Monday, January 10, 2022

Sailing Away on Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, 1940


Charlie Chan Carries On, published in 1930 was the fifth of author Earl Derr Bigger's six Chan novels. Our premise finds Chan's friend and colleague Inspector Duff, from Behind That Curtain published 1928, pursuing a mysterious killer on board a luxury liner. Duff is wounded when the ship reaches Honolulu and Lt. Chan steps in as a matter of honour and friendship. 

Charlie Chan Carries On
was the basis of a 1931 film, sadly lost to us in a Fox Studio fire. The movie was Warner Oland's first foray as the Inspector and was directed by Hamilton MacFadden (The Black Camel).

The Spanish language version, Eran Trece produced in 1931 and featuring Manuel Arbo as Chan is available on the DVD collection, Volume 1. Fans will find it a treat to see the characters come to life.

Robertson White (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome) and Lester Ziffren (Charlie Chan in Panama) reworked the story as Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise to suit the more contemporary sensibilities of the team of Sidney Toler and Sen Yung, who took over the popular series in 1938 with Charlie Chan in Honolulu. Eugene Forde directed the film, his only Toler outing after working on four of Warner Oland's Chan films.

Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise is a treat for fans of the series, fans of mysteries, and fans of the cast of great and familiar character actors featured in prominent roles.

Sen Yung, Layne Tom, Jr., C. Montague Shaw, Sidney Toler

We begin with a little domestic problem for "Pop" Chan dealing with Sen Yung as Jimmy and Layne Tom, Jr. as Willie. Layne Tom, Jr. appeared in three of the Chan films and they gave him a different name in each one! 

The arrival of Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is a "saved by the bell" moment for the Chan offspring. Jimmy, of course, will be back later to "help" with the case. Inspector Duff had been traveling incognito with a party on a cruise, in pursuit of a fiendish serial killer. The Inspector is murdered while at Honolulu Police Headquarters and Lt. Chan request to be assigned to carry on with the case is approved. 

Before the ship sets sail for its final destination of San Francisco there is another murder among the party. A retired manufacturer called Kenyon is strangled under mysterious circumstances and his lawyer nephew played by Robert Lowery comes under suspicion. You needn't worry about him as he is involved with Paula Drake played by Marjorie Weaver and the young romantic couple in Chan pictures may get in trouble, but they always get their happy ending.

Cora Witherspoon, Marjorie Weaver, Sidney Toler, Don Beddoe

Susie Watson: "What an advertisement for Honolulu. Scream once and Charlie Chan appears."

We meet more of the party as hotel security played by James Burke joins Lt. Chan in the investigation. Guess what? Jimmy gets involved as well. Susie Watson played by Cora Witherspoon is a most insistent but not particularly reliable witness. She is a hoot who brings a lot of vibrancy to her role and the movie.

Sidney Toler, Leonard Mudie

Leonard Mudie appears as Pendleton, an extremely nervous man, with just cause. He is being pursued by a mad killer. On shipboard Pendleton remains in his cabin with a guard posted on the door. The details have yet to be revealed but apparently, the circumstances extend to his wife's first husband.

Lionel Atwill, Charles Middleton, Sen Yung, Claire Du Brey, Don Beddoe, Sidney Toler

Lionel Atwill plays Dr. Sudeman the organizer of the cruise party. It is his first and he fears the bad publicity - murders are not pleasant - will ruin his business. He desires everything to be handled discreetly. 

Charles Middleton and Claire Du Brey play the Watsons. Jimmy rightly calls them "bluenosers." They are killjoys and she claims to be psychic. Just the sort you want along on a cruise.

Let the hobby horse races begin!

It's all fun and games until there is another murder or two. One appears to solve the entire case but Lt. Chan is not so easily fooled. The confines of the ship keep the suspects too close for comfort and too convenient for destroying or creating misleading evidence.

Let the Coroner's Inquest begin!

Cliff Clark, Charles Middleton, Claire Du Brey, Cora Witherspoon, Marjorie Weaver
Robert Lowery, Lionel Atwill, Sen Yung, Leo G. Carroll, Harlan Briggs

Once in San Francisco, the Coroner determines it is quick work to determine the facts and truth of the case, but let's not be too hasty. Lt. Chan has a surprise witness and an even more surprising assistant in bringing the matter to its true successful conclusion. 

Sen Yung, Sidney Toler, Harlan Briggs

Jimmy Chan: "Gee, Pop. You sure figured that one out."


  1. A Spanish-language Chan movie. In other words, a Spanish speaker plays a Chinese character normally played by a white guy. Hollywood!

    1. During the 1920s Chan was played by one Korean actor and two from Japan before Fox took over the series and cast Warner Oland. At least it was different from the Asian villains he played. Later it was Toler, Roland Young, J. Carroll Naish, Ross Martin, and Peter Ustinov. It is not as they didn't have access to fine Asian actors to take on the role, but the ways of Hollywood are inscrutable.

      In 1917s The Jaguar's Claw, Sessue Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, and in 1957s Sayonara, Ricardo Montalban played a Japanese dancer. Go figure.

