Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon: Charlie Chan in Hollywood (1940)

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon hosted by Diana and Connie, the Metzinger Sisters, at Silver Scenes is underway.  Classic film bloggers will never be accused of not having great imaginations!  Check out the amazing movies that never were yet should have been.


CHARLIE CHAN IN HOLLYWOOD
Released by 20th Century Fox in 1940
Starring Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan
Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan
Special appearance by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Director - Norman Foster
Writers - Earl Derr Biggers (character)
Patricia Nolan-Hall (screenplay)

The renowned detective, Inspector Charlie Chan of Honolulu has a large family that is generally divided into two groups.  Half of his children want to be detectives like their old man.  The other half are movie crazy.  Both characteristics are currently found in beloved number 2 son, Jimmy.  Jimmy is employed at Mammoth Studios as a "best boy" or electrician's assistant.  He has told his parents that the job is only during the summer and that he will be returning to his university studies in the fall.  Charlie decides to check out matters for himself as Jimmy's job is related to the new girl in his life, Linda Li played by Iris Wong (Charlie Chan in Reno).  She's a script girl at Mammoth and was instrumental in Jimmy's employment.

Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan

Sidney Toler was the surprising yet excellent choice to succeed the late Warner Oland in the role of Charlie Chan for 20th Century Fox.  More new world than old in his approach to Earl Derr Biggers creation, he sustained the character's popularity throughout the decade.  His partnership with the wonderful Sen Yung (The Letter, Across the Pacific) as the ebullient Jimmy Chan added immeasurably to the continued success of the series.  In his 60s at the time, Toler had a long career in the theatre as an actor/writer and appeared in small roles in several films.  When the studio dropped the series in 1942, Toler purchased the rights to the character from Derr Biggers' widow and continued playing the role in less expensive productions released through Monogram.

Kane Richmond as Bill Dixon

The head of Mammoth Studios, Miles Trent, is played by George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Mermaids).  He is a friendly, warmhearted sort of boss who has the trust and affection of his employees.  Trent is most pleased that Jimmy wants to show his Pop around the studio as Mammoth would love to produce a film based on one of Inspector Chan's exploits.  Although aware of his international reputation, the Inspector does not see himself as a screen character.  Trent's partner, Grant Randall, played by Robert Barrat (Heroes for Sale, The Last of the Mohicans) is more the wheeler dealer type.  His bulldozer reputation is accurate and currently he's engaged in some particularly rough negotiations with the studio's popular leading man Bill Dixon played by Kane Richmond (Charlie Chan in Panama, The Shadow Returns).  The leading man gig is okay for what it is, but Bill is a flyer and he's keen on breaking his contract with the studio to go to Canada and join the Royal Air Force.  Randall is not about to let the studio's money maker do a fool thing like that.

Marjorie Weaver as Lois Williams

Bill's desire to be part of the war is of great concern to his girlfriend, Mammoth's ingenue Lois Williams played by Marjorie Weaver (Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Michael Shayne, Private Detective).  Lois and Linda Li have been friends since childhood so, naturally, her and Bill's problems become Jimmy's as well.

Mary Beth Hughes as Catherine Thomas

Lois also has career issues in that her latest role had originally been intended for another actress on the lot, Catherine Thomas played by Mary Beth Hughes (Charlie Chan in Rio, The Great Flamarion).  Mary Beth could lob sarcastic barbs with the best of them.

 James Ellison as Steve Brannigan

Catherine's stock has gone down considerably due to her involvement with the head of a notorious gambling ring, Steve Brannigan played by James Ellison (Vivacious Lady, I Walked With a Zombie).  The handsome and affable Ellison brings a very dark tone to the character that should have changed the trajectory of his career if this had been an A production.  Catherine's decline is most worrisome to her overbearing stage mother, Evelyn Thomas played by Esther Howard at her most elegant and officious (Sullivan's Travels, Born to Kill).  Evelyn has no difficulty making her displeasure felt at Mammoth Studios.  Harold Huber (The Thin Man, Beau Geste) plays Lou Mason, the head of studio security.  What's his connection with the shady Mr. Brannigan?  Huber keeps you guessing about his character.  Is he really that dumb or that sly?

