Charlie Chan in Honolulu dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
Starring: Sidney Toler, Phyllis Brooks, Victor Sen Yung, Eddie Collins
Review by Greg Klymkiw
When longtime Charlie Chan star Warner Oland died in 1938, Twentieth Century Fox was faced with a dilemma of considerable magnitude. The Chan series (based on writer Earl Derr Biggers character who, in turn, was loosely based on a real-life detective in Hawaii) was one of Fox’s more profitable franchises and exhibitors and the public were still hungry for more. And now Oland was dead. Though he was Swedish, his swarthy features allowed him to be made-up as an Asian and he made quite a career of playing “yellow-face” roles. After appearing in 16 pictures as Charlie Chan, the most venerable Asian detective, Fox and the world both wondered who would succeed him.
Oland, of course, was not Asian – few leading Asian roles were actually entrusted to Asian actors. Would an Asian actor be cast? While rare, there was already some precedence for utilizing actors like Sessue Hayakawa and Anna Mae Wong in leading roles. After a period of intensive casting (well over thirty actors were tested for the role) it was announced that a new Charlie Chan picture was on the way and that it would star the non-Asian American-born character actor Sidney Toler. While he was not Swedish like Oland, it is said his ethnic background was primarily Scottish – definitely not Asian. Ah well, it’s interesting to make note of this, but kind of ridiculous to place the contemporary values of political correctness and tolerance on such matters.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu is definitely a transitional picture within the series – due mainly to the challenges of maintaining a much-loved character with both a new actor and changing times. It does, however, succeed as one of the more entertaining entries of the series.
Up to this point, the Chan pictures had been set in a series of far-flung locales such as Egypt, London, Paris and Monte Carlo (among others), but this entry takes us to Chan’s home in Honolulu where we’re introduced to an All-American mailbox (emblazoned delightfully with the All-American: “Chas Chan”) in front of an All-American bungalow. Inside, we’re treated to an All-American depiction of a typical Asian-American family as Charlie presides over a dinner table filled with what seems like dozens of his offspring. Here we’re also introduced to the new sidekick of the series, Number Two Son. The terrific young Asian actor Keye Luke portrayed Number One Son, but Luke was so distraught over Oland’s death that he withdrew from the series – hence: Number Two Son (played delightfully by Asian actor Sen Yung).
This family dinner is especially fraught with tension since Charlie’s daughter is in the hospital and about to give birth to his first grandchild. It’s also revealed that Number Two Son wants to be a detective, but Dad scoffs at the very idea. When the entire family takes off to the Honolulu Hospital to be present for the birth of Number One Grandchild, Number Two Son takes a telephone call for Charlie.
Chan is being summoned to preside over a murder case. Number Two Son’s telephone interception is a perfect antidote to his overwhelming desire to be a detective. He decides to take Charlie’s place and soon finds himself on a freighter where a particularly brutal murder has taken place. Number Two Son bungles his way along until Charlie swoops in to save the day. Eventually, Charlie – in classic Chan fashion – assembles every one of the suspects into one room to reveal the killer and with the help of Number Two son, he does so with his usual flair.
All in all, this is relatively straightforward stuff and quite par for the Chan course. This doesn’t mean it’s not supremely enjoyable. It most certainly is. The supporting cast includes two absolutely delicious babes (one “good” and one “bad”), some hilarious comedy relief from Eddie Hogan as a zoo keeper continually on the run from an escaped lion and last, but certainly not least, the inimitable George Zucco as a crazed psychiatrist called Dr. Cardigan who has some weird machine affixed to an actual human brain.
The movie is replete with Chan’s trademark “Confucius Say”–styled sayings and Sidney Toler adds considerable flair to the role of everyone’s favourite Number One Detective. Fans of the series will be more than satisfied with this picture, though I suspect non-Chan-fans will potentially have no idea why this series was one of the most popular detective series in movie history.
Also, those who are humourless politically correct fascists will be idiotically offended by the period ethnocentricity that’s basically gentle and never mean-spirited. One example of this is when Charlie, at the hospital, is accidentally handed the wrong baby – a tiny Black child. Charlie smiles and quips, “Wrong flavour.” It’s a genuinely and sweetly funny moment that has more to do with the racism and/or ethnocentricity and/or just-plain stupidity of the character of the nurse who hands the child to Chan. However, one can easily imagine Birkenstock-wearing-granola-bar-knee-jerkers sharpening their venomous fangs of righteousness over this and several other moments like it.
The recent Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD release of Charlie Chan in Honolulu is a very handsome package. It is full of terrific background documentaries and a painstaking reconstruction of one of the lost Charlie Chan features using publicity skills and a reading of the shooting script. This movie is part of Volume 4 of the first-rate Charlie Chan Collection that has been slowly released over the past couple of years and continues to deliver the Chan-goods to all of us Chan-oid nerdster psychos who can never get enough of these wonderful old pictures.