An ocean liner sinks off Honolulu and Allen Colby, heir to millions, is presumed dead...but local sleuth Charlie Chan is not so sure, and flies to San Francisco to investigate further. Somehow, the missing Colby is there ahead of him...but is knifed in the back before seeing anyone. Further events revolve around spiritualist Mrs. Lowell, her family of suspicious characters, and the spooky, untenanted Colby mansion, where the body turns up during a seance! Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Filmed in 1935 and released in 1936, CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET is the 10th film in the Fox series. It is also a film about which I have changed my opinion over several viewings. I originally felt it was among the weaker Chan films starring Warner Oland; today, however, I would describe it as a truly solid entry.
Several years earlier Alan Colby, heir to a major fortune, disappeared and was presumed dead--and elderly aunt Alice Lowell (Rosina Lawrence) inherited the estate. Now, however, it seems that Colby may be alive, and although his resurrection will cost her the family fortune Mrs. Lowell dutifully enlists Chan to investigate the matter. But with a great fortune at stake, murder cannot be far behind.
Such earlier Chan films as THE BLACK CAMEL and CHARLIE CHAN IN Egypt introduced an occult edge to the Chan films, and CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET plays upon this theme to a degree not previously seen in any other Chan film: Mrs. Lowell is a spiritualist who is given to everything from séances to nightly sessions with the Ouija board, and both elements play into the story in a significant way. Although the plot itself is nonsense, the "spooky" elements fill the holes, and the cast--most particularly Rosina Lawrence as Mrs. Lowell and Herbert Mundin as the bumbling butler Baxter--deliver solid and quite often charming performances.
Chan films are often accused of being racist, and critics often complain that the actors playing Chan wore "yellowface" make up. The films, however, must be seen within the context of their era. In the 1930s, Hollywood presented most Asian characters as either servile or as Fu Manchu-like entities; Chan was actually just about the only positive Asian character going, and as such the films were tremendously popular with Asian-American audiences of the era.
True enough, Chan is inevitably played by an occidental actor, but this was typical of the era, in which star status was considered more important than racial accuracy. Whatever the case, neither Warner Oland or the later Sidney Toler wore significant make-up for the role, and Oland--although a Swede by birth--actually had a strong strain of Asian ancestry in his family tree. But most significantly, while Chan often allows his suspects to dismiss him through their own prejudices, as a character he is always presented in a positive light--and this is particularly true of CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET, in which Chan is the only Asian character in the film.
While I would not rank it along such knock-out Chan films as CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA or CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND, CHARLIE CHAN'S SECRET grows upon you with each viewing. As noted the plot is weak, but the film is long on charm. It is also one of the few Chan films available to the home market. Most Chan fans should enjoy it.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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