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Monday, September 28, 2020

Wrote It, Then Realized I Had Already Written It


The Black Camel Rides ... Again

Decided on a whim to watch this, and awfully glad I did. What with fresh Blu-Rays pouring forth (more now than ever, it seems), do we even recall forlorn discs released years ago that sit locatable, or not, on shelf or stacks? Oh, for days when a single 16mm print, or bounty of three or four features in that format, was stuff of unbounded joy. The Black Camel was released among what Fox made with Charlie Chan, save the lost ones (will these be screened in Heaven? If it is indeed heaven, then yes). Watching a Chan leads always to resolve that I must see them all again, that swept way as focus is diverted elsewhere. These are like cartoons, serial chapters, B west, as in a few will do, thank you. I address The Black Camel for guessing there was no Chan like it, being shot in the altogether on Hawaii islands (and don’t disillusion me by saying that wasn’t the case). This surely wowed viewers in 1931. And they got murders besides. I don’t know how well woven Earl Derr Biggers’ stories were, but this one is a honey … kept me guessing, with a resolution that not only made sense, but enriched characters otherwise a red herring or plain props to fatten a suspect list.

Surfers are there under credits, looking for all a tropical world like opener titles for Hawaiian Eye. A first scene is shot on the beach. Fox Film Corporation wants us to know we are someplace other than same places. How many folks in 1931 had even seen postcards of Hawaii? There is as much outdoor shooting as traffic will bear. I felt like Cinemascope location policy was being put in motion twenty years ahead of schedule. They should have made this in “Grandeur” instead of The Big Trail and spared that crew hardship. The Black Camel would have plentiful reward without a shot fired or dagger thrown. A tracking camera guides us round lush lobby that was the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Does present management realize they are focus of such a precious time capsule? Cast and crew got the free trip, plus presumed pay. From jaws of a Depression to this … must have been intoxicating. Night scenes are done amidst palms, flashlight chasing after a killer in flight, more creep-about bamboo huts. I might have left a first run demanding all films have so authentic a background. And this was “only” a Charlie Chan mystery.

Chans were not B product then. Any more than George O’Brien westerns made by Fox. Support for Oland is out of top drawers, no one playing down to content. Bela Lugosi is a fake swami, and it’s like, here we go again, but how he shades the part, and what we learn of his “Tarneverro” lends depth beyond that expected of a most obvious suspect who, in time-honored fashion, turns out not to be the killer. I was pleased to see Bela amidst luxury trappings of the Royal Hawaiian, nattily dressed in full “belong” status with swells he appears to graze upon. He and Oland talk lots, as if director Hamilton McFadden observed how effective they were together, and said Let’s Have More. Watch this and tell me again about “Poor Bela.” Oland’s stooge assist from the precinct, “Kashimo,” is such a doofus, I wonder why keep him on the job? Less attractive aspect of Chan is him treating underlings like underfoot pets, a facet smoothed once Number One or Two sons filled the comic slot, Charlie’s annoyance more an expression of filial affection much put upon. The Black Camel’s Chan clan shares a dinner scene with dad that is very funny, each of kids too precocious for him to seize verbal advantage, them in fact sassing back with Occidental slang enough to all but chase befuddled Charlie away from his meal.

I like mysteries where a solution harks back to distant events, and more so where the killer had some revenge motive paying off on that past. If all Chans are clever as this, maybe I do need to screen the lot again, save Roland Winters and some of later Tolers. I did not mention Dwight Frye being in The Black Camel, as if we need another reason to watch, having forgot myself that he was here, so there was a midway spike, and yes, Frye is most important to the outcome, another plus. He even grapples briefly with Bela, having no better luck than he did on the steps at Carfax Abbey. Imagine if The Black Camel were one of the lost Chans. We would have gone our lives dreaming of what it was like … Oland, Lugosi, Frye, the Big One with the Big Three. Somehow it was saved, useful for an early TV release. Purely random rescue.
 The DVD looks better than such distressed remains ought to, leap/bounds over a boot I once had that froze before killers could be sorted out, which maybe was what I deserved for going rogue after my movie wants. 

