Charlie Chan investigates the theft of government radar papers (the laboratory is located in the same building as a radio station!) with the help of Number Three Son Tommy and comic sidekick Birmingham Brown. Written by
Marty McKee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Loosely based on novels by Earl Derr Biggers, 20th Century Fox's Charlie Chan series proved an audience favorite--but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the studio feared audiences would turn against its Asian hero. This was a miscalculation: actor Sidney Toler took the role to "poverty row" Monogram Studios, where he continued to portray the character in eleven more popular films made between 1944 and his death in 1947.
20th Century Fox regarded the Chan films as inexpensive "B" movies, but even so the studio took considerable care with them: the plots were often silly, but the pace was sharp, the dialogue witty, and the casts (which featured the likes of Bela Lugosi and Ray Milland) always expert. The result was a kindly charm which has stood the test of time. Monogram was a different matter: Chan films were "B" movies plain and simple. Little care was taken with scripts or cast and resulting films were flat, mediocre at best, virtually unwatchable at worst.
Released in 1945, THE SCARLET CLUE is neither the best nor worst of the Monogram Chan films, certainly better than such dreadful entries as THE TRAP but a far cry from its 20th Century Fox counterparts. At the same time, however, the film has a certain interest due to its setting: a broadcast company. It would be a mistake to look to any Chan film for factual information, but the film does remind us--and quite effectively so--of that moment in time when radio still dominated even as television (which is repeated mentioned) began to make inroads with the public.
The story, such as it is, finds Chan (Toler) acting as a federal agent who is investing a murder involving radar secrets. When a stolen car leads him to a radio actress he soon finds himself in the middle of the broadcast company itself, where murderous communications are issued via teletype and elevators become instruments of death. It's all very flyweight stuff, but the details make the film watchable--as does the occasional actor, with Mantan Moreland a case in point.
In today's world the type of roles assigned to Moreland would be thought racist, but taken within the context of what was possible for an African-American actor at the time they remain remarkably charming. To it's credit, Monogram recognized Moreland's appeal, and always took care to give his name highly-placed credit in the cast lists. THE SCARLET CLUE is particularly interesting because it also allows us to see Moreland perform a few bits of his "interrupted talk" stage routine, performed here with Ben Carter--a bit of comedy that is every bit as clever as any thing you might find in Abbot and Costello's best work of the same period.
When all is said and done, THE SCARLET CLUE is indeed watchable, but it really is best left to hardcore Chan fans. Newcomers would do better to begin with the 20th Century Fox films, which are now at last becoming available on DVD.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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