Friday, January 15, 2016

Backstage Blogathon: Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

The Backstage Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid runs from January 15 - 18.  Day 1 recap.  Day 2 recap.  Day 3 recap.  Final day recap.

A music lover.
Boris Karloff

Intrigue, betrayal, secrets, threats of violence - all this can be found in the opera Carnival and in the San Marco Opera Company.  It has been seven years since the company and its prima donna Madame Lilli Rochelle have played Los Angeles.  Her return is front page news and fans are eager to fill the house.  Caught up in the thrill of the music and the glamour of the theatre, patrons are little aware of the complicated lives shared backstage.

Lilli and Enrico are less than discreet.
Gregory Gaye, Margaret Irving

Madame Rochelle would seem to have it all including a husband, the wealthy Mr. Whitely, to finance her dreams and ambitions.  Is that cozy arrangement threatened by her more than cozy relationship with baritone Enrico Borelli?  Does Lilli think she is keeping that a secret from Whitely, along with the secret of an earlier marriage and a daughter?  Certainly Anita Borelli, also a soprano in the company, is not blind to her husband and Lilli's relationship.

Perhaps Lilli believed all her secrets were buried in the past.  People seem to have forgotten the Chicago Opera House fire back in 1923.  That was 13 years ago when her first husband, the baritone Gravelle was lost in the flames.  Thirteen years to deny her daughter, or at least keep her age from the public.  However, Lilli is frightened enough by a threatening note to go to the police and ask for protection.  Yes, Lilli has been frightened enough.

"Gravelle sings tonight!"
You don't argue with the man.
Boris Karloff, Nedda Harrigan

The Los Angeles police have their own problems.  The publicity surrounding the escape from a sanitorium of a mental patient has the public in an uproar.  An amnesiac who lost his mind and was considered a lunatic has been in the facility for seven years.  His distinguishing characteristic is that he sits at the rec hall piano and sings every night.  He sings opera!

The famous Honolulu police inspector Charlie Chan has been in Los Angeles on another of his thrilling cases, this last one involving crooked gamblers and horse racing.  Inspector Chan stops by the office of Inspector Regan before departing for home.  The timely arrival of Madame Rochelle, an old friend, precipitates our hero's agreeing to attend to her case personally.  Sergeant Kelly, to put it mildly, does not appreciate being shown up by the visiting Inspector.  Sergeant Kelly isn't a happy man to begin with as he's been put on the spot for not capturing the maniac, and he does not approve of the show biz types strewn across his path.

"I tell ya' nobody can see Madame Rochelle tonight!"
Sergeant Kelly takes charge.
William Demarest, Charlotte Henry, Thomas Beck

Inspectors Chan and Regan, with the added resources of number one son Lee and a few of his friends, Sergeant Kelly and a squad of patrolmen attend at the opera house for the protection of the famed soprano - but from whom?  Charlie Chan has observed that Madame Lilli's picture in a torn newspaper left at the asylum bears the mark of a footprint indicating anger.  She may deny it, but is Lilli acquainted with the escaped lunatic?  A mysterious and unnerving stranger lurks in the catacomb-like hallways and cubby holes of the theatre, terrorizing the wardrobe mistress and the ensemble.  Meanwhile, annoying Sergeant Kelly no end, is a young man and a girl who are most insistent on speaking with Lilli.

Chan and Son on the case.
Keye Luke, Warner Oland

Before the first act of Carnival is over, and despite the presence of the law, two murders occur backstage.  Can the field of suspects be narrowed?  In the grand theatrical tradition, will the show go on?  Should it go on?  Sergeant Kelly bulldozes his way through the investigation, determined to make the situation fit his theory.  He is equally determined to be first across the finish line with the case solved ahead of Chan.  Inspector Chan uses scientific methods (fingerprints) and equipment (long distance photographic transfer), the assistance of his helpful son, and his own deep knowledge of the human heart to separate the obvious from the truth, many truths.