HOLD THE WIRE: Senility, it seems, is upon me. Remember The Black Camel at Greenbriar back on July 24, 2006? Well, I did not, thus the above revisit with barely enough fresh wordage not to get tossed for stale bread. Overlook the incident then, for being a first such stumble, and credit The Black Camel as fun enough to inspire two columns, fourteen years apart or not. But beware this happening again, for what if I forget of having drawn from Vertigo and Horror of Dracula wells multiple times before, going back to worn-sole subjects with increasingly addled prose. Be glad I caught the muff rather than one of you having to alert me. Readers would next be asking if I’m sure where the car keys are, or for that matter, the car. For ones who would compare, The Black Camel as first appreciated is HERE. 


Blogger Phil Smoot said...

You mention The Black Camel among Charlie Chan TV screenings, but that one was MIA for me as it never showed up in my area. I had to wait for the DVD.
I read the book after seeing the movie, and “The Black Camel” is probably closer to the novel than any movie that I can remember.

Considering how significant a part is the Dwight Frye character, I can’t find his credit anywhere on the film. How did such an important role go uncredited?

4:54 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

So glad to see you spotlighting this one. A favorite of mine ever since discovering it on one of the Charlie Chan DVD box sets. You're so right about the exhilarating effect of those breezy Hawaiian location sequences. And the story's tiptop. One thing you didn't mention was the presence of a very youthful Robert Young. I think he's great in the picture - loose, relaxed,likeable - with an acting technique that comes off as cheerfully naturalistic.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I bought the VHS bootleg roughly 30 years ago, and was delighted to see it was included on the boxed set I recently acquired on eBay. I've been tempted to buy all the Oland Chan's, in case they go the way of "Song of the South".

9:46 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Hey, you can never get too much of Charlie Chan, so no need to apologize. I don't actively seek out the films, but when I browse Amazon Prime, an occasional Sidney Toler entry will catch my eye. And it's sure to be an hour or so well-spent! I pride myself on having read all the Chan books. For the first and only time in my life, I actually guessed the solution of a mystery (THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY).

9:47 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I was about to repeat myself at length. Instead I'll repeat myself at mid-length

With the arrival of DVD I eagerly scooped up Chan, Sherlock, Moto, The Saint, The Falcon, Miss Withers, Michael Shayne, Torchy Blaine, Nick and Nora, Dick Tracy, Mister Wong, Brass Bancroft, early 30s Perry Mason, late 30s Nancy Drew, 60s Miss Marple, Hitchcock's early British thrillers, some PBS Mystery series, and assorted whodunit one-offs.

In my late boomer youth I remember seeing few of the series detectives on TV, and then as random entries on local station schedules. One summer a local station ran the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlocks on Sunday afternoons, complete with a host, but that was an anomaly.

Did it ever occur to the people syndicating movies to offer whodunit packages? Shock Theater was a wild success, low-budget westerns once dominated the day shift on weekends, and Shirley Temple movies had a regular local time slot for a year at least. Heck, I remember being able to count on B&W Paramount comedies (Fields, Marx Brothers, and lots of Hope) every weekend. I read that an East Coast station rotated Sherlock and Chan in a regular slot -- were there other whodunit showcases?

I read about Chan (and others) but never got to see a Chan movie until the 80s, when a cozy revival house (the Vitaphone in Saratoga, CA) offered a triple feature.

Fox did an excellent job on the box sets, but they took their time. For too many years the only Chan on disc was MGM's "Chanthology", a handsomely packaged set of six no-frills Monograms. Cheetos in a Godiva Chocolate box.

4:22 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Since Covid climate took hold, I have revisited ALL the Chans, Motos, Sherlocks, Nick & Noras and (jumping genres) Hoppys.

All are loads of fun. I don't care if the Fox Chans are better than the Monograms. I've been enjoying them all. Even the Winters entries have interesting items. Instead of supporting players from the "A" list like Dumbrille and Cortez, there's Bob Livingston, Carol Foreman and sweet guy Tony Warde from the "B" list. And the return of Keye Luke.

Fun, fun, fun...since my daddy took the T-Bird away.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I don't look at movies once and then move on (though some I regret seeing) neither should you review a movie once only. For a second there I thought this had gotten a Blu-ray release. Frankly, anything with Lugosi in it deserves a Blu-ray.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I could never figure out why THE BLACL CAMEL survived, but the other early Oland Chans are lost. Was it kept in circulation due to the Lugosi factor? Does anyone know?

