Sunday, May 27, 2012

Horseathon: Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)

Not a wholesome trottin' race, no!
But a race where they sit down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy settin' on Dan Patch
Make your blood boil, well I should say.

Trouble, The Music Man
by Meredith Willson

"Professor" Harold Hill touched a nerve in his Iowan marks who did not share a reverence for the centuries old Sport of Kings.  They would be immune to track promotions highlighting the storied history, the fun to be found in gambling and developing your own system, and the thrill of a race.  The noble horses, colourful characters and high stakes of the stable background are an irresistible setting for a mystery.  Sherlock Holmes had Silver Blaze.  Jockey/author Dick Francis had international best sellers with such titles as Whip Hand and Dead Cert.  And in 1936 Charlie Chan went to the race track.  It had taken a few false starts before Earl Derr Bigger's popular fictional detective of the 1920s took off in film, but at the time of the movie we're looking at today Inspector Chan was, you should pardon the expression, riding high.

"Murder without blood stain like Amos without Andy - most unusual."

H. Bruce Humberstone directed Charlie Chan at the Race Track, the first of four including Charlie Chan at the Opera and Charlie Chan at the Olympics and the first Sidney Toler as Chan outing, Charlie Chan in Honolulu.  "Lucky" Humberstone's career began in the silent era and he assisted the likes of King Vidor and Edmund Goulding.  He was a director who had the ability to constantly entertain audiences with innovative, yet unobtrusive camera work playing to the strengths of his material and keeping the pace sharp so we don't dwell too much on any plot deficits.  Other popular Humberstone films include I Wake Up Screaming, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Wonder Man and To the Shores of Tripoli.

Warner Oland moved to America from his native Sweden with his family while in his teens, made his Broadway debut in 1902 and his screen debut in 1912.  Among his variety of roles was the pious Cantor in The Jazz Singer and the villanous Fu Manchu.  In 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On (an unfortunately "lost" film), Oland found an alter ego that touched his soul.  He approached the role of Inspector Chan through diligent study of Chinese history and philosophy and so fused his personality with that of Chan's that he became the character.  Enduring international fame was Oland's reward for such fidelity of purpose, especially in China, the land of the fictional detective's ancestors.

"Confucius say, no man is poor who has worthy son."

In a master stroke of story and casting handsome and personable artist Keye Luke joined the series in 1935s Charlie Chan in Paris as Lee Chan, number one son.  More than ably handling the action and comedy support, "Lee" also highlighted the main difference between Chan and most mystery protagonists in that he was a family man.  Keye Luke and Warner Oland developed a very close friendship that enhanced the father-son dynamic in the Chan series.  Keye Luke always spoke fondly and admiringly of Warner Oland in interviews, and refused to continue in the series after the death of his friend in 1938.


Frankie Darro

Inspector Chan first becomes aware of the case which will claim his attention through a radio transmission of the Melbourne Cup race to which the staff of the Honolulu Police is riveted.  All the world, it seems, loves a high stakes race.  At the behest of son Lee, Chan even bets 50 cents on the "schnozzola" of the favourite, Avalanche, owned by old friend Major Kent played by the aristocratic George Irving.  The 50 cents is lost when Avalanche was disqualified because of a foul committed by perennial movie jockey Frankie Darro (Wild Boys of the Road, Pinocchio).


Jonathan Hale, Helen Wood, Gloria Roy, Alan Dinehart, Thomas Beck

Although Major Kent has sold his interest in Avalanche to his son-in-law George Chester played by Alan Dinehart, Kent was determined to expose the gambling ring he felt was behind the disgrace.  He cabled Inspector Chan to meet the party as they stopped in Honolulu on their way to a meet in Los Angeles.  On shipboard Major Kent is killed and the blame placed on the high strung Avalanche.  Chan determines it is a case of murder and joins the cruise to pursue his investigation.  Lee signs on as cabin boy to assist and protect his "Pop".  The cruise provides a glamorous setting with moonlight on the water, fashionably gowned ladies, dinner jacketed gents, fires in the hold and near fatal gun attacks.

Frank Coghlin, Jr.

Our suspects include owners, trainers, jockeys, touts and stable boys and are brought to life by a pleasing and thoroughly professional cast of players. Canadian born Jonathan Hale (Mr. Dithers in the Blondie series, Inspector Fernack in The Saint) is rival horse own Warren Fenton.  His "dark horse" Gallant Lad bears a striking resemblance to the highly favoured Avalanche.  G.P. Huntley (Dressed to Kill, Charge of the Light Brigade) is a gambler who may be too smart for his own good.  Gavin Muir (Hitler's Children, Wee Willie Winkie) is a trainer with an agenda.  Frank Coghlin Jr. (Adventures of Captain Marvel) is a nice guy jockey with more heart than sense.  John Henry Allen is the stable boy "Streamline", always referred to as "Mister Streamline" by Inspector Chan.  Streamline has more to deal with than he wants with nervous horses, an overbearing owner and a rambunctious monkey named Lollipop. Paul Fix (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Rifleman), as he always played in the 30s, is a weasely gun man.  Gloria Roy, in the fourth of seven Chan appearances, plays a woman in the middle of it all as the daughter of Major Kent and wife of George Chester.  Helen Wood is our pretty ingenue, the daughter of rival horse owner Warren Fenton and romantic interest of secretary Thomas Beck (Heidi, Champagne Charlie) in the second of three Chan features, and soon to leave Hollywood after a contract dispute.