H. Bruce Humberstone

Charlie Chan at the Opera was the second of four Chan features assigned to H. Bruce Humberstone (I Wake Up Screaming, Sun Valley Serenade, Wonder Man).  The former actor had given himself the role of a gangster in the previously released Charlie Chan at the Race Track.

"Voice from back seat sometime very disconcerting to driver."
Inspector Chan tells Mr. Whitely to shut up.
Frank Conroy, Guy Usher, Warner Oland

This movie was lucky number 13 in Warner Oland's run as Inspector Chan which began with 1931s Charlie Chan Carries On, based on Earl Derr Biggers 1930 novel, the fifth in his popular series.  Other actors had played Chan in earlier adaptions of the novels, but no one caught fire in the role until Oland.  In Hollywood since the teens, Oland could and did play a variety of characters, but became particularly adept at Asian characterizations, especially those of a villainous nature, becoming associated with Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu.  The Hawaiian police officer and family man was a very different sort of fellow from the manical Fu or the power-driven Chang in Shanghai Express.  In the film series, as Chan became internationally renowned, so did his portrayer and Warner Oland was beloved the world over for his performance.

The view from the wings as a trap is set.
Nedda Harrigan, Boris Karloff onstage.
Arias dubbed by Zari Elmassian and Tudor Williams.

Boris Karloff rightfully received top billing with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Opera.  As the tormented Gravelle, he is the key to every mystery in the story and his horror persona, developed onscreen from 1931s Frankenstein and honed through The Mummy, The Black Cat and other moody chillers was and is always welcomed by audiences.  Karloff's performance is touching and assured.  It also lays the groundwork for Maurice Cass' line, as Mr. Arnold, "I'm stage manager here and this opera's going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in."  Corny?  Perhaps, but delivered with unabashed gusto and always gets an appreciative chuckle.

All good operas have a drinking song and a heroine named Leonora.
Joan Woodbury dances.

Oscar and Emmy nominee William Demarest plays the sorehead Sergeant Kelly, taking some spectacular pratfalls and shots to the head in his misguided attempt to solve the case before Inspector Chan.  Demarest appeared in 1927s The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson as a cantor's son lured by show business.  Warner Oland played the cantor.  Demarest's Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was for 1946s The Jolson Story.  His Emmy nomination was in 1968 for Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons.

Since the previous year's Charlie Chan in Paris, handsome illustrator turned actor Keye Luke had added immeasurably to the Chan series in his role as Lee, "Pop's" number one son and assistant.  Luke and Oland created a deep friendship that translated extremely well to the screen.

The view from the stage.

The dueling sopranos of Lilli Rochelle and Anita Borelli are played by Margaret Irving (Animal Crackers) and Nedda Harrigan (Devil's Island).  Off-screen Ms. Harrigan was widowed by actor Walter Connolly in 1940 and director Joshua Logan in 1988.  A 1957 Tony Award winner, Frank Conroy (The Ox-Bow Incident) plays Mr. Whitely.  This was the final Chan feature of four for young Fox leading man Thomas Beck (Heidi) who would leave Hollywood in 1939.  Charlotte Henry (Babes in Toyland) is the young Kitty Gravelle.  Profligate baritone Enrico Borelli is played by Gregory Gaye who had a 40 year career in pictures in smaller roles.  According to the IMDb he is the uncle of George Gaynes (Tootsie, Police Academy).  The dancer in Carnival is Joan Woodbury (Charlie Chan on Broadway, The Black Room).

Oscar Levant (Rhythm on the River) composed the short opera Carnival with a libretto by William Kernell, of which excerpts were used onscreen that add so much to the theatrical atmosphere.  In particular, the playing of the overture over backstage dialogue is a nice touch.

Director Humberstone had a way with the Chan features, keeping them nicely-paced with a fresh, contemporary feel.  The series was at the height of its popularity and the cheeky title card:  Twentieth Century Fox presents Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera is just the thing to delight fans then and now.



