Eccentric scientist Harper lives in a spooky mansion with all the trimmings: hidden lab, secret panels, inscrutable butler, and greedy relatives with unusual talents. When Harper seems to be murdered, Charlie Chan (with the uninvited help of No. 4 son) tries to answer such questions as Where\'s the body? How can a dead man walk? And how can a secret murder be done in full view of detectives and witnesses?
Sidney Toler ... Charlie Chan
Mantan Moreland ... Birmingham Brown
Edwin Luke ... Eddie Chan
Hardie Albright ... Walter Meeker
Frank Reicher ... Harper
Janet Warren ... Jean Kent
Cyril Delevanti ... Roth
Al Bridge ... Sheriff Mack (as Alan Bridge)
Ralph Lewis ... Officer Jim Kimball
Dorothy Granger ... Stella Graham
Edith Evanson ... Louise Harper
Joe Whitehead ... Dr. Samuel R. Peabody
Henry Hall ... Inspector Godfrey
Jack Ingram ... Lloyd Archer
Danny Desmond ... Bellboy
This is one of the strangest Charlie Chan films I\'ve even seen, probably because many of the suspects were so weird. That, and the building in which most of the action takes place - with all its secret and motorized panels - is odd to see.
The story: an unpopular family member-scientist, \"Dr. Harper,\" (Frank Reicher) has developed a chemical that makes wood as strong as steel. Our government could use this, especially in time of war, so they are obviously concerned when the scientist is found murdered. They call on Charlie Chan to help solve the case and get the formula. Charlie winds up getting help from his Number Four Son \"Eddie,\" someone I never saw in any other Chan films. He was the bespectacled \"intellectual\" son in the family and another likable Chan.
Anyway, someone is after the formula - for the money it could bring them - and is culprit is probably from the big family where the doctor was working. All of these people are portrayed as guilty-looking so the audience has a hard time figuring out who\'s the killer.
The \"whodunnit\" is wrapped up in the end with a gathering of everyone while Chan explains his discoveries. That was the only problem with the film: the ending was unsatisfying and bit unrealistic.
Charlie Chan, played by the inimitable Sidney Toler, plays cat and mouse with a murderer. At a spooky mansion, light and shadows, combined with dreary music and an effective script, create a suitably mysterious atmosphere. The screen story also contains considerable humor.
The acting is generally wooden, except for the performance of the wonderful Mantan Moreland. The film\'s editing and production values are weak. At one point you can see the shadow of the crew\'s microphone. But then, Charlie Chan movies, in general, are not known for their high technical quality.
I was disappointed with the solution to the mystery, and that\'s my main complaint with this film. Still, watching \"The Jade Mask\" is not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon, if your expectations are not too high.
While I have watched a lot of Charlie Chan movies and I have enjoyed them, they are no doubt very formulaic and the Monogram series is definitely inferior to the original 20th Century-Fox ones. So, how is it that some people gave these B-movies a score of 10?! Sure, they might be entertaining, but aesthetically they are far from high art. Think about it--some people scored this as high (or higher) as many might score GONE WITH THE WIND, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES or ORDINARY PEOPLE!!!! Come on,...this is just a B-movie,...and a very ordinary entry into the series at that. Plus, while I am not the most politically correct person out there, I can\'t believe a movie with Mantan Moreland\'s antics could ever merit a 10--or even an 8 or 9.
First, let\'s back up a bit. The original series was pretty entertaining, but like all the Chan films it featured a White guy playing a Chinese man--not unusual for its day, but certainly something that prevent the films from being better--especially with the silly use of the English language by Charlie. While Chinese in ethnic origin, he is supposedly from Hawaii and I assumed most Hawaiians of his day did not talk like morons. Plus, this makes little sense because he is so darn smart a detective. But, most fans are able to look past this and accept that this isn\'t \"high art\" but still is quite entertaining. Fine. This is where I see myself. After all, even though he talks silly and spouts a lot of so-called \"Chinese Wisdom\", he is a decent, brave and intelligent guy--not exactly a negative stereotype.
