Charlie Chan at the Race Track [1936]

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Mystery
"Size of package does not indicate quality within," Honolulu's finest, Charlie Chan sagely observes in Charlie Chan at the Circus, and while this boxed set contains only four films, it does this venerable franchise justice, with some of Chan's most arresting cinematic outings. All four films star Swedish-born Warner Oland, who is to Charlie Chan what Sean Connery is to James Bond. The high note of this set is Charlie Chan at the Opera, in which the curtain comes down on two opera singers during a performance. Boris Karloff (whose frightening presence accounts for a very funny reference to Frankenstein) costars as an amnesiac who escapes from a sanitarium to haunt the theatre like some phantom of the... well, you know. William Demarest steals his scenes as a cop in dire need of sensitivity training. He refers to Chan as "Chop Suey" and "Egg Fu Young," and when No. 1 son (Keye Luke) gives his dad a note, he asks if it's a laundry ticket. In Charlie Chan at the Circus, a Chan family excursion (with all 12 children!) to the Big Top is interrupted when the nasty circus owner is murdered. Charlie Chan at the Olympics is another gold-medal outing that finds Chan embroiled in international espionage when an experimental automatic pilot device is stolen. His investigation leads him to the Berlin Olympics (via the Hindenburg), where his son is on the track team. Newsreel footage of the games integrated into the film features Jesse Owens running the 400-meter relay. Less of a sure bet but still an efficient mystery is Charlie Chan at the Race Track. Each restored film looks great, and each is enhanced with featurettes that illuminate interesting aspects of the series. One profiles prolific Chan director H. Bruce "Lucky" Humberstone (who, we learn, fortified his star with drink), and another Keye Luke. "Charlie Chan at the Movies" examines these films' places in the Chan canon. There are certainly enough 1930s cultural and racial stereotypes (John Allen as stableboy "Streamline" Jones in Race Track) here to keep the PC police working overtime, but for Charlie Chan buffs and B-movie fans, this is an essential collection that is, to quote Chan, a "chip off ancient block." --Donald Liebenson

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