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Cinema Revisited: “Shadows Over Chinatown” (1946)

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The second to last Charlie Chan movie featuring Sidney Toler

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Assessing a film from a long running and significant movie series necessitates some background information about the series’ history.

When the Charlie Chan movies were filming at Fox during the 1930s, they were considered B movies, but had a great deal of depth and polish. Warner Oland played the role of Chan, with Keye Luke as his number one son, Lee. . It is these films that sustained the studio throughout the Depression, their popularity transcending most top level A pictures. Oland died in 1938 and Sidney Toler took over the role, with Victor Sen Yung as number two son Jimmy.

When Fox dropped the series in 1942, Toler purchased the rights and moved the series to the low budget Monogram studios. Beginning in 1944, Toler continued to make Chan mysteries at a much smaller budget, and with far less polish than the Fox product. The series continued even after Toler’s death in 1947 when Roland Winters played the role for two more years. From 1944-1946, Benson Fong played number three son Tommy, except one film in which Frances Chan played on of the detective’s daughters, and another film in which Keye Luke’s younger brother essayed the role of Tommy. Victor Sen Yung returned to the series as Jimmy with this film, “Shadows Over Chinatown.”

While most film buffs dismiss the Monogram efforts as second rate, these films have a cheap, aggressive quality that works for the series. The raw, stripped-down approach adds a certain charm of its own, while the narratives are decidedly more complex, with a greater number of twists, turns, and red herrings than the Fox productions. The Monogram films are filled with top level character actors, including Mantan Moreland as chauffeur Birmingham Brown, who became a regular once the series moved to Monogram. In this film, such welcome veterans as Jack Norton, John Hamilton, Dorothy Granger, Al Bridge, and Mary Gordon are spotted.

There is no real cinematic assessment to be made. Director Terry O. Morse is not as good as as Phil Karlson (who helmed the two best Monogram efforts), or Phil Rosen who helmed most of the Monogram Chans. But what is interesting about “Shadows Over Chinatown” is the work ethic of Sidney Toler, who was quite ill during filming. Having been diagnosed with cancer, Toler struggled through this and one more movie before dying in February of 1947.

Despite his illness, and the use of more footage with Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland to ease the strain on the ailing actor, Toler maintains central interest throughout. Investigating a murder-for-hire mob, Chan is typically imposing, clever, and commanding, which is a true testament to Toler’s dedication to the role. Still, entire comic scenes are set aside for Moreland and Sen Yung to offer the lighthearted comic counterpart to the mystery. Some of their best comedy footage is seen in vignettes that don’t involve the Charlie Chan character at all. Their comedy is not relegated to just being frightened, which is often the gist of their contribution. There is also some amusing verbal humor:

Birmingham Brown: Hey, Jimmy, what does he mean about Bureau of Missing Persons?
Jimmy Chan: Well, that's where you find things that are missing.
Birmingham Brown: I'm missing my breakfast. Let's find that.

There has been some discussion about the political incorrectness of the Chan films, not only for having a white actor play a Chinese detective, but also the comical African American actor Mantan Moreland whose infamous catch phrase “Feets, do yo stuff” is actually a misquote. Moreland was a very talented, funny man and was pleased with the steady work he got in these movies. As late as the 1960s, Moreland would often make his entrance in stage productions by first pushing on the curtains from back stage and calling “Mr. Chan! Mr Chan!” which always generated an applause of recognition. In an interview toward the end of his life, Moreland stated, “I was a comedian. If I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, I wouldn’t have been funny.” Naturally, some of this familiar element of his character appears in “Shadows Over Chinatown.”

Jimmy Chan: Where are you going, Birmingham? That's not a door up there!
Birmingham Brown: It will be in a minute.

Due to Toler’s illness, there aren’t as many delightful philosophical quotations in “Shadows Over Chinatown,” but the line, “number two son like flea on dog - always must have fine tooth comb to find same,” is one of many things making it worthwhile to take the time and watch this 64 minute movie.

“Shadows Over Chinatown” is available on DVD here.