Monday, April 25, 2011

A Favorite Film: CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936) starring Warner Oland and Boris Karloff

In my probably biased opinion, there are maybe four or five really terrific Charlie Chan movies - this is one of them. I am a big fan of Charlie's, so if one of the early movies is on, I'm likely to watch it regardless. Though I like Warner Oland as Chan, better than Sidney Toler, I admit that Toler grew on me and did go on to make several favorites. But once Mantan Moreland got involved in the films and the budgets went down to zero, I stopped watching. There's a nice envelope of time - 1930's - mid 40's, when the films were still reasonably good. Most especially if you didn't care if the plots made any sense. Because, honestly, the scriptwriters/film-makers apparently didn't care either. If you break down the nuts and bolts of the mysteries, you get to the end and go, huh? But, so what. Logic is not why anyone watches Charlie Chan movies - at least I don't think so.

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.


  1. Did you get the feeling that some credit should go to the author of _The Phantom of the Opera_ here?

  2. Perhaps. Though of course, the PHANTOM musical didn't come into being untiil many years later. But I'm assuming you mean the original story and yes, upon thinking about it, you may be right, Fred. It never occurred to me before. :)

  3. Yvette,

    It was a opera, just as the film.
    And the "monster" did focus on one soprano.

    I'm not saying it's a direct copy, but I wonder if the screenwriters were influenced by the novel or possibly the film.

    The first of several _Phantom of the Opera_ films came out in 1925, with Lon Chaney as the phantom.

    According to IMDB, _Charlie Chan at the Opera_ came out in 1936, with Boris Karloff as the villain, as you pointed out.

    Nice matchup here: Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff--the two foremost stars of horror films at that time.

  4. Oh yes, of course, I forgot that the action of PHANTOM takes place in an opera house. DUH! Phanton of the OPERA - Yvette. Ha! I'm sure the writers were influenced in some fashion. It's not too much of a stretch. Was the story an actual opera at some point? Before the silent film? The reasoning behind Gravelle's compulsion to get revenge on Lily, is that supposedly, she left him to burn in the fire which they all thought had killed him. Obviously Lily had never been much for devotion.

  5. Curious, Yvette - what do you think of the Charlie Chan books? Most of the Earl Derr Biggers originals are available again. I've only read one recently - House Without a Key - and enjoyed it thoroughly; the original Charlie Chan character is terrific.

  6. I've seen only one Chan movie (CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET) and I picked it because it had an impossible crime element to it. I think Warner Oland embodies the spirit of Chan as he's portrayed in the books. I am still troubled why the books as well as the movies are thought of as racist by so many people. Mostly post-modernist "critics." Is it only because of his broken English and his penchant for aphorisms?

    Supposedly THE BLACK CAMEL is very true to the book. But I have yet to read that one or see the movie. THE CHINESE PARROT is an excellent book, BTW. You'd be surprised how modern it reads. And Biggers lampoons the bigots in the book.

  7. For some reason I have never been into Charlie Chan movies.

  8. I don't think I have ever seen a Charlie Chan movie either. Not sure why.

  9. Les: FELONY AND MAYHEM has the 6 original Charlie Chan books in beautiful trade paperback editions. (I think there were only 6) I read them all many years ago. Last year I reread THE CHINESE PARROT and enjoyed it very much. It's the only one though that my library has. At any rate, read 'em if you get a chance. I'd also read (If you're interested in the social aspects and background of the Chan character) a terrific book I reviewed here last year: CHARLIE CHAN The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendevouz with American History by Yunte Huang. (I believe this was a NY Times notable book of the year.) Here's my review:

    Sorry I can't do the link on my comments. :)

  10. John: Yes, John, I agree. Biggers didn't really let the bigots win. If you read Professor Huang's book, you'll see that even though there was tremendous racism at the time Chan the character was concieved, the author - a Chinese American - appears to feel that Biggers and his chreations were not/was not a racist. The non-fiction book I recommended is fascinating.
    I say: buty the Felony and Mayhem Chan books. They're beautiful.

    As for the films: My favorites: (I don't mind that my favorites don't really follow any existing books by Biggers.)
    CHARLIE CHAN in CASTLE IN THE DESERT (somewhat based, I think, on THE CHINESE PARROT, but not sure. Awful acting, but awfully fun.)
    CHARLIE CHAN MURDER CRUISE (I think that's the title. It's one I watch all the time. GREAT FUN. Murder on a cruise ship full of suspects. Love it.


  11. Ryan: Oh well, we can agree to disagree. There's other films and books we can like together. :-)

  12. Patti: Well, if you want to take a look: I say watch this one or one of my other faves. I love 'em.

  13. I haven't watched Charlie Chan movies because of the allegations of racism by Asian Americans. I haven't followed this discussion, but Warner Oland was Swedish, and obviously this role wasn't played by an Asian actor; it portrayed a stereotypical Asian person, at a time when there was so much anti-Asian racism.
    However, here is a link to an NPR discussion of this character:

  14. Kathy: I am aware of the charges of stereotyping, etc. BUT, in my view, the Chan character in films is treated with respect and handled with dignity by Oland and Toler. Yes, neither of them were Asian American, and if that stops anyone from enjoying or watching the films, then so be it. Keye Luke, himself an Asian American, had very practical and very complimentary affection for the character, the films and his participation in them. He viewed them, and rightly so, in my opinion, as a positive sort of stereotype. Better than a negative one, I always say.

    I read Professor Huang's book and it is my feeling that he, an Asian American, is not completely disturbed by the so-called 'stereotyping' since as I said, the character is treated with respect by those around him who admire Chan's detecting abilities and his wisdom. If being seen as having wisdom (of his ancestors or not) is a bad thing, then I'm in the wrong universe. Chan is always looked up to in these films - except by the bad guys and the stupid, of course.

    If you read about the history of the character you realize that author Earl Derr Biggers creating a 'good guy' Asian lead character in a series was daring in and of itself since up until that time, most of the Asians depicted in films, books and comic books, were ridiculous villains.

  15. Well, this is certainly food for thought.

    The Wikipedia entry on Charlie Chan is quite interesting, giving the history of the character, the films and the actors who played him. He was played by Asian actors for several years before Oland portrayed the detective.

    Apparently, some of the films were shown in China in the 1930s and 1940s, and they were better liked than some other Western films which portrayed Asians terribly, causing the Shanghai Theater to close down, due to the uproar.

    I recently saw "Across the Pacific," which showed Japanese people terribly. It was right after Pearl Harbor so the filmmakers wanted to depict all Japanese as suspect and build the war effort. This film shows them all to be spies, sly, dangerous -- and stupid. Humphrey Bogart beat a whole regiment of spies in Panama single-handedly, got Mary Astor and arrested Sydney Greenstreet. It was a bit much.

  16. Kathy: Yes, Professor Huang writes about how popular the Charlie Chan films were in China. That tells us something, anyway. Well, as to the Bogart film, you have to remember when it was filmed. These sorts of things were propaganda films, I think.

    Charlie Chan films were quite different.


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