  1. Seeing that Karloff was in this movie makes me wonder: how often did the Chan movies, or any of the similar movie series of this ilk, bring in "name" actors in guest-starring roles? I don't mean the likes of Gable or Crawford, obviously, but someone of the caliber of Karloff.

    1. The B units pretty much kept to the actors on hand, sort of a repertory like company. Familiar faces pop up in all the pictures. It was genius to use Karloff in this particular story. He had just made a film called "Juggernaut" in England which hadn't turned out very well, but returned to LA as a favoured son. The special casting is one of the reasons the movie is such a stand out.

  2. Terrific cast, setting, and moves speedily from start to finish--I think it's likely the best all Charlie Chan films and your review did it justice!

    1. Thank you so much. It's a longtime favourite and always a pleasure to watch.

  3. Thanks so much for joining in! Sounds like a fun one and what a cast!

    1. A murder backstage at an opera house with Boris Karloff and my favourite fictional detective - I suppose there was a chance I wouldn't like it, but it is a real winner.

      Yet another terrific blogathon!

  4. Dang, I never saw this one, but this post was such fun! I'd love to do a tribute to opera movies sometime. The "backstage" theme of this blogathon is great, and you, of course as usual, have made a wonderful choice.

    1. Thank you. Busy woman that you are, perhaps you can find those 68 minutes, give or take snack prep time, and check out YouTube where there is a fairly decent copy currently running. Boris!!

      Opera movies by JT is something to wish for.

  5. This looks like a TREAT, I can't wait to watch it. I've actually only seen a couple of Chan films - clearly an oversight on my part - but they're always entertaining, and great Sunday afternoon viewing!

    1. You are so right. The perfect Sunday afternoons are spent with the Chan clan.

  6. Oh I do love Charlie Chan. Yes it isn't the most PC thing ever, and did I mention my husband is 100% Chinese, but gosh darn it they are fun! I'm partial to number one son myself. Great post!

    1. I've been a Chan fan since I first saw "Charlie Chan in Shanghai" at the age of 11 (and that's a very long time!). I don't think it is a coincidence that Number One Son was featured in that movie. It was a good move hiring Keye Luke for the popular series.

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  8. For some reason, I can't really get into the Charlie Chan movies, but your review has prompted me to give them another chance – especially this one.

    You make a good point about corny lines being delivered with gusto. Eve Arden comes to mind, in the old radio show "Our Miss Brooks". A lot of her lines aren't that funny, but she makes them funny – which is why she was a sought-after professional actor...and why I'm not (ha ha).

    Great review!

    1. Some people can't be funny, but others can't help themselves.

      Maybe this is the movie to make you rethink the Chan series. I hope so.

  9. I wasn't surprised you chose a Charlie Chan film... Someday I'll have to make a marathon of Warner Oland's Chan movies, thinking of you, of course.
    And the theater's backstage is a terrific scenario for suspense and mystery.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. I'm so predictable, but I simply could not resist the chance to write about another Charlie Chan movie. It fit the blogathon so perfectly.

  10. I've never watched any of the Charlie Chans, but you made this one sound really appetizing: incredible cast (Oland, Karloff, Demarest, Henry, Luke) and an opera by Oscar Levant! Sounds like tons of fun... xxoo Lesley

    1. Whether it creates an interest in others in the series or not, "Charlie Chan at the Opera" is indeed a lot of fun. Karloff and Oland are a genuine treat to watch.

  11. I love ALL of the Charlie Chan films but this one has always struck me as being particularly spooky...thanks to Boris Karloffs chilling performance. That Opera costume really suited him well too. Thanks for a great read on a really entertaining film!

    1. Thank you for the compliment. It is a special movie and, like you, I believe it has to do with the casting and performance of Karloff.

      I was always so happy when it was scheduled on television and now I slip a DVD in whenever I'm in the mood. Livin' the dream.

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