Hamilton MacFadden, the director of the Chan film The Black Camel, has a featured role in Charlie Chan in Hollywood as film director Roger King.  He's been with Mammoth since the early days when Trent and Randall started the company.  He knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  The outstanding treat in this movie is the appearance of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or, at least, two very nice actors whom we imagine Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy to be in real life.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as themselves

It is a shocking day at Mammoth when Jimmy discovers the body of Grant Randall with a knife in his back.  Inspector Chan has a corpse, a studio full of suspects, and more assistants than one world famous detective can handle.  Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy consider themselves amateur detectives and are champing at the bit to be part of the excitement.  

Babe Hardy:  "It will work out great, Inspector Chan.  Stan sounds like Sherlock Holmes and I have the brains."

The scene where Jimmy, Stan and Babe sneak into the studio at night to search for clues is played mostly without dialogue and rightfully deserves its reputation as a gem in 40s cinema.  In later years Stan would recall Charlie Chan in Hollywood as the team's happiest time at Fox.  He was most fulsome in his praise of Sen Yung whom he called an inventive and instinctive comic, and a bright young man.

Clocking in at 88 minutes, the movie is longer than the usual Chan feature, but director Norman Foster (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Woman on the Run) keeps all the comedy and thrills seamlessly paced and perfectly timed.  The well-drawn characters and behind the scenes atmosphere will leave you wishing it were longer. 

I won't give the ending away except to say that I did not see it coming.  Wow!  Inspector Chan's tried and true "If you want wild bird to sing do not put him in cage" comes into play big time.  Charlie Chan in Hollywood is a dandy.


37 comments:

  1. Hee! I especially love the inclusion of Laurel & Hardy as "themselves."

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  2. Sounds like a very entertaining movie! I, too, love the inclusion of Laurel and Hardy.

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  3. Thank you, ladies. Almost nothing makes me happier than a Charlie Chan movie or a Laurel and Hardy flick, so I just had to make it happen.

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  4. I think either Lois or Catherine is the murderer!
    This film would be marvelous. I love movies that deal with the cinema industry's backstage.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

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  5. Thanks, Le. I can tell you're another whodunnit fan.

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  6. Don't know much about Charlie Chan, but I'm kinda surprised this was never done for real.

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  7. Caftan Woman, CHARLIE CHAN IN HOLLYWOOD was great fun to read; your delight in crafting this swell scenario sings; I can imagine these actors of yesteryear doing a bang-up job in this! You did a great job, C.W., and hats off to the ingenious GREAT IMAGINARY FILM BLOGATHON!

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  8. Rich, I've been a Charlie Chan fan (books and movies) since the age of 12. It wouldn't be going too far to say he is my household god - if you count DVD collections as a shrine.

    The movies done at Fox are well made and a great escape. You should check one of them out sometime. I might suggest "Charlie Chan in Panama" as a good example of the later series.

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  9. Dorian, this blogathon is so creative and such fun. I really did enjoy creating my own Chan flick and am so pleased you feel it shows.

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  10. Absolutly, C.W. ! Heck, if the gang at SilverScenes do this wonderfully inventive Blogathon again next year, I'd love to give it a try, if they'd have me! :-)

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  11. This would have gone down in history as one of the best Chan films ever. And how mouth watering to consider some scenes filmed on the Fox backlot. Think of the double feature possibilities with this and "The Falcon in Hollywood" filmed on the RKO lot. Hours of backlot mystery fun. A really entertaining post here.

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  12. You'd be welcomed with open arms, Dorian. I'll bet you have a million ideas zinging around your brain right now.

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  14. Thanks a lot, Kevin. You've made this Chan fan very happy.

    A selection of back lot mysteries would be quite nice on a winter night.

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  15. I was excited to see you invent one from my favorite period of Chan films, and you really whet my imagination with the rest of your post! That would have been something to see alright! Great post!

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  16. Thank you, Danny. So pleased to have the stamp of approval from another Chan fan.

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  17. Fox should have made this movie--really! Heck, the Falcon went to Hollywood, so Charlie Chan would have been awesome. Plus, that was inspired to add Stan and Ollie to the mix.

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  18. Thanks, Rick. I'm almost starting to believe I actually saw this movie. Stan and Ollie always inspire me.

