Jade Mask [1945]

Though the Charlie Chan film franchise has earned brickbats for its casting of Caucasian actors as the Asian sleuth, the movies have retained popularity among aficionados of '40s-era B-crime pictures, and the six-disc Charlie Chan Chanthology, all featuring Sidney Toler as Chan, should please that crowd. The Missouri-born Toler starred in 11 Chan pictures for Fox before purchasing the rights to the character from creator Earl Derr Biggers's widow and bringing it to budget studio Monogram, where he starred in 11 more Chans before his death in 1947 (Roland Winters replaced him in six more features until 1949). At Monogram, Chan became a Secret Service Agent (a move calculated to cut down on exotic locations and sets), and comedy was integrated into the plots via Mantan Moreland's chauffeur Birmingham Brown; Benson Fong also joined the cast as Number Three Son Tommy, with occasional appearances by daughter Frances (Frances Chan) and son Eddie (Edwin Luke, brother of Keye Luke, who played Number One Son Lee in the Fox Chans). Other than that, the six films collected here (the first six Chans for Monogram, and all but five directed by Phil Rosen) are largely indistinguishable from one another save for the murder victims and their demises. In The Secret Service, Chan investigates the death of a wartime inventor; a San Francisco socialite expires in The Chinese Cat; daughter Frances is involved in the murder of a psychic in Meeting at Midnight (a.k.a. Black Magic); another government scientist is killed in The Jade Mask, and death by remote control is the focus of The Scarlet Clue. Director Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) adds some noirish atmosphere to The Shanghai Cobra, which has bank employees dying from apparent snakebites. Dated and controversial as they may be, the Chan films are engaging diversions for vintage mystery fans. No extras are featured in the set. --Paul Gaita

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