11:03 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

DBenson; Back in the whereabouts of 1980 give or take a year or so, WSBK in Boston (which I got on cable) ran Mystery Movie which consisted of Chans, Motos and Holmes late on Friday nights. With a bellyful of beer and a frozen pizza popped in the oven, it was heaven. Not sure I ever lasted to the end of the movie but I blame that on the beer and late hour. In the late 60's, WOR Channel 9 ran Sherlocks on Thursday nights at 9. I gave one a chance (think I was about 15) not really knowing much about Holmes. Luckily it was the Scarlet Claw and I was hooked. Read all the stories after that.

John; I did remember you wrote about 'the Black Camel' previously (probably because I read the entry a few times) , but welcomed the latest installment. Keep them coming, repeat or not! Thanks for all the hard work!

11:49 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Not sure I ever lasted to the end of the movie but I blame that on the beer and late hour." It's the damned commercials. I can be well rested and wide awake but the commercials do me in always any time day or night.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

No worries, John, it comes with the territory — with an output as vast as yours, I’m surprised this is the first time!

As an ex-audiobook narrator (of 400+ unabridged titles), I often get (unsolicited... ahem) feedback on books I don’t remember ever having HEARD of, let alone recorded. I’m resigned to the likelihood that that will only increase over time...

1:35 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

Thanks for highlighting this series with Warner Oland. It would be good to know why this one survives? It was second the series while the first outing with Oland (along with 3rd, 4th, and 5th entries)seemed to have gone up in smoke in 1937 Fox vault fire. Maybe they will still turn up?

4:10 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

THE BLACK CAMEL survives because it was reprinted for syndicated television (by Unity TV) in 1954. When Fox repackaged the Chans in the 1960s, THE BLACK CAMEL wasn't there, and never came back until Fox's DVD release. Unless you knew somebody who had a Unity print!

Mike Cline, I admire your taste! I've always liked the Monogram Chans. THE SHANGHAI COBRA, DARK ALIBI, and THE CHINESE CAT are standouts, if anyone's curious.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I'm a little late to the party in congratulating you on another fine piece and, actually, was surprised how little was overlapped in your two posts! Love Chan, love this film in particular. A couple of quick notes... answering DBenson and MikeD, yes there was in the 80's I believe a syndicated package that included the Universal Holmes, Monogram Chans and, curiously, Fox Motos... but no Fox Chans. Interesting nobody yet has mentioned BLACK CAMEL was remade with Sidney Toler as Chan and Victor Jory in the Lugosi role as CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO. Or that the director of CAMEL, Hamilton MacFadden pops up as an actor in the remake. And as to the harsh treatment of the underling Kashimo, that is consistent with the original magazine serials written by Earl Derr Biggers as Charlie Chan is downright bigoted towards the Japanese (I am assuming "Kashimo is Japanese.)

12:30 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

There was a station back in the '70s that we could receive with a good antenna, which ran Charlie Chan films on Sunday mornings. (This was around the time the "Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan" cartoon aired...the less said of which, the better) One week, the TV Guide listed "Charlie Chan in the Secret Service" as the scheduled film. What aired instead was the 1930 "Secret Service" based on the William Gillette play, no Chan to be found.

12:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto:

During the early sixties, WFIL in Philadelphia, which broadcast on Channel 6, had a Saturday morning program, “Charlie Chan and Friends.” The program title appeared against a backdrop with a bamboo and flower motif, as sprightly oriental musical theme played. Later, I would recognize that theme as the scherzo from Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major. What followed was a 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto movie. I soon learned that the Motos and Oland Chans were usually better than the Toland Chans, and that the early Olands were best of all. I’m sure that “The Black Camel” was not among them, as I’d surely have remembered Dwight Fryre.

Like most of the movie detectives of the time, Charlie Chan was patterned after Sherlock Holmes; that is, a thinking machine ornamented by various personal quirks. Since Chan was a Chinese-American, that in itself set him apart from the other detectives, but, with the early Olands especially, there was also a moral sense that most of them lacked. The killing of another human being was wrong and almost invariably tragic. Chan sought to understand the murder and identify the killer to obtain justice and restore the moral order. His aphorisms were always clever but sometimes found their basis in Confucian philosophy.

