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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There were more than forty made between 1931 and 1949, Swedish actor
Warner Oland appearing in 16 of them, Sidney Toler in 22 and Roland
Winters in a round half dozen
Before the appearance of Chan, screen Orientals were often portrayed as being subhuman, always the villain and never the hero If producers wanted a villain of the deadliest kind, then they chose an Oriental Chan, and to a lesser extent, other Eastern detectives like Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) and Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) changed all that and helped make the celluloid "Wily Oriental Gentleman" more respectable
Shrewd, courteous and slow moving, Chan's trademark was a cut price wisdom, expressed throughout all his films in phrases like "Too many mixed drinks make big headaches," and "Silence is golden except in police station."
Like Vance and other popular detectives he would gather his suspects in one room, going round each in turn and finally pointing to the guilty person with the words: "You murderer." As much of his detection was based on bluff as on deduction; the condemned criminal might well have been better advised to stand his ground and challenge Chan to prove his case rather than make the traditional break for freedom
The film that is widely regarded as being one of the best Chan films is Bruce Humberstone's "Charlie Chan at the Opera." Not unlike a poor man's "Phantom of the Opera" it has Boris Karloff (in this case not the villain, just a red herring) as an operatic tenor suffering from aphasia (psychosomatic dumbness) who escapes from a mental asylum bent on revenge on his double-crossing opera singer wife The wife duly dies and so too does her operatic lover but on this occasion the murderer is not Karloff but someone less obvious
The old Chinaman is true to form, making the police look even more heavily and slowly than usual ("Oh, no, we're not calling Chop Suey again," groans Sergeant William Demarest) and dropping his verbal gems at every twist and turn Although set within the normal 70 minute formula for the Chan films it is faster paced than most in the series combining thrills and music and including a special opera, Carnival, composed for the film by Oscar Levant
Stars who appeared in the series and later became famous included Rita Hayworth (then Cansino), Ray Milland, George Brent and Cesar Romero
This is my favorite of the Warner Oland Chan films and my second favorite of the series. This one is loaded with atmosphere and has Boris Karloff in it,too! It starts off with an escape from an insane asylum during a thunderstorm at night and gets better from there! Most of the action takes place backstage at an opera house. The opera "Carnival" was written especially for this film and I wish it would be performed so I could see the entire work. Karloff in his Mephisto costume is impressive. In this film, Chan is assisted by Number One Son, Lee, played by Keye Luke. Luke is at his best in this one. He and Oland make a great team. This is another Chan film that even when you know the identity of the murderer, you still want to see the film again and again just for the atmospheric fun. A real pleasure.
My favorite of the Warner Oland Chans, Charlie Chan At the Opera, is an
excellent entry in the series. It begins like a horror film, on a stormy
night, as Boris Karloff overcomes a guard in a sanitarium, then escapes. We
are then introduced to a motley group of characters, including a
temperamental opera diva, who has been recieving threatening notes, then
Charlie and son arrive, and soon the action moves to the opera house, where
the film remains. Karloff turns up backstage, where he is hiding, above the
dressing rooms, and we soon learn the truth: he is a famous singer who had
supposedly died in a fire but escaped, and has been suffering from amnesia
ever since. He has only recently begun to remember who is, and is now
looking for the person who tried to kill him.
There's a lot of plot in this film, and it isn't brilliantly developed. What makes the movie so watchable is the acting, which is uniformly good (and in Karloff's case outstanding); the music, courtesy of Oscar Levant, who wrote the score; the set design, which is marvelous; and occasionally the dialogue, which is often funny. Director Bruce Humberstone juggles all these elements masterfully, making the movie hum. Karloff brings gravitas and real menace to his part, and elicits pity as much as terror. Oland is his usually Buddha-like self, delivering his fortune cookie homilies with aplomb. William Demarest is the Irish cop this time around. As was so often the case with murder mysteries, a suggestion of the supernatural helps the mood enormously. Karloff isn't quite the phantom of the opera, but people react to him as if they've seen a ghost, since they all assume that he's dead.
The movie is a very accomplished piece of work. Its theatre and backstage atmosphere give it the feeling of a show within a show, and it's a pretty good one whichever way you look at it.
I've seen at least half of the Chan movies, and this one is easily the
best. First of all, the pacing is incredible. This movie doesn't let
you catch your breath for the first 50 minutes or more. No slow,
dragging plot or padding. It starts off with an ominous thunder storm
at an insane asylum, moves to a violent escape (did Gravelle kill or
just knock-out the intern?), then moves to a cavernous opera house that
provides an opportunity for Karloff to play his own version of phantom
of the opera.