But, after the success of the initial films, Warner Oland (the first famous Chan) had the nerve to up and die and the series started to slip a bit when he was replaced by Sidney Toler. I don\'t really blame Toler, as he proved in other films he was a good actor. It\'s just that the original chemistry seemed \"different\" and Fox soon dropped the series. Enter Monogram Studios to continue the series (known as a \"poverty row\" studio due to its low production values). Now, the movies featured unknowns doing much of the supporting acting and Mantan Moreland was introduced to the series for new comic relief. Mantand\'s performances and the writing for his character was highly reminiscent of a smarter and less lazy version of Steppin Fetchit. As a kid, I laughed when he said lines like \"feets don\'t fail me now\" when he was scared (something he always seemed to be in the films). Now that I am older, I cringe a bit and know that there are Black people out there who are understandably furious about the stereotype he portrayed--especially because this type role was about the only one you\'d see Black men portraying in mainstream films of the era.
Now on to this particular film. First off, I have no idea why this movie is called \"Charlie Chan and the Jade Mask\"--there is no jade mask in the movie at all!!! There are some plaster masks, but even naming the movie after them wouldn\'t have been the best title. Something like \"Charlie Chan and the Secret Formula\" or \"Charlie Chan and the Poison Gas\" might have been better titles. Regardless of the bad title, the film is about a nasty scientist and his nasty family. The scientist is murdered and Chan investigates because the man had been working on a secret formula that the government wanted. In this film, #4 son makes his appearance. He\'s a bookish lad who thinks he knows everything and is probably more useless than any of the other Chan clan I have seen.
The film excels in several ways. First, Mantan Moreland is more human and less a walking stereotype of \"the scared and stupid Black man\" like he is in other movies. Second, the ending gag was pretty cute. Aside from that, this film is about what you\'d expect from any other film from this series by Monogram.
By the way, a year earlier Monogram made \"Charlie Chan in the Secret Service\". In so many ways, it\'s very similar to this film. Both involve a scientist working on a secret War Department weapon and then are both killed by evil-doers. So, you can see that after a lot of Chan films, the well was starting to run a bit dry.
Loosely based on novels by Earl Derr Biggers, 20th Century Fox\'s Charlie Chan series proved an audience favorite--but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the studio feared audiences would turn against its Asian hero. This was a miscalculation: actor Sidney Toler took the role to \"poverty row\" Monogram Studios, where he continued to portray the character in eleven more films made between 1944 and his death in 1947.
20th Century Fox had regarded the Chan films as inexpensive \"B\" movies, but even so the studio took considerable care with them: the plots were often silly, but the pace was sharp, the dialogue witty, and the casts (which featured the likes of Bela Lugosi and Ray Milland) always expert. The result was a kindly charm which has stood the test of time. Monogram was a different matter: Chan films were \"B\" movies plain and simple. Little care was taken with scripts or cast and resulting films were flat, usually mediocre at best, virtually unwatchable at worst.
Released in 1945, THE JADE MASK is one of the very few Monograms that approaches the quality level of the 20th Century Fox series. This largely due to the expert cast and witty script, both of which are a bit unusual for Monogram. In this particular tale, Chan--who now works for the government during World War II--is called upon to investigate the murder of a scientist working with potentially beneficial but distinctly deadly gasses. Sidney Toler\'s Chan is always enjoyable, and he is aided in this by the local sheriff (Alan Bridge, who has the best lines in the film) and the inevitable Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland.) Fans of the 20th Century Fox series are likely to find Monogram\'s Chan a significant disappointment and newcomers who like the Monogram films will probably consider them third-rate after encountering the Fox films. Even so, THE JADE MASK is unexpectedly good, and I think most Chan fans will find it enjoyable.