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Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) – Murder, Mystery, Opera and even Racism

26 Nov

charlie_chan_at_the_opera_importThere is something very satisfying about a movie that is 90 minutes or less. The dialogue, the action, everything is economical and has a purpose. It is particularly satisfying when you want something for after dinner or during a work week and time is precious. It has a story to tell, it tells it, and comes to its conclusion.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is slightly more extreme in its brevity. It is only 66 minutes long, but manages to tell a complete story that takes place during one night at the opera.

In the opening credits it reads: “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff,” so you have a pretty good idea what the highlight of the film is going to be.

It is a dark and stormy night….literally, while inside an asylum, a man (Boris Karloff) cannot remember who he is and nobody seems to know. But he spends his evenings at the piano, singing some very Wagnerian sounding opera. But when a newspaper is brought in with the picture of Lilli Rochelle, who is returning to opera after having been away for seven years, he remembers who he is and busts out of the asylum.

A manhunt is underway. Meanwhile, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives a death threat and goes to the police, who bring in Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is not impressed with Chan, but soon discovers that behind Chan’s genial smile and polite manners is a mind as sharp as Sherlock Holmes.

It is thought that the murderer will try to kill her during the opening of the opera and that the mysterious man who escaped from the asylum might be the man who sent the death threat. There are plenty of other suspects, however. Lillie Rochelle has been carrying on a long standing affair with the baritone of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). He has a jealous wife, second soprano Anita Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), Lilli has a jealous husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy) and there is a young couple that wants to see Lilli before she starts her opera.

charlie-chan-a-l-opera_49299_31996

Boris Karloff and Warner Oland

Charlie Chan is assisted in his detection by his Americanized son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who sneaks into the opera house dressed as a supernumerary (the guys who hang out in the background of an opera to create a crowd). He is also more dubiously assisted by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), who seems easily distracted from the clues that really matter.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally considered the best of all the Charlie Chan movies. It is highly informative of attitudes during the 1930s to consider the Charlie Chan movies. Very popular in his day, in the 1980s, many people felt that Charlie Chan was hopelessly stereotypical and called him a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and felt that the character should be laid to rest forever.

There definitely are stereotypes and slurs. In the movie, Inspector Kelly makes several offensive comments, always getting Chan’s name wrong and calling him everything from “Chop Suey” to “Egg Foo Yung.” However, Inspector Kelly is rather a buffoon, so it is not obvious that we are to take him seriously. Oddly, he is playing his racism for laughs.

Regarding the idea that he is an Asian “Uncle Tom” because he is subservient and genial, I see what they are getting at, though it is also a part of his method. He’s pulling one of Hercule Poirot’s favorite tricks, in that by acting “foreign,” people underestimate him; he uses their racism against them.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Also emblematic of the times is that the Charlie Chan character was almost always played by a Caucasian actor. Warner Oland actually made a career out of it. I’m not sure that he ever played a non-Asian role (except during the silent era), even when he wasn’t playing Charlie Chan. Oland was Swedish and somehow Hollywood felt that made him more qualified to play the part. Hollywood has a curious history of casting Swedes as Asians. In Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, he cast the Swedish actor Nils Asther, and Myrna Loy, who had Swedish ancestors, frequently played Asians in her early career.

Interestingly, according to Yunte Huang – who has written a book about the character of Charlie Chan and the real man that the author, Earl Derr Biggers, based his character on – Charlie Chan used to be extremely popular among Asians and Asian-Americans. In China, they made many movies with the character and modeled their portrayal of him after Warner Oland’s. Chan was considered at the time to be a refreshing alternative to all the movies involving Asians as evil criminals, like Fu Manchu. Keye Luke later defended the films by arguing that they should be remembered because they still are great mysteries.

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and  wielding his knife in the fake opera

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and wielding his knife in the fake opera “Carnival”

One fun part of the movie is, of course, opera. I am an opera fan (though more of an Italian opera fan) and there is something about an opera house that just begs to be used as a setting for mystery and murder (think The Phantom of the Opera). For the opera that Lilli is making her return, Oscar Levant was hired to write a pseudo-opera. Levant is probably best remembered for being in films like An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, where he always plays the piano and indulged in his own unique brand of trenchant wry humor. He was a pianist, composer, actor, writer, wit, hypochondriac and good friend of George Gershwin. The opera he wrote snippets of is called “Carnival” and sounds and looks very Teutonic. Boris Karloff is clearly lip-singing in the film as he plays the role of Mephisto in the opera. He also gets to wear one of the most outlandish headdresses I have ever seen.

All in all, it makes for a fascinating watch. William Demarest does his comedy, Boris Karloff plays insane and Warner Oland solves the murders.

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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery

 

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