CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA takes place in NYC, always a good town for a mystery involving an escaped maniac - or so Boris Karloff is referred to in the film. Karloff plays Gravelle (he only has one name), a former opera star who, since a horrific backstage fire, has suffered from amnesia and general looniness. He has been, as the film begins, a resident in an asylum, watched over by not-very-smart guards. The film has an absolutely perfect beginning on a rainy, windswept night at the loony bin with Gravelle sitting at the piano singing away in an agitated baritone voice. (Dubbed, I'm sure.)
When the guard brings in a newspaper, Gravelle spots a headline featuring a woman's name - that of soprano Lily Rochelle who is returning to star in the opera CARNIVAL. (It was the opera in which Gravelle had also starred years before.) Lily's name sparks Gravelle's memory, he assaults the guard and escapes from the asylum. The hunt is then on (with moody music to match) for what the newspapers colorfully refer to as 'the escaped maniac'.
In the meantime, Lily Rochelle, played with exaggerated (and charmless) diva mannerisms by Margaret Irving, goes to the police (Inspector Regan played by Guy Usher), escorted by her current paramour, tenor Enrico Borelli (played by Gregory Gaye). She's received some threatening letters and wants police protection. The cops haven't yet linked Gravelle to Lily.
In Inspector Regan's office at that moment is Charlie Chan who has dropped in to say goodbye, on his way home to Honolulu after solving a race track mystery which had baffled the cops. He is sailing later that evening.
Chan makes some astute deductions which makes Regan think that the threats to Lily Rochelle come from the escaped lunatic everyone's been searching for. He orders the opera house surrounded by cops for the opening night's performance, (This is in the old days when the cops had enough manpower to do this sort of thing, I suppose.)
When Gravelle makes his presence known at the Opera House, he scares the mezzo soprano, Lucretia Borelli (wife of the philandering tenor - who recognizes Gravelle) into cooperating with him and not letting on she knows he's hiding somewhere in the opera house. Singing the part of Mephistopheles in the opera, CARNIVAL, that night, is Enrico Borelli.His wife Lucretia knows he's been cheating on her with Lily Rochelle, as does Rochelle's husband - so there's all sorts of backstage jealousy and intrigue going on before the curtain rises.
In the meantime, the cops - including Charlie Chan - arrive at the opera and are soon made aware by a frightened seamstress that Gravelle is in the house, lurking about backstage. When Borelli finishes getting into costume (in a ridiculous Mephistopelian outfit with glitter and a mask), he is assaulted in his dressing room by Gravelle who pops in from a ceiling trapdoor. Gravelle then assumes the costume and goes forth to sing the role before anyone is the wiser.
In the first act scene, however, Mephistopheles is supposed to stab Lily (who is a little old to be playing an innocent village maiden, but what the heck) and the cops are uneasy as they watch the scene develop. Lily, herself, is aware that something is wrong since the man singing Mephistopheles doesn't sound so much like Borelli, but like the man who was once her husband and fellow opera star - a man who supposedly died in a fire. Lily is so frightened that as the act finishes, she faints and must be carried to her dressing room. Gravelle escapes from the cops who chase him backstage.
When both Borelli AND Lily Rochelle are killed - stabbed to death. The obvious culprit is the handy escaped maniac.
Oh, meant to mention, in the middle of all this, there's a young couple wandering around backstage looking for Lily and we're not supposed to know why. Turns out the young woman is Lily's unacknowledged daughter trying to get her mother's permission to marry. (One of the main reasons why the events in the script make no sense is because of this girl's supposed age coupled with the year that the fatal fire took place. Also, why would the soprano be killed off in the first act of the opera? But maybe I pay too much attention to details.)
So, Charlie Chan - with the help of his number one son, played by the wonderful Keye Luke - must solve the mystery in time to board their boat back home late that night. How he does it is to stage the first act of the opera once again with all suspects involved. So we get to hear the catchy aria that Mephistopheles sings to Lily yet again - Lily played this time by the mezzo soprano, wife of the dead Borelli.
I can't count how many times I've seen this film and yet I still enjoy watching the whole preposterous thing whenever I get a chance. It is just a great deal of fun. Maybe because it's so familiar, but I think it has to do with the whole backstage-at-the-theater thing and watching Boris Karloff play an opera singer. Also Charlie Chan has never been better. Will he and number one son make it back to Honolulu on schedule? What do you think?
One further note: CARNIVAL, far as I know. is not based on an 'actual' opera except that in the end credits you see the name of Oscar Levant listed as composer for the opera used in the film. Levant is known to us from all those MGM musicals where he generally added his sour-faced, off-key voice and personality playing side-kick to Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire but who, in reality, was actually a brilliant pianist and composer. I've always wondered too if the opera CARNIVAL by Oscar Levant, was ever finished and if so, what it sounds like.
I thought I'd add this link to my own review of: CHARLIE CHAN The Untold Story of The Honorable Detective and His Rendevouz with American History by Yunte Huang. This is a terrific non-fiction book by a Chinese American Professor which gives the background and explains the era, the when and where of the Chan character and how he was formed and based on a real Hawaiian detective. If you're interested at all in how Charlie Chan came to be and the society from which his creation sprang - then this is the book for you.