Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Black Camel (1931)

Hollywood star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) has come to beautiful Honolulu to shoot a movie as well as to romance one Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.), wealthy globe trotter. There’s even marriage under discussion but because Shelah carries around a dark secret connected with the murder of actor Danny Mayo three years earlier, the actress has to fly in her favourite psychic, Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi) before she knows what she’ll do.

The evening after a rather dramatic session with Tarneverro, Shelah is murdered. Honolulu’s master investigator, Inspector Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) has his work quite cut out for him, for there are more suspects than you could shake the proverbial stick at (something Chan surely has an enlightening proverb or two about), and there are various other mysteries surrounding the death of the actress.

From today’s oh so enlightened perspective, the biggest problem of the long-running series of Charlie Chan films is of course their habit of having their Chinese detective played by white people in yellowface. On the other hand, it seems rather unfair to blame the movies too much for being products of the times they were made in; I’m much less tolerant of the later revival films made in times when people really should have known better, and of the actively racist humour in some of the Charlie Chan films, particular once the franchise got into the hands of Monogram. That is fortunately not really a problem of the film at hand, unless you want to argue Otto Yamaoka’s Kashimo is a racist stereotype more than just an odious comic relief character. Of course, odious comic relief characters always feel a bit like racist stereotypes to me, quite independently of their race – just look at my nemeses Johnny Walker and Jagdeep.

My tolerance for the yellowface nonsense does exist for the Chan movies as well as the Mister Moto films because they at least have the not-quite-Chinese characters as their heroes, characters who are generally much cleverer than the white people around them, who use some of their pseudo-folksy rambling just as much as a distraction from their actual talents as detectives like Columbo would later do with less stereotypical methods.

With The Black Camel’s – and many of the other Charlie Chan’s with him I’ve seen – there’s also the simple fact that Warner Oland is a pretty fantastic Chan, projecting a cleverness that can’t quite hide behind his – often rather wise-cracking – proverbs, as well as a degree of warmth and human compassion you don’t always find in movie detectives, particularly not in ones whose habits and verbal tics can so easily become annoying when played wrong (don’t get me started on Hercule Poirot).

The Black Camel is a pretty special Chan film, even, not just showing Oland at his best but also graced with a generally fine supporting cast (like Sally Eilers, a very young Robert Young, the always wonderful Bela, and even – playing a crazy butler – an uncredited Dwight Fry), and a script that works wonderfully in the contrived ways of its genre, and never gets bogged down in distractions other than red herrings. Thanks to it being a pre-code movie, the film is also a bit more frank about the way actual human relations work, and is allowed to actually speak some things later film could only hint at, which helps keep character motivations more believable than in years hence, before the film noir showed everyone how to speak about the things you’re not allowed to speak about in an effective manner again. The film is – of course, we are in Hollywood, after all – still quite melodramatic in its later stages but it is the kind of melodrama that seems organic and earned instead of forced and random, and just enhances the film’s copious charms.

There’s also something pleasantly tight and pacy about the film with director Hamilton MacFadden often managing to avoid the staginess that was in the genes (and the technical possibilities) of this era of sound film. There are, for example in the psychic session between Bela and Dorothy Revier, even some choice and highly atmospheric uses of post-expressionist shadow play as brought to Hollywood by my ancestors, which I am consequently quite the sucker for.

As is obvious by now, The Black Camel is one of the early highpoints of the Charlie Chan films, probably the first film I’d recommend to anyone even slightly interested in the character and his representations on screen to watch first, before encountering the horrors (and pleasures) of the Monogram films in particular.

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