In 1934, Karloff and Lugosi jointly starred in The Black Cat (1934), directed by a young, recent émigré from what is now the Czech Republic named Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer would later direct Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion and Detour (1945), and Murder Is My Beat (1955).


So, what is the point of this trivia tour? Is there a vast, unexplored connection between the Charlie Chan films (Fox 1931-1942, n=27; Monogram, 1944-49, n=17), and the classic era of film noir?

At first glance, there is nothing particularly noir about these films, despite the flashbulb-popping urban nightclub milieu of Broadway, the “shadowbox interrogation” scene in Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), and the femme-fatale characterization of Yvonne Roland by actress Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of Cecil B. DeMille) in Olympics. And that is just the Oland films…

Wait, did I mention that Broadway and Treasure Island co-starred Douglas Fowley, who later appeared in Lady in the Death House (1944); The Glass Alibi (1946); Desperate, Fall Guy and Key Witness (1947); Behind Locked Doors (1948); Flaxy Martin (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950)?

The character of Charlie Chan, who debuted in Earl Derr Biggers’ The House Without a Key (1925), was inspired by Chinese-American Honolulu Police Department officer Chang Apana, but he is far closer to Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown than to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. And while the Fox Chan series was a proving ground for later noir stars (Rita Hayworth, Ray Milland) and directors (Norman Foster, H. Bruce Humberstone), and featured noir character actors like Carroll, Fowley, Geray, Hale and Marc Lawrence (the The Asphalt Jungle [1950] star had appeared in Broadway, Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) and Wax Museum), that was true of many B-movies of the 1930s. Finally, of course, there is the tempering effect of the “Chan and son” relationship itself; while compelling in its own way, its omnipresence disallows a sustained noir mood.

So, maybe I just wanted to write an entertaining series of posts cataloguing the interesting connections between the Charlie Chan films and film noir.

Or maybe not.

To be continued…

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

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