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  19. CW,
    I am simply shocked that you chose Charlie Chan for this one. ha ha

    Just as clever as your imagination are you co-stars. I wouldn't have thought of any of them in a million years.

    Very fun and entertaining. Chan would be pleased, especially with getting another gig and paycheck.
    Page

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  20. Page, I can well imagine your surprise!

    Playing casting director was great fun. It's going to be difficult to return to blogging about actual movies.

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  21. Well, if Boston Blackie and The Falcon could go to Hollywood, then Charlie Chan is certainly deserving of the Tinseltown treatment as well.

    I can almost picture the stealthy nighttime investigation of the studio by "detectives" Laurel and Hardy. Great stuff!

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  22. When I was reading your wonderful post, I found myself starting to believe this was an actual movie! If only!! I'm not a huge Sidney Toler fan, but I'd let it slide for this movie. Plus, Laurel & Hardy! It wouldn't get much better than that. :)

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  23. CW & Charlie Chan go together like.... well, like Stan & Ollie! Brilliant, my dear, just brilliant!

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  24. Brian, I`m thrilled that you can almost picture Stan and Ollie searching the studio.

    Ruth, my heart belongs to Oland, but I`ve made Toler my buddy. I couldn`t pass up the chance to give Stan and Ollie a classic from their Fox days.

    Marsha, you made my day!

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  25. Thanls for a great essay, CW. A well kept secret about Charlie Chan in Hollywood is that the musical score was by none other than Aaron Copland, under the peculiar pseudonym Harvey Bullcountry. Perhaps to differentiate between this light-hearted film and his more prestigious film projects of the time (Of Mice and Men, Our Town).

    In the scene with Jimmy, Stan and Ollie searching the studio, Copland does some clever variations on the boys’ theme song, ”Dance of the Cuckoos.” We hear it played as a comic waltz, as boogie woogie, as a sombre, minor chord ”mystery” cue, in conga rhythm, and as a fandango. Then, at the briskly edited climax to the scene, he has all those variations fusing together in an increasingly cacophonic cluster — in effect, creating a musical ”fine mess!” One wishes he had found the opportunity to do more comedy scores.

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  26. Uncle W., I was remiss in not mentioning the contribution of "Harvey Bullcountry". Although, anyone watching that memorable scene in the studio is well aware of the fourth member of the team. Would that there were more opportunities for that wry sense of humour to make itself known to us.

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  27. Charlie Chan + Laurel & Hardy + murder in Hollywood...how did this movie not get made? This is such an imaginative and detailed post - you must've had a lot of fun coming up with "Charlie Chan in Hollywood."

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  28. I love this. You're a nut. A great screenplay scenario writer. Do I dare hope that Bess Flowers had a walk-on?

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  29. Thanks, Patricia. I had almost too much fun coming up with "Charlie Chan in Hollywood".

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  30. Jacqueline, don't let on, but sharp-eyed viewers will spot Bess in Brannigan's nightclub where her presence provides Inspector Chan with a major clue.

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  31. What fun, and what a great script idea! I am a huge Charlie Chan lover, and I particularly like your inclusion of James Ellison. I've liked him since I Walked With A Zombie, one of my very favorites. You should get a good agent for your screenplay, although come to think of it, all of your stars are, well, dead...hmmm, too bad... oh well, anybody with half an imagination can see the movie in their head! LOL!

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  32. How did I miss this one? HA! This should definitely have been made once upon a time, CW. I love the whole idea. Why don't you write it up as a book? Why not?
    Oh right, Charlie Chan is not public domaine. Yet.

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  33. Becky, I might have known you'd be a fan of the gush-worthy Mr. Ellison. We'll just let our imaginations run wild and enjoy "Charlie Chan in Hollywood". Boy, if I had that time machine wouldn't we have a ball?

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  34. I'm glad you stopped by Yvette. Well, it's a long winter. Maybe I will write it up against future public domain.

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  35. Charlie Chan movies are great fun. My wife and I are watching one as I write this. Sad that the current generation is not more familiar with them.
    http://michaelspappy.blogspot.com/

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    1. Perhaps we can persuade a few of the younger folks to join us in our appreciation.

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