Charlie is aboard a freighter headed for Honolulu. On arrival he discovers a murder and orders the ship held at anchor, detaining its passengers several extra days, until the crime is solved.
Sidney Toler ... Charlie Chan
Phyllis Brooks ... Judy Hayes
Victor Sen Yung ... Jimmy Chan
Eddie Collins ... Al Hogan
John 'Dusty' King ... George Randolph
Claire Dodd ... Elsie Hillman, alias Carol Wayne
George Zucco ... Dr. Cardigan
Robert Barrat ... Capt. Johnson
Marc Lawrence ... Johnny McCoy
Richard Lane ... Mike Hannigan, alias Det. Arnold
Layne Tom Jr. ... Willie Chan, #5 Son
Philip Ahn ... Wing Foo, Charlie's Son-in-Law
Paul Harvey ... Insp. Rawlins
This has to be the wildest of the Charlie Chan movies I've seen. It was Sidney Toler's first effort in the lead role, replacing Warner Oland, and it featured more comedy than any other Chan film to that point.
In this film, Chan and his number two son Tommy, his number five son Charlie Jr., and others including a doctor who keeps a live brain in his suitcase, all provide laughs. Along the way is a funny-faced lunatic animal keeper and a lion on the loose. They provide a lot of laughs.
As far as suspects go, there is a strange psychiatrist (the one with the portable brain), two pretty women, two ship's captains, a guy disguised as a cop and his suspect. I told you it was wild. It's too difficult to figure out "whodunnit," so you just sit back and enjoy the wild action and humor.
Sidney Toler makes his debut as Lieutenant Charlie Chan in this who-done-it mystery where the writer actually plants sufficient clues that the alert viewer might be able to ascertain the guilty party before all is revealed at the end. Bravo - the Warner Oland Chan movies rarely offer such a treat. Toler plays a more animated Chan than did Oland - most fans have their preference. This Chan moves fast and points out more clues along the way.
The Toler series opens with a Chan family gathering and an impending birth of his first grandchild. Chan admits to having a total of 13 children of which 10 are sons. Son Lee's absence is explained as being in art school in New York and Victor Sen Yung (billed as Sen Yung) is introduced as Chan's #2 son James (as shown in closing credits). Jimmy both aids his Pop and hinders the investigation but wants to become a detective.
In Charlie Chan at the Circus, Chan's #2 son is Charlie Jr., played by Layne Tom, Jr. In this new film, Layne Tom plays #5 son Tommy but the IMDb listing and all reviews show him as Willie. The closing credits clearly show Layne Tom playing the role of Tommy Chan and I never heard anyone refer to him by name - except perhaps the ship's Captain who says he is tired of this `tommyrot.' In this film, the Chan family is awaiting birth of first grandchild - this theme forming the basis of some good comedy throughout.
The bulk of the story takes place aboard the freighter Susan B. Jennings that is taking a mixed cargo from China to the US. The cargo includes animals for a San Francisco zoo - to include Oscar the lion and Eddie Collins as a great comedic keeper. George Zucco is superb as the eccentric psychiatrist Dr. Cardigan who is keeping alive the brain of Chinese murderer Chan Ho Ping. The rest of the supporting cast does a credible job and the viewer is offered a menu of suspicious characters and planted clues. `Opinion like tea leaf in hot water - both need time for brewing.' Just stick to the main clues as they are revealed and you might just get to the end along with Lieutenant Chan.
There are fewer racial slurs in this offering although the elder Chan makes reference to the `wrong flavor' when viewing a newly born black child. Probably too much time is spent with Oscar and Al but he is funny.
Chan gathers everyone together at the end in the Captain's Cabin where he tricks the guilty party into taking a final incriminating step. The last scene is interrupted by a phone call from the hospital and the lights being turned off, but in the end, justice prevails. As in earlier Chan movies, the detective knows some facts that the viewer cannot know, but in this film those facts are not vital to figuring out the solution.
In Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Chan is called out to a freighter with six passengers making its way to Hawaii. A mysterious man has been murdered and $300,000 is missing. Chan must work his way through the clues, red herrings, odd characters, and other assorted obstacles to find a solution. In typical Chan fashion, he gathers all the suspects together to reveal the killer's identity.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu marks Sidney Toler's first outing as the venerable detective. The movie may not be spectacular, but it's not a bad way to begin Toler's run in the series. The movie also sees Victor Sen Yung take over for Keye Luke in the role of Chan's main son. H. Bruce Humberstone would appear to have been a solid choice to direct Toler's first Chan. He was familiar with the series having already directed three installments, including the much heralded Charlie Chan at the Opera. Likewise, the supporting characters are also a solid group. George Zucco and Phyllis Brooks give exceptionally noteworthy performances. Eddie Collins provides the comic relief. The biggest weakness of Charlie Chan in Honolulu is the plot. It's just not that interesting. And, in infuriating fashion, Chan's solution to the mystery is a cheat. There's no way for the audience to have figured out the solution based on the clues presented. It takes a last minute piece of evidence to unmask the killer.
# Hollywood, California, Monday, October 17, 1938: Darryl F. Zanuck has selected Sidney Toler to play the role of Charlie Chan, succeeding the late Warner Oland. His first picture will be "Charlie Chan in Honolulu" which will start production October 24, with John Stone as the associate producer. Toler was discovered by Sol Wurtzel when he looked at rushes of "Up the River," current 20th Century-Fox picture in which Toler is a featured player.
# Among other actors considered and tested for the new Charlie Chan were Cy Kendall, Walter Connelly, J. Edward Bromberg, Noah Beery Jr., Michael Visaroff, and Leo Carillo. Kendall and Connelly had played Chan on radio.