Helen Wood, Thomas Beck

Charlie Chan 101 for Newbies:  If there is a young romantic couple, and there always is a young romantic couple, you can erase them from your suspect list.  They are included only to be young and romantic.

Gavin Muir, Paul Fix, "Lucky" Humberstone behind seated Frankie Darro

Charlie Chan has dealt with dope rings, spies, maniacs, blackmailers and all sorts of criminals.  The gambling ring in Charlie Chan at the Race Track are as cold a group of birds as the Inspector ever came up against.  Director Humberstone stepped in front of the camera to become one of the gang.  Ruthless and determined, part of their plan includes switching Avalanche and the similarly built Gallant Lad in a bid to rig bets.

The inventiveness of equine appellations gives me great pleasure.

A climactic race is featured in the solution of Charlie Chan at the Race Track filmed at Santa Anita Park and Racetrack, named Santa Juanita for the movie.  So many questions must be answered.  Is the gambling syndicate behind all the evils?  Is Fenton the mastermind?  Is Chester as innocent as he seems?  Are Fenton and Chester in cahoots?  Are they cahooting with the crooks?  Will harm come to Avalanche or Gallant Lad?  Will Charlie Chan bring the criminal element to justice?  You can safely put your 50 cents on the old schnozzola.

Enjoy all the delightful looks at movies, horses and movie horses at the first ever Horseathon sponsored by Page of My Love of Old Hollywood.


  1. Caftan Woman - I loved this! Such a wonderful series and, knowing how you love it, how lucky that they made a racing-themed entry! I, too, marvel over the names of race horses and used to loved to read the racing form just to see how the name of the horse was derived from either the father, mother or a combination of both.

  2. Can you believe I have never seen a Charlie Chan movie? Now I want to after your review.

  3. FlickChick, thanks so much. I had a lot of fun revisiting the movie. Luck indeed was on my side for the Horseathon. And timing as well, because I would have gone for David Lobosco's choice if he hadn't called dibs on "Riding High".

    DL, you've never seen a Chan flick? They're my happy place and I truly think you would enjoy them.

  4. Caftan Woman, as the daughter of a bookie who loved to actually go to races (no OTB for our dad!), I was looking forward to your review of CHARLIE CHAN AT THE RACE TRACK. From your opening with "Trouble" from THE MUSIC MAN to your playful, affectionate wit throughout (including one of Chan's trademark aphorisms), your post was as delightful as I knew it would be! I especially enjoyed your behind-the-scenes info about the warm friendship between Warner Oland and Keye Luke. I always got a kick out of race horses' names, too! :-) Wonderful post, my friend, as always!

  5. CW,
    You know what's even better than a super sleuth adventure? One that leads us to a racetrack!

    When I told my mom you were doing a Charlie Chan review she got so excited. That lady loves her Charlie Chan films to my dad's chagrin. Since he loves Westerns he should watch this film with her. (A compromise with horses)

    Thanks for including all of the interesting info on the film with your already fun review. Having been to Santa Anita so many times it's a treat knowing it played a role in the film. (I can't wait to tell my mom that since Santa Anita is her favorite track)

    I'm always happy when Warner Oland makes an appearance in another blogathon.

    Thanks for contributing to the Horseathon with such a well thought out review.

    You just might be as big of a Chan fan as my mom.

  6. Hi Patricia, may I begin by saying thank you for your comment on my post, “Wings of the Morning” with Annabella and Henry Fonda. Despite the current attitude of “policital correctness” regarding the Charlie Chan films; I will admit to being a fan of the series. A local channel once aired the films on a regular basis, and I tried to see them all. I prefer Warner Oland over Sidney Toler, but I’m not sure if At the Race Track is a film I have seen. The plot sounds vaguely familiar, but as you pointed out, I have seen Frankie Darro as a jockey numerous times. My favorite is probably the one set in Paris, but a close second is the one set in London, which stars the always appealing Ray Milland.

  7. Loved this: " The cruise provides a glamorous setting with moonlight on the water, fashionably gowned ladies, dinner jacketed gents, fires in the hold and near fatal gun attacks."

    And this: " If there is a young romantic couple, and there always is a young romantic couple, you can erase them from your suspect list. They are included only to be young and romantic."

    I haven't seen a Charlie Chan movie in years. This one sounds like such fun.

