Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Return of Lee Chan--Part 1

 In the 1930s, one of the most consistently entertaining movie series featured Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan. With Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke as Number One son Lee Chan, the films were good stories featuring one of the most purely likable protagonists to every appear on celluloid.

A highlight of these films was the relationship between Charlie Chan and his hero-worshiping son Lee. Lee might try to hard and sometimes get in the way, but he also acting bravely when the situation called for it, saving his dad's life on a couple of occasions. He was a son who simply loved his dad.

When Oland died in 1938, Keye Luke left the series. Sidney Toler took over as Charlie, making the detective a little more irascible, and Victor Sen Yung took up the sidekick role as Number Two son Jimmy, with Lee now said to be off at college. In a few films, Jimmy wasn't around and Benson Fong stepped in to play Number Three son Tommy.

By the time we get to the late 1940s, Toler was dead and Roland Winters played Chan, starring in six films produced by Monogram Pictures. These had a much smaller budget than the earlier films (which had been 20th Century Fox productions), but still had pretty good stories. Victor Sen Yung remained the usual sidekick.

I will pause here to whine about an annoying continuity glitch in the later Chan films. Yung's character, though still clearly identified as the Number Two son, is inexplicably renamed Tommy in the Winters films. Why? Why? Why? He's clearly still Jimmy. Did he and Tommy trade names? Is Charlie getting a bit forgetful in his old age, with his sons too respectful of him to correct him? Gee whiz.

Anyway, in the last two Chan films before the series came to an end, Keye Luke did return to play Lee. We'll look at 1948's The Feather Serpent this time, then get to 1949's The Sky Dragon in a few weeks.

Charlie, Lee and Tommy (darn it, that's Jimmy!) are vacationing in Mexico, with comic relief chauffeur Birmingham Brown also in attendance. But, really, Charlie Chan should know by now that he can't ever really take a vacation. Someone will always get murdered.

This particular murder happens right in the middle of a room filled with Chan clan members, Mexican cops and a quartet of suspects. It's the classic "Turn the lights out and back-stab your victim in the dark" ploy.

The suspects are all members of an expedition looking for two missing archaeologists and an ancient Aztec tomb. The dead guy is actually one of the missing guys, who had been held prisoner at the tomb and was about to reveal its location before being killed. So Charlie and his sons join the expedition as it heads out into the jungle, intending to solve the murder and find the remaining missing man. One more murder and an attempt or two on Charlie's life complicates matters.

Charlie's detective skills and some help from an unexpected source finally allow them to find the Aztec tomb, which villains are in the process of looting. That means its time for Lee and Tommy (it's Jimmy--Jimmy I tell you!) to start throwing punches. Though they can't match their dad's skill as detectives, punching out bad guys is something they are pretty good at. In fact, when Tommy/Jimmy starts repeatedly slamming a thug's skull against the stone steps of the tomb, you begin to wonder if he's a little too good at it. Man, that was a brutal moment!

It's a fun little film, though it lacks the cleverness of the Oland and early Toler films from the previous decade. You can argue that having both Lee and Jimmy (I'm just gonna call him Jimmy, darn it) in the same film--with a running time of only 61 minutes--was a mistake in terms of story construction. There really isn't enough going on in the story to give them both enough to do. But this is the only time Luke and Yung appear together in a Chan film and it was nice to see that happen.

The two actors are getting into middle age by this time as well. Luke was 44 and Yung was 33. Luke does play Lee with a little more maturity, but Yung is still given a lot of the goofy sidekick stuff to do. He does this well, but he's too obviously an adult now for this to be completely believable.

Also, the lower budget at Monogram does show through, perhaps most notably when Lee and Jimmy find some Aztec hieroglyphics that are pretty obviously just random shapes drawn with chalk.

All the same, I still liked the movie. I think it might be impossible for me to dislike a Chan film. The story is serviceable and, even though Toler and then Winters played the detective with an increasingly sarcastic bent, we are also presented with a father who loves his sons and sons who love their dad.

The scene I'm including below highlights this. Lee might be no great shakes at deductive reasoning, but look how quickly and effectively he springs into action when his dad is in danger. And notice his normally irascible dad's concern for him afterwards, calling him "Lee" rather than the less personal "Number One Son." It's a sign that even when the budgets got small and the scripts got more routine, the creators of the Charlie Chan films still got what was important about the characters.

Keye Luke would return for the last Chan film, but Victor Sen Yung would be absent. Maybe he and Benson Fong were in a back alley somewhere, fist-fighting over who gets to be called "Tommy."

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