You could almost feel the gentle trade winds of Hawaii during the 1920's in the first Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers. Romantic and full of atmosphere, Biggers was always a great romance writer who simply incorporated mystery into his books to propel the story forward. His detective was wise and humorous, his take on American life sometimes a riot. Nothing got by Chan, however, and it was his intelligence which always brought justice in the end.
The adaptations to film lost some of the more romantic aspects of the early Chan novels, centering more on Chan as a detective, as to be expected. Enough humor and atmosphere remained, however, to propel Chan into the top tier of film detectives. Warner Oland's Chan was more refined and subtle, Sidney Toler's more outgoing and amused. Both were excellent. This set features Toler in the final "A" Charlie Chan mysteries before it became a "B" series which, while enjoyable at times, did not have the production values or stories to live up to previous pictures.
Fox liked to put Chan in exotic locations and settings. Charlie was in Panama, or on a cruise, or in Rio, one of his many offspring always in tow trying to play detective and generally getting in the way. By the time Castle in the Desert was filmed, it almost felt like a high end "B" rather than the classy mystery series it had been. All are great fun, however, some not having been available in studio approved fashion before. Three in particular from this set stand out.
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is a terrific entry and one of the most atmospheric of the original series. This one is centered around a live radio broadcast from the Museum of Crime, where notorious criminals have been immortalized in wax. Chan's second son, Jimmy (Sen Yung), is on hand to help pop solve an old crime and avoid becoming a victim himself. Jimmy accepts the challenge for his pop to appear on the Crime League's weekly broadcast to clear the name of Joe Rocke, a man Chan has long believed was unfairly executed for a crime he did not commit.
But it is Chan's suspicion that the wax museum and his invitation are tied to the recent escape of a man he helped convict of murder, prompting him to accept, arriving on a rainy night when the creepy fun begins. A botched attempt to electrocute Charlie, and the murder of his scientific rival by poison blow dart, not to mention a wax Charlie Chan, all add up to mystery fun for Charlie Chan fans. Marguerite Chapman as the young radio reporter hoping this night will be a great story and Joan Valerie as the pretty but slightly shady assistant, Lily, stand out from the rest in John Larkin's screenplay. This one's a real kick in the pants!
Charlie Chan in Rio is actually a fun and colorful remake of the very early Chan entry, The Black Camel. We get a big dose of Brazil right from the start with shots of Rio's sunny beaches and the posh nightclub where Lola Dean (Jacqueline Dalya) sings the exotic, "They Met in Rio," written by Mark Gordon and Harry Warren. Chan and his enthusiastic second son, Jimmy (Sen Yung), are there to arrest Lola for a murder which took place on Charlie's turf in Honolulu. But before Lola can slip away to marry Clark Reynolds, she is murdered, leaving Charlie and son Jimmy with a new crime to solve.
Marybeth Huges is the beautiful Joan Reynolds, who did not like Lola in the least. She had much company, however, including Grace Ellis (Cobina Wright Jr.) and an Indian mystic who may have discovered Lola's secret past. Young Jimmy, always ready to jump to the wrong conclusion, is a hoot. There is a very funny scene where Charlie discovers the real reason Jimmy has been missing math classes back home while he is under a spell. Jimmy's affections for Lola's pretty Chinese maid, Lili (Iris Wong), keeps the atmosphere light as Charlie plays a long shot in order to catch a killer.
The mystery is both fun to solve and watch. His interactions with young son Jimmy are priceless, as is his cool demeanor under pressure. Kay Linaker, Victor Jory, and Ted North round out the cast for one of the most entertaining Charlie Chan films.
Murder Over New York finds Charlie Chan knee deep in sabotage and murder at a convention for detectives. Chan's enthusiastic offspring, Jimmy (Sen Yung), arrives in New York just in time to help pop. Chan's bemusement at Jimmy is quite evident in his comment to a fellow detective regarding his involvement in previous cases. A good screenplay from Lester Ziffren and some good pacing from director Harry Lachman makes the mystery as much fun as the look on Chan's face when Jimmy solves the case every five seconds!
Flying to an annual convention of police detectives in New York, Chan meets his old friend Drake from Scotland Yard aboard the plane. Drake is now working for the military, trying to stem a rash of sabotage. Once on land, he turns up dead, the briefcase containing evidence that will help expose the man named Narvo behind it all, missing. Jimmy's nose for chemistry helps uncover a new gas called tetrogene as the method for the murder and Chan goes to work to uncover the killer of an old pal.
Donald MacBride is the New York detective, Inspector Vance, who lets Charlie guide the investigation. A pretty actress named June Preston (Joan Valerie) is missing a pearl from her necklace which turns up at the murder scene. A chemist named David Elliot (Robert Lowery) and a lovely girl named Patricia (Marjorie Weaver) trying to prove his innocence also figure into the mystery as Chan sifts through the clues. Stooge Shemp Howard has a funny bit as a fake Hindu along the way.
Charlie Chan was bright and funny, and audiences loved him. If anything, his character helped elevate and give distinction to the perspective at the time of Chan's race in general. These were fun mysteries with great appeal, so much so, that we are still watching and talking about them today. Sidney Toler happens to be my personal favorite to have portrayed the sleuth, though he was not Chinese. These films are a fabulous time at the movies for detective and mystery fans.