An ocean liner sinks off Honolulu and Allen Colby, heir to millions, is presumed dead...but local sleuth Charlie Chan is not so sure, and flies to San Francisco to investigate further. Somehow, the missing Colby is there ahead of him...but is knifed in the back before seeing anyone. Further events revolve around spiritualist Mrs. Lowell, her family of suspicious characters, and the spooky, untenanted Colby mansion, where the body turns up during a seance!
Warner Oland ... Charlie Chan
Rosina Lawrence ... Alice Lowell
Charles Quigley ... Dick Williams (Alice's fiancé)
Henrietta Crosman ... Henrietta Lowell
Edward Trevor ... Fred Gage (Janice's husband)
Astrid Allwyn ... Janice Gage (daughter)
Herbert Mundin ... Baxter (butler)
Jonathan Hale ... Warren T. Phelps (lawyer)
Egon Brecher ... Ulrich (caretaker)
Gloria Roy ... Carlotta (medium)
Ivan Miller ... Morton of Homicide
Arthur Edmund Carewe ... Prof. Bowen (advisor in psychic research)
Filmed in 1935 and released in 1936, CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET is the 10th film in the Fox series. It is also a film about which I have changed my opinion over several viewings. I originally felt it was among the weaker Chan films starring Warner Oland; today, however, I would describe it as a truly solid entry.
Several years earlier Alan Colby, heir to a major fortune, disappeared and was presumed dead--and elderly aunt Alice Lowell (Rosina Lawrence) inherited the estate. Now, however, it seems that Colby may be alive, and although his resurrection will cost her the family fortune Mrs. Lowell dutifully enlists Chan to investigate the matter. But with a great fortune at stake, murder cannot be far behind.
Such earlier Chan films as THE BLACK CAMEL and CHARLIE CHAN IN Egypt introduced an occult edge to the Chan films, and CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET plays upon this theme to a degree not previously seen in any other Chan film: Mrs. Lowell is a spiritualist who is given to everything from séances to nightly sessions with the Ouija board, and both elements play into the story in a significant way. Although the plot itself is nonsense, the "spooky" elements fill the holes, and the cast--most particularly Rosina Lawrence as Mrs. Lowell and Herbert Mundin as the bumbling butler Baxter--deliver solid and quite often charming performances.
Chan films are often accused of being racist, and critics often complain that the actors playing Chan wore "yellowface" make up. The films, however, must be seen within the context of their era. In the 1930s, Hollywood presented most Asian characters as either servile or as Fu Manchu-like entities; Chan was actually just about the only positive Asian character going, and as such the films were tremendously popular with Asian-American audiences of the era.
True enough, Chan is inevitably played by an occidental actor, but this was typical of the era, in which star status was considered more important than racial accuracy. Whatever the case, neither Warner Oland or the later Sidney Toler wore significant make-up for the role, and Oland--although a Swede by birth--actually had a strong strain of Asian ancestry in his family tree. But most significantly, while Chan often allows his suspects to dismiss him through their own prejudices, as a character he is always presented in a positive light--and this is particularly true of CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET, in which Chan is the only Asian character in the film.
While I would not rank it along such knock-out Chan films as CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA or CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET grows upon you with each viewing. As noted the plot is weak, but the film is long on charm. It is also one of the few Chan films available to the home market. Most Chan fans should enjoy it.
I always enjoy listening to Charlie Chan quote his famous proverbs, or friendly digs to his kid or helper and I always appreciate his wonderful manners. Charlie's parents certainly taught him how to say "please," "thank you" and respect other human beings. He always carries himself in a gentlemanly manner. Mr. Chan never gets mad, just never loses his temper no matter what happens. He takes everything in stride.
I mention all of this because those were the main attributes to this story - his manner. Missing were two key ingredients that make Charlie Chan films fun to me: his kid (whoever he or she might be) and the humor.
This story didn't have any of Charlie's kids helping him and they were missed. It just wasn't the same without Number One Son either helping him or getting in his way. Also, where was the comedy? That, too, was sorely missed.
That isn't to say I still didn't enjoy the movie; I did, but it wasn't as much as most of them. I did appreciate the ending which was clever but not confusing. The story was fair-at-best, and sometimes all these occult-type themes get tiresome, at least when these séance scenes get silly, as they did in this film. Still, some parts will get your attention, such as a missing man suddenly showing up at the reading of the will, and then moments later being killed!
Overall, a more serious "Chan" story that fans of "B" horror flicks might enjoy more than those of us who want a little humor and kinship along with our Charlie Chan fables.
Warner Oland in classic mystery set in old house with secret passages. Lots of clues and comic relief done extremely well by Herbert Mundin as butler Baxter. Story has sufficient twists and turns to keep interest and keep ending unpredictable. Chan brings multitude of suspects together in room at end: `Motive for recent murders like tangle of many strings, ends of which held by persons in this room.' Like in most Chan films, the missing clue that cinches the case is not revealed until the guilty party is in custody. Good lighting makes the séance scenes even spookier.' Recommended.