Monday, June 8, 2015

Beach Party Blogathon: The Black Camel (1931)


Beach Party blogathon!  Our hostesses for this June 8 - 12 cruise along coastal cinema are Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy.  Check here for the sunny line-up.

When I read the Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Golden Pavilion as a young girl I longed to visit Hawaii.  Later on when I read Earl Derr Bigger's The House Without a Key my fondest wish was to visit Hawaii in the 1920s.  I imagine the closest I'll ever get to that far-fetched whim is in watching the 1931 Charlie Chan feature The Black Camel.

Bela Lugosi and Dorothy Rivier
The lighting in this moody scene is stunning.

Earl Derr Biggers novels are very entertaining in the Golden Age mystery mode with a strong sense of place and depth of characterizations.  The continuing popularity of the novels and the films derived from them are a testament to their audience appeal.  The Black Camel has a lot going for it in its exotic location, a backstage murder with a hint of the occult, and the beloved character of Chan.


Quiet on the set!
Dorothy Rivier and Hamilton MacFadden

In Charlie Chan's film history Earl Derr Biggers novels The House Without a Key was filmed in 1926, The Chinese Parrot in 1927 and Behind That Curtain in 1929.  The Inspector was played by George Kuwa, Sojin Kamiyama and E.L. Park respectively.  Warner Oland first took on the character in 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On.  20th Century Fox showed great confidence in the success of their series when they sent the company of The Black Camel on location to Honolulu. The director of Charlie Chan Carries On and The Black Camel was Hamilton MacFadden, who cast himself as the director of the movie withinin the movie.  The veteran of seven Broadway shows had signed with the studio the previous year.

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Honolulu newspapers tout the exciting news that Hollywood star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) and an entire film company from Hollywood is filming on the island.  Adding to the allure is the story that a shipboard romance has developed between the glamorous star and young millionaire Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.).  Shelah is desperate to marry Allan, but a secret in her past is holding her back.  She feels compelled to consult "psychic to the stars" Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi) unaware that this trusted confidante is motivated by secrets of his own.


Robert Young and Sally Eilers
It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Shelah's assistant Julie (Sally Eilers) is concerned for the star's state of mind, but is happy to be distracted by tourist board P.R. man Jimmy (Robert Young).  1931 was Young's first year in the movies.  He has a breezy naturalism and will make a strong impression as Helen Haye's son in the autumn release of The Sin of Madelon Claudet.  Shelah's entourage also includes a butler, Jessop (Dwight Frye) and a maid, Anna (Violet Dunn).  Ms. Dunn was, at the time of the filming, married to director Hamilton MacFadden.


The gang's all here - and they're not happy about it.

The company from Hollywood hasn't shaken the suspicion surrounding the unsolved murder case of leading man Denny Mayo.  Many in this troupe were involved in that three year old scandal including Huntley Van Horne (C. Henry Gordon), Wilkie Ballou (Richard Tucker) and his outspoken wife, Rita (Marjorie White).  Meet the Canadians:  Ms. White was born in Winnipeg and Ms. Dunn in Toronto.


Luana causes excitement at the hotel.

As guests await Shelah's grand entrance for dinner, her body is discovered in a beachside pavilion.  Her ex-husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi), an actor appearing at a local theatre, comes under suspicion.  Complicating the investigation is a beach bum/artist, "Smith" (Murray Kinnell) and his companion, Luana (Rita Rozelle). At the Royal Hawaiin Hotel we are also treated to tourists Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster (J. M. Kerrigan and Mary Gordon), who get to soak up the sun and provide valuable information to the authorities.


Inspector Chan has a large and inquisitive family.

The death of the film star Shelah Fane is of great interest to the press and to Inspector Chan's movie crazy kids.  It is a perplexing case for the Inspector as many of the principals involved have their own reasons for impeding the investigation.  However, the worst impediment may be Chan's unwanted assistant Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka).  In the book and film, Kashimo is annoying to the Nth degree.  It would not be until 1935 with the introduction of Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) that Fox would hit on the perfect Chan sidekick. 

Hamilton MacFadden makes great use of the local scenery placing as many scenes as are logically possible on the beach or at the hotel, with great views of Diamond Head.  We even get to see Charlie's fabled home on Punch Bowl Hill.


Dorothy Rivier in an elegant dress with draped cape.
Sally Eilers in a fetching black one piece with geometric design cover-up.
To die for!

One thing I have noted in the Chan pictures at 20th Century Fox is that the fashion is divine.  The ladies always look appropriately contemporary and truly lovely.  The famous Dolly Tree is said to be the costumer in charge on The Black Camel.

The Black Camel is a fascinating look at a screen adaption of a popular novel, plus we are treated to one of Hollywood's earliest forays into location shooting in the talkie era.  We also get to see one of Warner Oland's earliest performances in the role of the Chan character.  In the later films we will see how much he progressed and become one with the persona.  For personal wish fulfillment we are tantalizingly close to visiting Hawaii in another decade.


Hamilton MacFadden (in white)
Charlie Chan in Rio

If I really could go back in time, I might have tea with Earl Derr Biggers and ask him about one of the plot points that has always bothered me concerning the clue of the ripped out newspaper photos.  If it didn't bother Biggers or his editors, it probably shouldn't bother me, but there it is.  Ten years hence when the story was reworked for Charlie Chan in Rio with Sidney Toler, they dispensed with the bothersome issue of everybody that mattered already knowing what Denny Mayo looked like.   