I appreciated that quality even as an adolescent. Much later, on reflection, I also understood the subtle way in which the question of race was addressed. Chan was portrayed as being emotionally reserved and stoic, qualities which supposedly typified the Chinese. There was a sense of the differences between races and cultures, as Chan dealt with police officers who were usually white. Sometimes this was displayed initially in condescension or confusion, but invariably there was a new respect established for the yellow man by the whites. The lesson was that such differences may be real enough, but also the essential dignity everyone possesses.

The Motos were superficially similar to the Chans, without the moral sense but with a much greater quotient of fun and action. The Fox backlot was well employed for stories that usually had an exotic locale. When I went away to college in that little town in North Carolina and found that Mr. Moto was part of the programming of the television station there, it was as though I’d been reunited with an old friend.

1:39 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Charlie Chan's popularity involves a lot of interesting subtext. He's the model of a successful immigrant, proudly American without discarding his Chinese roots. There's no mystery or exoticism about his background; it's just who he is. His modesty and manners are those of someone working hard to assimilate and not make trouble (at the same time, he's encouraging suspects to underestimate him). He has a son in the Boy Scouts, and with WWII we'll see another in the US Army. But racism is there, in ways 30s studios and audiences mostly accepted as status quo.

Most of his colleagues are in awe of his abilities, and the occasional doubting flatfoot soon comes around. With no mention of his training or history, the implication is that Chan is a self-made detective, up from the ranks and loyal to the police department. He made good on the American Dream, rising to the top of his profession on hard work and merit. That must have resonated for a lot of people, and not just those with Asian roots.

Another angle is the generation gap. While Charlie Chan is a Chinese-born (or Hawaiian-born?) citizen who works hard at it, his children are all natural Yankees. English is their first language. They don't work at assimilating; if anything they overwhelm their parents' attempts at Chinese formality. Number One Son Lee is (after his first appearance) a college boy, energetic and pushy where his father is quiet and careful. One suspects they don't support the same political parties. While the relationship is mostly played for laughs, the visible familial love is constantly being tested. This too must have resonated with a lot of people.

By the time of the Monograms all this was fading. Aside from sleuthing for the government during the war, Chan was living stateside and taking any case that fell in his lap, like so many other generic sleuths. His family went largely unmentioned, except for whichever sons were hanging about. Said sons were frequently flat-out stooges, teamed with a black manservant for comedy scenes (These twosomes were equally inept. Progress, I guess.). The successful immigrant, policeman and family man finally devolved to a collection of half-remembered cliches.

Mr. Moto was a stranger piece of work. In the books he was an agent of the Japanese government, period. At Fox he was quietly upscale businessman who freelanced in undercover work; a suave soldier of fortune in a tux; an "international police" agent infiltrating a gang in deep disguise; a professor of criminology ... but never a straightforward Japanese agent. Like Simon Templar and a few others, Moto had the odd quality of being famous and recognized in some scenes and unknown in others. It felt like they were tossing Moto into different genre scripts they had lying around, including a Chan film stalled by Oland's absence. There was no effort at continuity between films, beyond the general idea Moto had to play hardball against villains more dangerous than Chan's mere murderers.

While there was a lot about Charlie Chan a very broad audience could identify with, at best Moto offered hope to shrimps who dreamed of tossing outsized bullies around. The films are great fun, and Peter Lorre is oddly endearing as the frankly creepy hero, but we get very little of who or what Moto is beyond his current case. Given that he's usually some kind of spy, one wonders if he has a private life at all. In the very first film he has a date with a pretty girl (which she barely survives); after that he leaves romance to secondary characters.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

By the way, there's a surprisingly watchable copy on YouTube.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Dan Oliver said...

Regarding your comment about the murder being rooted in a past event, that was a hallmark of the Biggers novels that was generally abandoned when the series moved into original stories.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Though THE BLACK CAMEL was not in the Chan package distributed to TV by the then-licensee, Warner Bros-Seven arts provided it for a 23-film retrospective in 1968 at the Museum of Modern Art. Director Hamilton MacFadden was on hand for a reception preceding the series, along with series veterans Ricardo Cortez and Ethel Griffies. A MoMA press release claimed THE BLACK CAMEL had been "unseen for more than 30 years,'' though there are listings for TV broadcasts in New York as late as 1961!

11:27 AM  

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