  8. Always love a good Charlie Chan movie, like this one. It's astonishing how much variety the films always managed to cram into their short running times. One thing I liked about Oland's Chan is the dignity and consideration he had towards all other characters, including the stable boy Streamline who, as you note, he addresses as "Mr Streamline." (And in, as I recall, "Charlie Chan in London," he always refers to the horse as the "Noble Animal.")

  9. Loved your Charlie Chan 101 for Newbies! I`ve never seen a CC movie - will have to watch for the next one on TCM.

  10. Spot on review, Caftan Woman! I love Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, and will accept no substitutes (well, Sidney Toler was OK, i guess). RACE TRACK is a good, very lively Chan film.

    Your review was sprightly and fun, as well as working as a helpful, informative primer for Chan newbies. Loved what you said about scratching any young couple off the list of possible suspects - it's so true!


  11. I've never seen a Charlie Chan movie either, but this one looks like a lot of fun! I chuckled at the line about the romantic young couple too. Some mystery writers are like that too—there's often a certain type of character that recurs throughout their books whom you can usually regard as "safe." :)

  12. Please add me to the list of people who have never seen a CC movie and wanting to after reading your awesome review..

  13. I appreciate the kind words, Dorian. Glad you got a kick out of the piece.

  14. Page, your mom and I are sympatico. There are some people I am married to who think my devotion to Charlie Chan movies is a little too much.

    On the other hand, I'm a gal who never turns down a Randolph Scott or Audie Murphy movie. If I could watch westerns all day and Chan at night - well, that's my idea of movie heaven.

    Your Horseathon was a brilliant idea and a great success.

  15. Ah, Whistling Gypsy, the intrigue of "Charlie Chan in Paris" makes it a winner. Ray Milland really stands out in "Charlie Chan in London" and it's not just because we know he's Ray Milland.

    Oland is my favourite Chan as well, but I'm very glad the series continued with Toler and Sen Yung.

  16. JTL, you could certainly do worse than spend a little time with Chan and son. Glad you got a kick out of the piece.

  17. Grand Old Movies, it warms my heart to know you appreciate Oland/Chan. A couple of years ago when TCM did their look at Asians in cinema, the expert (whose name escapes me) mentioned preferring Toler's more sarcastic Chan. His opinion bothered me because he seemed to miss the dignity you mentioned as well as the subtle sarcasm in the "Thank you so much" phrase. Also, it's upsetting to think that in the 21st century courtesy is considered a character flaw.

  18. Silver Screenings, I hope TCM comes up with a Chan picture on their schedule soon for you.

  19. Jeff, while I have a fondness for the Toler/Sen Yung pictures, it is Warner Oland who embodies the character.

    Thanks for the compliment.

  20. Elisabeth Grace and Dawn, I expect to hear in the next few months that we have new members of the Charlie Chan fan club.

  21. Caftan Woman's reviews are like chewing gum: They're sweet tasting and then stick with you for a long time. Sorry, lame attempt at Chan humor! Loved your review, though. I've been a big Charlie Chan fan since I watched them all (yes, even the Ross Martin one) as a kid. The settings often enhanced the mysteries and CC AT THE RACE TRACK is no exception.

  22. Rick, that's the nicest aphorism anybody's ever said about me! In fact, it's the only...

  23. Ha! I so agree about the 'young and romantic couple' a 'necessity' in every Chan film.

    Terrific review, CW. I learned stuff I hadn't known before about this movie which I've only seen about a million times....well, not exactly. But enough.

    I loved Warner Oland as Chan, though the first few Sidney Toler movies met with my approval. The ones WITHOUT Mantan Moreland.

    I loved Keye Luke too. The warmth between father and son really worked magic on screen.

    I will be watching The Belmont Stakes next week to see if we're going to have a triple crown winner this year. Keeping my fingers crossed.

    But I've never been to an actual race in real life. So, something to still look forward to.

  24. I have seen many of the Chan movies which are all a lot of fun as murder mysteries should be. The filmakers do manage to pack in quite a bit in a short running time.

  25. Yvette, I am a wee bit incredulous about me being able to tell you something you didn't know about Chan, but I'll take your word for it. Together, I think we may be what is termed "Chan fangirls!"

    It's true, John. The movies are packed full of story with a host of familiar faces. Almost too much fun.

  26. Had I not been distracted by the number of Bowery Boys movies in my library (you people stop judging me!) I probably would have nabbed this, one of my favorites in the Chan series. But it's just as well, Our Lady of Great Caftan -- you did a splendiferous job!

  27. Thanks a lot, Ivan.

    No judgment here. I've a soft spot in my heart for Whitey, and those other guys.

  28. Miss Paddylee like fortune cookie; sweet on the outside, full of wisdom inside.

    Thank you very much.

  29. RC Ocean, you say the nicest things.

  30. Charlie Chan Fan-Girls! That's us!

  31. We should have T-shirts, Yvette!



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