Movie star Sheila Fayne is seeing wealthy Alan Jaynes while filming in Honolulu, Hawaii, but won't marry him without consulting famed psychic Tanaverro first. Tanaverro confronts her about the unsolved murder of fellow film star Denny Mayo three years earlier, and she decides to reject Jaynes' proposal. When Sheila is found shot to death in her beach-front pavilion, Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police investigates.
Warner Oland ... Charlie Chan
Sally Eilers ... Julie O'Neil
Bela Lugosi ... Tarneverro
Dorothy Revier ... Shelah Fane
Victor Varconi ... Robert Fyfe
Murray Kinnell ... Smith
William Post Jr. ... Alan Jaynes
Robert Young ... Jimmy Bradshaw
Violet Dunn ... Anna
J.M. Kerrigan ... Thomas MacMaster
Mary Gordon ... Mrs. MacMaster
Rita Rozelle ... Luana
Otto Yamaoka ... Kashimo
The 2nd real Charlie Chan film, the earliest to survive of the 38 that Warner Oland and then Sidney Toler churned out over the next 16 years for Fox and Monogram. Pretty faithful to Earl Derr Bigger's book, this only suffers mildly from the echoey staginess associated with early talkies, with some erratic acting but also some lovely smoky visuals of "Honolulu".
A woman with a dark past is stabbed to death at a hotel - of course all of the guests along with the butler and maid are involved for Charlie to sort through and mull over. Unravelling the threads of the mystery Charlie proved his eyes had microscopic capabilities (wonder how much DNA fingerprinting would've slowed him down?) - and that he was one of those "very clever men able to bite pie without breaking crust". There's a beautiful scene with the entire Chan Clan at the breakfast table that's worth a look on it's own. It all runs delightfully true to form, the excellent polished cast playing up well, especially young Robert Young and Bela Lugosi.
I can't speak for everyone else of course but I still cherish the hope films 1/3/4/5 will one day be found for the additional 5 hours pleasure.
With the character loosely based on Chang Apana (1887-1933), a police officer of Chinese heritage, author Earl Derr Biggers wrote six Charlie Chan novels between 1925 and 1932. House Without A Key and The Chinese Parrot were filmed as silents in 1926; Behind That Curtain was filmed, with Chan reduced to a minor character, in 1929. Starring various actors and filmed as individual pieces, none of the films can be described as entries in the series, but in 1931 Fox Studios cast Warner Oland in Charlie Chan Carries On--and with its success Fox Studios discovered a money spinner. Between 1931 and 1942 the studio would create no less than 27 Charlie Chan films, first starring Warner Oland and then starring Sidney Toler.
Charlie Chan Carries On has not survived. The earliest Chan film of the series that still exists is The Black Camel, which is based on the 1929 Diggers novel. The film follows the book quite closely. Shelia Fane (Dorothy Reiver) is an actress who has come to Hawaii to make a motion picture. She has fallen in love with a wealthy man and wants to marry--but she is troubled by something that has occurred in her past. She accordingly sends for psychic Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi), who warns her not to marry--but no sooner does she refuse the marriage than she is found dead, stabbed, in her beachfront home.
Like most of the later Chan films, The Black Camel has a remarkable cast that includes an unexpected number of notables. Bela Lugosi has already been mentioned, and other up-and-comers include Robert Young and character actor Dwight Frye. But this film is very early in the game, and Fox is still tinkering with style and characters; instead of being assisted by a son, Chan is saddled with inept junior officer Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka), a character drawn directly from the Biggers novel. The chemistry is not effective, and although most of the cast offers good performances much the same might be said of the project as a whole.
Part of the problem is the story itself. Apparently suggested by the 1920s murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor, the plot itself is more than adequate, but the "how and why" details of the investigation are awkward. The script itself has an occasional zinger (at one point Chan warns Kashimo that "the wages of stupidity is search for new job!") but by and large it never manages to strike the balance between mystery and comedy for which the series was ultimately famous. It is also a film very much of the early sound era, which is to say visually static, and although it was partly filmed on Hawaiian location one sees little of the islands.
Overall, and while it has its moments, this is really a film best left to Chan fans, who will be interested to see the character at an early stage of development.
Filmed in 1931, "The Black Camel" sets the stage early for a long string of Charlie Chan films to follow, with it's large cast of characters and murder suspects, and more twists, turns and red herrings than you can shake a stick at. Warner Oland does the honors here as the Oriental Detective operating on his home turf of Honolulu, with an opening scene of surfers testing the waves and offering an island flair to the proceedings.
The cast is enhanced by the presence of Bela Lugosi, portraying a mystic named Tarneverro, who's real identity once revealed makes him a prime murder suspect in the stabbing death of actress Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier). However Fane's secret past is a dark one, once we learn she's withholding a secret in the murder of her fiancé Denny Mayo three years earlier. Using your own scorecard to keep track of the other players, you'll be entertained and rewarded with the identity of the murderers and victims in this well plotted mystery. Count among them a very youthful Robert Young (Father Knows Best, Marcus Welby, M.D.) in his first credited screen role.
If there's a downside to the film, it would be the comic relief attempt on the part of Otto Yamaoka as Chan's inept assistant Kashimo. His characterization goes over the top in following Chan's direction, helplessly offering the words "clue, clue" when questioned about his frantic efforts. It would be a precursor to later Chan films when his assistance would be provided by Numbers #1, 2 and 3 Sons as the series progressed. Speaking of which, the size of the Chan family is shown at a dinner table, with nine young offspring and "mother" clearly visible.
The film takes it's name from the Chan quote offered above. True to Chan tradition, this early film is replete with Charlie's insight and axioms. One of my favorites - "Always harder to keep murder secret than for egg to bounce on sidewalk".
The movie also sets the stage for a familiar device to be seen in later films, the old lights out trick, in which a portion of a letter holding a murder clue winds up missing. Fresh the first time, it would wind up being monotonous and non original as the series progressed.
With all of the plot twists and misdeeds fully resolved at the end of the film, Charlie Chan has the last word as clueless Kashimo bursts on the scene one last time with his last bit of evidence. Chan's response: "Too late, save for next case".
* Of the five Warner Oland Charlie Chan films based on the original Earl Derr Biggers novels, only this one still survives. The other four are believed to have been lost in one of two fires, one in the thirties and the other in the sixties.