I love how the movie starts out with opera music under the credits. It's extremely powerful, moving music and literally sets the stage, warning viewers that this is no regular Charlie Chan movie. It's big, it's powerful, and you better hold on tight because the foot's on the pedal and we ain't slowin' down!
Next is Karloff's performance. This is my favorite role I've ever seen him in. He was perfect as a quirky, amnesiac. I loved the way he always had a far-away look in his eyes when he talked, kind of like members of the Manson family when you would see them on TV. He always seemed like he was in another world (a world of music, right?) - kind of spaced-out, detached, and disoriented. And near the end, he was a very sympathetic character with Kitty. If you think about all that Gravelle had to endure, it was heart-breaking. I think Karloff did a top-notch job!
The only thing that detracts from this film is Uncle Charlie's (Wm. Demerest) relentless abuse of Mr. Chan. A little bit would be OK, but it became nauseating after awhile. I'm not one these politically correct types, but it's just too much here. Demerest reminds me of cranky Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies, when she's in one of her moods where nothing makes her happy.
If you've never seen a Chan film, don't start with this one. You'll be disappointed with the rest...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILERS BELOW Everyone who has written about this film here seems
right on time, except for the one who doubted Boris Karloff would be
voice-dubbed for a B-movie. That person should remember that this was a
20th Century-Fox B-movie and the studio would and probably did bring a
dubbing resource in for this key scene. Karloff's voice as Gravelle has
to be striking and outstanding, and it is.
For reasons cited by other writers this movie can be watched over and over again and still enjoyed, if you're indulgent of old movie conventions, as I am. It is genuinely, unabashedly and charmingly corny.
Here we seem to have the best take on Charlie Chan (as interpreted by Oland); others have come close, but this one nails it. Of course many of us wonder what it would be like to see the lost Chans from before 1935, and how they would stack up.
The key is that, although Director Humberstone plays the story essentially straight, there is also an intangible element of tongue-in-cheek fun, as if he's sending up the mystery/horror movie conventions a little bit even while he's carefully using them. The use of Karloff is obviously and completely iconic. Humberstone is especially good at getting revealing reaction shots. There's one great example near the beginning, where one of the performers, Madame Borelli (Nedda Harrigan) discovers Gravelle (Karloff) in her dressing room, and instead of screaming for help, slyly hisses, "I thought you were dead"; we can see the wheels turning within her predatory mind. To what end? You'll find out. The looks Madame Rochelle casts when suddenly confronted by Gravelle on stage are priceless, capping off an extraordinary cinematic moment.
One writer said they wished to hear Oscar Levant's opera, "Carnival" in its entirety. I doubt such a work exists. My guess is that it was written as a fragment, as the excerpts we see in the picture make little sense except to set up and advance the plot.
According to my sources, there seems to be a slight disagreement on the singing in this movie. Denis Gifford's Karloff bio says that Karloff did his own singing (and he could have; he was a fair baritone and sang in the Dulwich College chorus). Oscar Levant's autobiography claims that Karloff was dubbed. Oscar Levant, however, seems to have been writing from an unreliable memory, as he gets other details wrong including the movie synopsis. There are three singing voices heard in the movie: soprano, tenor, and baritone. The tenor was never seen, but was heard onstage while Chan and Number One Son were backstage. Both actresses playing sopranos were synching to the same recording. Karloff may also have been synching to a recording, but it could well have been his own, both for the reason given above and because Levant's opera was written for the movie--no previous recordings existed at the time, and why would the studio have spent extra money on a second singer for a B-budget film when they already had someone on the film who could handle the baritone singing? (Even the Faust costume worn by both baritones onstage was secondhand--it was first worn by Lawrence Tibbett in "Metropolitan", filmed earlier in 1936!)
This was my first-ever look at Charlie Chan. It wasn't one of his
better adventures but I've seen worse, too. It sports a famous guest
actor, Boris Karloff, and a semi-famous, if you will, actor in William
Demarest plays a cop and his lingo and his prejudices are very early '30s. He couldn't say those lines (cracks about Asians) on film in this day-and-age.
The usual witty and profound Chan proverbs are in here and the usual loyal son (Keye Luke, number one son) is there to help. The ending left me a bit confused. Granted, I was tired when I watched this but Charlie's last-minute explanation and conclusions came so fast they confused me. I'd have to see this at least one more time to understand it. I think this is coming out on DVD soon and I'll get that and watch it again.
I'll always have a fond memory for this since it introduced me to this extremely entertaining film series. I've seen around 20 of them since this one and enjoyed them all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The beginning credits of "Charlie Chan at the Opera" casts Warner Oland
vs Boris Karloff, though Chan's investigation ultimately causes him to
protect Karloff's character, the insane opera singer Gravelle. With a
sufficiently mysterious and atmospheric opening scene, Gravelle is
introduced as a resident of the Rockland State Sanitarium, where he has
been living as an amnesiac for the past seven years. When a newspaper
brought by an attendant features his former wife Lilli Rochelle
(Margaret Irving) on the front page, Gravelle's memories slowly begin
to surface, and he embarks on a desperate journey to recover a past
that included an unsuccessful attempt on his life.
