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Monday, July 24, 2006

I'd Walk A Mile For A Black Camel

Watching a bootleg DVD takes me back to the sixties when I used to struggle to bring in stations we really couldn’t get in order to see movies I really wanted to see. Parents or siblings would pass through, glance at the set, and shake their heads --- Can you even see that? --- Doesn’t that hurt your eyes? Well, what else could you do in those days? An opportunity to see Doctor Cyclops may never come again --- and besides, they were my eyes, after all, and if I was willing to forfeit them for the sake of watching The Coconuts from a distant Tennessee channel, shouldn’t I be left alone to do just that? Sometimes I wonder if the reading glasses I’m wearing now might be a consequence of some long-ago viewing of The Giant Gila Monster on High Point’s elusive Channel 8. No doubt that lesson’s still unlearned, for here I am struggling to get through a "grey market" DVD of The Black Camel, home video’s assurance of premature blindness for those fool enough to subject themselves to its 71 minutes of fleeting image and bleating sound. Actually, we never made it to the end, my struggling player and I. Just as Dwight Frye pulled an automatic and tried to back his way out of the denouement, there was a frightful lock-up and a noise from the rear speakers that sounded like The Giant Behemoth. There’s a sort of fear that grips you during moments like this. Dwight’s face is frozen upon the screen, quivering slightly, as if poised to explode and engulf the room in flames --- perhaps my Panasonic player is nearing meltdown, and that violent conflagration will send shards of razor pointed metal in my direction. Cowardice thus forced me to turn it off, so I’ll manage this post as best I can without benefit of having seen the fadeout.

You know you’re hard-core when the authentic Hawaiian location footage makes an impression even on a disc so degraded as this. I just sat back and imagined myself at the Roxy back in the summer of 1931, watching The Black Camel first-run and marveling that Fox actually sent its cast and crew all the way to those islands for much of the principal photography --- and this was a Charlie Chan picture! Never again would that series enjoy such location splendor. There’s even the brisk sound of an ocean breeze to interfere occasionally with dialogue recording. Had this been something other than a seventeenth generation pirated DVD, I would have almost felt as if I were there! Much of The Black Camel was shot about the lobby and grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which they say is unchanged to this day. Quite a contrast to three-wall cardboard sets that confined Roland Winters in all those miserly Monogram Chans from the forties. The Black Camel is nothing if not spacious. Warner Oland hits the beach in search of murderer --- I thought he might even get around to surfing at one point. There’s more Hawaii in 71 minutes here than Warners would give us in four seasons of Hawaiian Eye. The mystery itself had me stumped. I guessed wrong about the killer, though I missed some clues when my DVD lurched forward a few times, no doubt exercising its own prerogative with regards to speeding up the pace. I’ll also confess to having dozed off a time or two, a gentle slumber borne upon the lilting strains of Warner Oland’s singular voice. His scenes with Bela Lugosi
are a highlight, by the way. Masters at work, both looking dapper and fit amidst the Royal Hawaiian’s luxury. I understand Bela picked up a grand a week for doing The Black Camel, plus he got the red carpet works living right there where they filmed it. Nice to see Lugosi enjoying life (as here in the hotel’s dining room --- bon appetit, Bela!). I’ll bet he looked back on this happy sojourn years later with wistful fondness, maybe during breaks on Bride Of The Monster (though I’m sure he didn’t get many breaks on that one).

These arresting ads were specially designed for the Fox Theatres chain in 1931. Managers were carefully instructed as to the most effective techniques for selling The Black Camel. This picture is a much better story of Earl Derr Biggers’ Chinese detective, Charlie Chan, than was Charlie Chan Carries On, they said, and we’ll have to take their word, I suppose, because Carries On is lost and has been since a disastrous warehouse fire in 1937 that took out much of the Fox library, including four of the Chans. Regarding Lugosi’s character, the home office pointed out that because of the prevalent disregard of mysticism, we have played him down. Now what do you suppose mystics had done back in 1931 to get people in such a lather? Anyway, The Black Camel would be sold as a straight mystery story, leaving out all direct references to sinister forces and murder and weirdness. That’s rather like squeezing all the juice out of the orange before serving, but management felt pretty safe in predicting a satisfactory boxoffice total within these guidelines. Earl Derr Biggers came through with a ringing endorsement --- The Fox picture made from my novel, The Black Camel, delighted me in every way, and I feel sure all Charlie Chan’s admirers who see it will share my pleasure. Rarely, to my way of thinking, has the plot of a book been transferred to the screen so neatly and so successfully. Cast and direction are excellent, and the result is the sort of picture an author dreams about, but doesn’t always get. As for Warner Oland’s interpretation of Charlie Chan, in this second picture of the series, he settles the matter for all time. He IS Charlie Chan. Like all the Fox Chan mysteries, The Black Camel made money. With a negative cost of $223,000, the picture took domestic rentals of $357,000, with foreign adding another $114,000. Final worldwide total was $471,000 for a profit of $60,000.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This must be DejaVu!! Back in the late 1950s in Toledo, we used to sit in front of the TV trying to watch Detroit stations carrying the 3 Stooges and Soupy Sales--my mother used to say "Why are you watching a snowstorm?" Amazing how we put up with that....but nowadays I refuse to buy these dupey poor quality DVDs--picture quality is all-important in my movie parties in the home theatre--thanks to Warner and Universal classic DVD releases!

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is completely off-topic, Charlie Chan-wise, but you've reminded me of my first viewing of Citizen Kane back in January 1966. At that time, it had been out of circulation for years and was just inching its way back into prominence. KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco, 100 miles to the southwest, announced a showing of it starting at 1:00 a.m. one Saturday-to-Sunday night. I spent the previous week desperately searching among my friends to find someone who (1) could bring in Channel 5, and (2) would let me invade their home until 3 o'clock in the morning. Finally, I found one (and here's a belated thank-you to Candie Johnson and her indulgent mother Louise).

When the big night -- er, morning -- came, a tiny group of hardy film buffs gathered around the TV in the Johnson living room. The picture was weak and snowy but just about watchable, and the sound was clear enough. We squinted gamely through the whole film right to the end and William Alland's "What is Rosebud? Just another piece of the puzzle" speech. Then came the now-famous tracking shot through the Xanadu basement, right up to the workmen throwing things into the furnace. The camera moved in closer to the fire. We could clearly see the letters spelling out "ROSEBUD" curling and dying as they were consumed by the encroaching flames, but... AAARGH!...we couldn't tell what the object was!!!

Such were the pleasures and frustrations of being a teenage film buff in the 1960s.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

When I was a kid, I had to fiddle with the antenna on a portable TV to pull in channel 9 in New York in order to watch movies like "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" and Frank Capra's "Dirigible." Considering the latter took place in the Arctic, the snowy picture added to the atmosphere.

12:09 PM  
Blogger The 'Stache said...

HAWAIIAN EYE- YI! Boy, what I wouldn't give to see that show again.

8:49 PM  

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