  2. I just find it funny. I know you like CC though, so I’ll shut up.

    1. No. You don't have to shut up. I can see where the studios should or could have done better, and still enjoy the movies (at least the ones from 20th Century Fox). The critical side of my brain shuts off for the hour or so I'm enjoying the show.

      What bothers me is that as time marched on newer iterations of the character made him the caricature that contemporary audiences think he always was, but wasn't.

  3. I think this is one of Toler's most satisfying Charlie Chan outings. Interestingly, it's not Detective Chan's last mystery aboard a ship! There's also Happiness Is a Warm Clue, an ill-fated TV pilot movie with Ross Martin as the famous sleuth.

    1. "Ill-fated" indeed. With the template of the classic movies to follow, they veered way off course.

  4. Paddy Lee, your whistling up my lane with this really good write-up of CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE(1940). Okay, as so-called politically incorrect as the CHARLIE CHAN movies appear to be, I still like them for what they are and what they were at the time of their initial releases. I don't think we can look at these movies through 2022 eyes, which would be unfair to the movies and the people who worked hard to make them.

    If my memory serves me correct, CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE was the first Charlie Chan movie I ever viewed. It was on the WREC Channel 3 Memphis Saturday EARLY MOVIE in 1970. They would air these movies every Saturday for a time. So, the Sidney Toler movies, as Charlie Chan, were the first ones I saw. Then one Saturday CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA(1936) starring Warner Oland versus Boris Karloff was shown. At first, I had to get used to Oland, but I liked this movie better, because it had Karloff as the villain. Also, Keye Luke was Lee Chan, number one son.

    I remember viewing THE AMAZING CHAN AND THE CHAN CLAN, which was a Hanna-Barbera produced cartoon on Saturday mornings on the CBS Network during the 1972-73 season. Keye Luke was the voice of Charlie Chan. So finally, Charlie Chan was portrayed by an actor born in China. Keye Luke always defended the Charlie Chan movies, of which he portrayed the number one son, "I tell people who object to the Chan image that he's the best thing that ever happened to the Chinese-American. As portrayed by Oland, he was wise, urbane, sensitive, courteous, and a perceptive human being who happened to be Chinese. My role as No. 1 son was in nice contrast to my father, Chan. The films in my opinion, transformed the Oriental image for the better. In fact, I'm also doing the voice of Charlie Chan in the Hanna-Barbera animated children's series. There is no question that the impact of Charlie Chan effected a better portrait of the Chinese-American." Those were the words of Keye Luke from a 1972 interview.

    1. "Murder Cruise" was your first Chan picture. It's funny and rather nice that we remember that sort of thing, Walter. My first was Charlie Chan in Shanghai. I was about 12 or so, and it was late night TV from Miami (we were living in the Bahamas for a year and I'd never seen so many television channels!).

      I adore Keye Luke. What a great ambassador he was for the series and his friend, talented Warner Oland.

      I'm happy to have taken us back to the comforting time of enjoying the Chan series from 20th Century Fox.

    2. We need to enjoy these movies while we're still allowed to see them. Another reason to support physical media. In a few years' time the only way you'll be able to watch these movies is if you were smart enough to buy them on DVD.

  5. Paddy Lee, memory is a funny thing. I can remember an event of fifty years ago just like it was yesterday, but don't ask me about five days ago. I've always had a memory for dates. Too me, a date comes in handy to hang an event on.

    I remember staying up late to first view CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI(1935) in 1972. WREC Channel 3 Memphis was back to airing Charlie Chan movies after the LATE MOVIE on Saturday nights(actually early Sunday mornings). It was called the AWARD THEATRE. Later in 1986-87, when we lived in West Memphis, WREC Channel 3 was still airing Charlie Chan movies on the LATE MOVIE.

    1. A wide range of channels must have been airing the Chan pictures and they created a lot of fans. The Earl Derr Biggers novels were all re-issued in paperback at that time and I still have my copies. Although, I'm pretty sure that the print has shrunken beyond my capacity to decipher the words!

  6. I can't remember the first Chan movie I saw as a kid, but I did re-watch this one not too long ago. I love the Chan series, and I love reading your posts on these films because you know more about them than anyone else (I've never read any of the books). I agree with the annoyance of having later iterations show the character as more a comic stereotype than what he was originally intended to be. Charlie is an admirable character and the movies are enjoyable.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. It means a lot to me.

      Some may enter into the Chan world with preconceived notions but eithers may find entertainment to their liking.

  7. This has always been one of my favorite Chan films. The shipboard setting is great and Cora Witherspoon always cracks me up in the scene when the intruder comes into her hotel room. I only wish cruise ships still had hobby horse races and parties with paper hats!

    1. The race looks like such fun! Cora is definitely a keeper. I would probably be very disappointed if I went on a cruise and it didn't turn out like this one.

  8. One of the best of the Sidney Toler Chan movies (and I'm a big fan of Toler as Chan). It just has all the right ingredients blended perfectly. Plus I adore shipboard mysteries. Great write-up of a great movie.



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