The 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films are notable for their strong continuity from film to film. Note that when Chan first appears on the scene in the office of Police Inspector Regan (Guy Usher), Regan compliments him on how he solved his most recent case with only a minor clue. This occurred in "Charlie Chan at the Race Track", the film immediately prior to "Opera" - "Small thing sometimes tell large story." Unfortunately, another element from the Chan films is glaringly apparent here as well, as Police Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is given the racist chore of denigrating Orientals - "Where's Regan and his pal Egg Foo Yung?"
Be alert for an error that got past the film's producers while still at Inspector Regan's office. As Chan examines Gravelle's newspaper recovered from the Sanitarium, he comments on the presence of a footprint that the suspect must have left as a clue prior to tearing it up in a rage. However if you rewind to the earlier scene, the torn paper hits the floor with not a mark on it!
"You Will Die Tonight" is the message on a floral greeting card that brings Lilli Rochelle to the Inspector's office, along with her lover, baritone singer Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). Chan's first step in the investigation brings him to the floral shop that sold the arrangement, where we are introduced to Number #1 Son Lee (Keye Luke) who joins his "Pop" on the case. Lee spends most of his time in the film disguised in theater garb as a costumed soldier, providing the comic relief as he thwarts Detective Kelly's feeble attempts to uncover his identity.
It turns out that Gravelle seeks revenge for being locked in a burning theater many years ago, the victim of Madame Lilli and her lover Borelli. When both in turn wind up dead in the theater during performances of the opera "Carnival", Gravelle becomes the most likely of suspects. But as in all Charlie Chan films, the obvious suspect is never the real culprit. In this case, it's Madame Borelli herself who uses the presence of a maniac as a cover to dispatch her cheating husband and lover, given away by the blood stained sash that Charlie recovers as a final clue.
"Charlie Chan at the Opera" is regarded as one of the best, if not THE best of the Chan series; it's on my top five list as well. In addition to the compelling and well laid out mystery, there's also the presence of the decidedly sinister Boris Karloff. The best line of the film occurs following the ruckus in the theater caused by the first Gravelle sighting. In a nod of respect to Karloff's most famous film role, the stage manager utters - "This opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!"
Generally considered the best in this series, and I would agree that
it's up there somewhere. Boris Karloff (the screen credits read:
"Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff" -- cute!) is a mental patient with
amnesia who escapes the sanitarium when he remembers that he was
formerly an opera singer who was once locked in his dressing room
during a fire and left for dead. He then returns to the opera house to
sing again and settle a score, with the famous Charlie Chan on the
A brisk and enjoyable installment, playing up big Karloff's infamous reputation as a bogeyman, yet I have to say he sometimes comes off as humorous while mouthing the words to the dubbed opera vocals. Though his contemporary rival, Bela Lugosi, is often slammed for overacting, Boris is no slouch himself in this department here, over-expressing and hamming it up all over the place. Charlie's number one son Lee (Keye Luke) is somewhat underused this time, for some reason. In his place seems to be William Demarest, who is entertaining in this movie, running around as a frazzled American cop also struggling to solve the case and keep up with master detective Chan (Demarest does his own stunts which includes one really impressive comedic fall). With Demarest's occasional quips toward competitor Chan, it felt like this particular entry was more heavy on the "Asian stereotype charge" than usual. But in the end, it's still Charlie Chan who remains most respectable and more brilliant than everyone else. *** out of ****
Of all the mystery detectives who made their mark on the big screen, the most easily recognizable was Charlie Chan. Originally created by Earl Derr Biggers, he went on to star in some thirty or forty episodes, Although Warner Oland appears in this film " Charlie Chan, at the Opera " this would become his last as Sidney Tolar would later replace him. Director H. Bruce Humberstone makes much of the great talent he assembles when the late great Boris Karloff plays Gravelle. Keye Luke from 'Kung Fu' fame plays Charlie Chan's son. The story has Karloff playing a dark sinister character who seems quite mad. Escaping from an Insane asylum Gravelle promises to get revenge of the individual who tried to kill him in a fire. Besides the magnificent operatic voices, there is dark drama and intrigue in the film as the audience enjoys Karloff at his best as he matches wits with the great Honnlulu detective when murder and mayhem visit the Opera House. William Demarest makes for an appearance as a police officer. All in all, this is but one of the many movies, which intrigues audiences in the 30 and 40's. Recommended. ****
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