Charlie Chan in Rio is a fine entry in the series with cinematography by Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine) and a song by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren (They Met in Rio).  One of its featured actors is our director of The Black Camel, Hamilton MacFadden.  However, "Rio" despite its setting is strictly studio-bound.  If we're having a beach party, the movie we want to see is The Black Camel

    

     

28 comments:

  1. I want to visit Hawaii in the 1920s as well! This movie looks gorgeous – the lighting, the wardrobe, the sets... I'm going to add this one to my list. Thanks for bringing Charlie Chan with you to the Beach Party Blogathon! :)

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    1. The blogathon is a brilliant idea and, speaking on behalf of Inspector Chan, we're having a great time.

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  2. Awesome write-up! I really need to check this one out as not only have I not seen this one before, but I have the entire Chan box set and haven't even opened it yet. Shame on me!

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    1. You haven't even opened the box set yet!! I have to pick myself up off the floor and mop up the spilled coffee. Well, I do know how pretty and shiny the plastic looks when the light reflects off it. If you've been waiting for some sort of time for when the time is right - this is it.

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  3. Your write-up intrigued me into checking out this movie for the first time. I really enjoyed the open-air feel of it, a nice change from the later studio-bound Chans. Also a treat to see Lugosi in a more sympathetic role, though I had trouble understanding some dialogue due to his accent seeming thicker than usual. All in all, a fun film with a neat "double reveal" at the end!

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    1. I always enjoy Lugosi and agree that this was an interesting role for him. The accent is a detriment, particularly after the reveal, but it is fun to watch Bela and Warner "dueling".

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  4. A great choice. I love the Charlie Chan movies, but I haven't seen this one. I'll have to check it out.

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    1. It feels apart from the latter films in the series because they were finding their footing and the beautiful location shoot.

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  5. I tried to leave you a comment yesterday, but looks as if it vanished! Great piece = I haven't seen any of the Charlie Chan movies as yet, but must put that right and catch up with this one. The Hawaiian setting and the cast make it sound like a must.

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    1. I've enjoyed the Chan series very much over the years. The Black Camel was restored for the the DVD box set releases of a few years ago and has proven a special treat for fans.

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  6. Hawaii in the 1920s would be wonderful, but I guess we'll have to settle for second best! I too need to watch some more Chan (I think I've only seen Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise), this looks like a summery place to start...

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    1. The horse race game in "...Murder Cruise" looks like such a hoot! That movie is also based on a novel, "Charlie Chan Carries On". Note the work of Murray Kinnell and Robert Young, who make very strong impressions in this movie.

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  7. I love the Chan movies, like most good series you get the comfort of the familiar lead(s) plus the variety of settings. This one is especially fun and makes a great entry in the blogathon, thank you!

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    1. Charlie Chan fills the role of household god around here. I had a great time writing about "The Black Camel".

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  8. I used to gorge myself on the Warner Oland Chan films! I haven't seen one in years... but your wonderfully descriptive review takes me back. And geez Robert Young and Bela too! I know what I'll be watching tonight... Very cool addition to The Beach Party Blogathon! Cheers Joey from The Last Drive In

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    1. Just the ticket for a little getaway. When I was a kid I would treat myself to chocolate pudding (don't know why) with my Chan movies. To this day, something is missing if I don't have the added treat with my viewing.

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  9. This may be the only Warner Oland Charlie Chan film that I have not seen--but I did read the novel (along with BEHIND THAT CURTAIN) as a teen. I always enjoy Oland's Chan movies (and most of Toler's), so I am certain I would like this one. Plus, the Hawaiian setting holds great appeal, too.

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    1. Some very nice touches like the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and a local choir singing to the movie star may be even more appreciated these then when it was first released.

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  10. I haven't watched one Charlie Chan film ever. Hanging my head in shame, I must rectify this. Our library has a lot of old books, and with an upcoming beach vacation, I plan on looking for some books by Biggers. Hopefully I'll find one! I enjoyed your post a lot, especially about who's who in the cast-quite a large one for a murder mystery.

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    1. He might not look it, but Earl Derr Biggers would be the perfect beach companion. Enjoy!

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  11. I watched this one for the first time earlier this year and really enjoyed it. You covered its strengths and weaknesses (really, that library newspaper clue does not pas close scrutiny) very well. THE BLACK CAMEL lacks the breeziness of the best Toler Chans, but Warner Oland is just so watchable as Charlie, and it's neat to see Bela Lugosi looking so suave and matching wits with the great detective. Sally Eilers is also cute as can be.

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    1. It is a treat to watch. I only wish some kind person doing an attic purge suddenly discovers the 4 "lost" Chan movies. Heaven!

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  12. I should have seen a Charlie Chan film coming! But you know what is the most interesting thing? How many psychics Bela Lugosi played in the early 1930s!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Aha! I see a blog post in your future about Bela the psychic.

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  13. The only Charlie Chan I've ever seen is in snippets and never sat through a whole movie. One of these days I need to fix that. Did get to live in Hawaii for a couple years, though. Great place. Love the review.

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    1. Thanks.

      If you like fast talking gangsters, etc. check out "Charlie Chan on Broadway". If Karloff is your guy then "Charlie Chan at the Opera" is the one for you.

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  14. "Clue, Clue, Cluuue!" My sister and I got such a kick out of Kashimo's "assitance" ( did you see how he tore apart that one suspects room? ). Even though he was amusing, he could easily get tiresome after 1-2 films. Number One Son Lee certainly was a welcome character! Thanks for an entertaining write-up on a great film. My only beef is with the screenwriter who should have left out that knife-throwing scene near the end ( when Chan is bending down hunting for a clue ). That threw the ending out of whack. Just an opinion from a Chan fan....

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    1. Thank you so much.

      I know what you mean about that final, rather useless clue. I always forget about it and then when I watch the movie again and - whap! - oh, yeah. Sigh.

      Casting Keye Luke was genius. I hope whoever thought of it got a bonus.

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