Warner Oland’s second appearance as Charlie Chan, “The Black Camel,” is the earliest extant Chan film in which Oland played the detective. (Oland played film versions of five of the six novels by Earl Derr Biggers; unfortunately, this is the only one of these to survive. However, Oland continued as Chan in a number of films that were based on original stories.)
The series maintained excellent production and story values, and Oland became the favorite actor of many fans (myself included) to portray the Great Detective.
“The Black Camel” was faithful to the novel by Biggers and is satisfying to watch. The scenario is that actors came to Hawaii to film a movie. (In the book, they filmed in Tahiti, then stopped in Hawaii for a week of rest and relaxation on their way back to Hollywood.) Famous actress Shelah Fane is murdered, and Chan investigates.
A mystic named Tarnaverro, played by Bela Lugosi, had come to Hawaii from the mainland to counsel Ms. Fane, and becomes one of a number of suspects in her murder. Chan addresses the suspects as a group:
Chan: “You may go. But you cannot leave island without permission of police. You are all under unhappy suspicion.”
Man: “What rot. We can’t all be guilty. Your theory is full of holes. It won’t hold water.”
Chan: “Sponge is full of holes. Sponge hold water.”
Chan’s inept assistant Kashimo provides some comic relief. Kashimo had appeared in the book but Biggers used him only in The Black Camel. Kashimo often bungles and impedes the investigation. Eventually, Chan tells Kashimo, “Do me a favor. . . . Spend more time looking for nothing to do.”
More comic relief comes from Chan’s interaction with his children. When his son brings his report card, the following exchange takes place:
Chan: “Teacher say you are always at bottom of class. Can’t you find some other place?”
Son: “No, Pop. All other places are taken.”
Chan: “That is no excuse.”
Son: “Ah, baloney.”
At dinner, the children ask Chan how the investigation is going:
Chan: “I have told you all before I do not know.”
Daughter: “Aw, that’s a lot of Applesauce. Come on, Pop. Spill the beans.”
Chan: “Baloney, Applesauce, Beans. One would think you all took lessons in grocery store instead of at school.”
“The Black Camel” is well worth watching and we are fortunate that it is accessible to us. The film that precedes it—“Charlie Chan Carries On”—and the three films that follow it (“Charlie Chan’s Chance,” “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case,” and “Charlie Chan’s Courage”) were all based on Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers and are lost. However, the scripts for these are accessible at the Charlie Chan Family website.
Based on the third Charlie Chan novel, Behind That Curtain. "Charlie Chan's Chance" is the second film version.
While the first version is faithful to the story itself, this version was faithful to the structure of the book; however, names of principal characters were changed. I don’t know why Eve Durand became Shirley Marlowe in the film, Colonel John Beetham became John R. Douglas, or Eric Durand became Alan Raleigh.
Other names, including Li Gung, Barry Kirk, and Gloria Garland, were retained intact from the book.
Charlie’s involvement and participation in the investigation follows the novel more closely than in the earlier film version, which focused on the backstory, and Charlie entered very late in that film version. That film is faithful to the story and I like it. This version, however, has Chan participating in the investigation throughout as he had in the book.
In the novel, Chan has booked passage on a boat so he can return from San Francisco to Honolulu in time to see his eleventh child born. But a murder case conflicts with his plans and he stays to aid the investigation. The movie handles it as follows:
Fife: Charlie, I’m going to make an important inquiry.
Fife: You’ve solved some extraordinary cases. I wish I could make you stay and help me.
Chan: You forget, there’s new baby in our family in Honolulu.
Fife: No, I don’t. It’s a boy, isn’t it?
Chan: Oh, yes, a boy. Most fortunate. Out of eleven opportunities, I’ve been unfortunate three times.
Fife: That’s splendid.
Chan: Well, I must send cable. Baby will have to wait a while to see old papa.
Fife: You mean you’ll stay, Charlie?
Chan: When friend asks, friend gives.
Fife: That’s splendid. Thank you, Charlie.
There is also a delightful scene taken from the book that wasn’t included in the earlier film. Leading up to this scene, Charlie has gotten a lead and wants to interview Li Gung, who lives in Chinatown. Charlie has trouble gaining entrance to the apartment building because he is unknown by the occupants.
So Chan feigns spraining his ankle. A young boy in a Boy Scout uniform helps Charlie get into the building, where Chan is able to interview his contact; meanwhile, the boy scout fetches a doctor.
When the doctor arrives, Chan has interviewed his contact and gotten the information he seeks. But now the doctor examines Chan’s ankle and blurts out, “There’s nothing wrong with this ankle!”
Charlie’s cover is blown and he apologizes and tries to explain what he was about. This scene alone would be worth the price of admission for me!
The book and the first movie version were set in San Francisco. This movie changed the location to New York. While I don’t understand the reason for these subtle changes during a time when Earl Derr Biggers stipulated that the films follow his writing, each film has its merits.
I wish this lost film was available, but we are lucky to have the screenplay. And we are fortunate, indeed, to have as many Charlie Chan movies accessible as we do.
Based on The House Without a Key, which was the first Charlie Chan novel, “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case” is faithful to the book. Since this film is lost, it is a great pleasure to read the screenplay.
Of the six Charlie Chan films that are currently lost, “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case,” “Charlie Chan’s Courage,” and “Charlie Chan Carries On” are films that I very much hope will be discovered and made accessible in my lifetime!
Some scenes continue to develop the theme of earlier films (and the books), which show Chan’s relationship with his family, and carry forward dialogue that illustrates the “generation gap.”
Chan: Herbert, soup is food, not musical instrument.
Herbert: Well, how about that saxophone you promised me?
Chan: Of both prefer musical soup.
Herbert: Okay, Pop!
[Chan rises. The whole family stands up respectfully. Chan turns to the son on his right.]
Chan: You have carefully gone over instructions?
Oswald: Oh, everything’s Jake.
Chan: [puzzled] Jake?
Chan: [Enlightened] Oh—okay.
[During this, Mrs. Chan has left the room. She now re-enters, bringing Chan his hat.]
Mrs. Chan: Will you be home early?
Chan: Cannot tell.
Mrs. Chan: I wish good luck.
Chan: Luck and help of inscrutable Fates, extremely necessary. Tonight decide future. Tomorrow big detective or lowly laundry man.
Later, when Chan’s sons help him catch a person of interest, Oswald says, “Okay, Pop.”
Chan replies, “Extremely Jake. Thank you so much.”
“Charlie Chan’s Courage” (1934)—based on The Chinese Parrot (the second Charlie Chan novel)—is lost. But by our very good fortune to have the screenplay is accessible to us. I happen to like this screenplay more than I enjoy the novel.
In my opinion, The Chinese Parrot is the weakest of the Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers had a knack for making implausible situations and scenarios plausible enough for us fans to suspend our disbelief. This book, however, dragged a bit, especially in the beginning.
Although I like the story and its concepts very much, the book took a while for me to get into. This screenplay, however, is way more succinct and quick moving. And it is very faithful to the book, which is, personally, my highest criterion in judging an adaptation of a book to the screen.
Up to this time, all of the films had been based on the writings of Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers published his final novel—Keeper of the Keys—and suffered a heart attack and died. Keeper of the Keys never made it to the screen (although, as we’ll see later in these articles, there was a stage production and, later, a dramatic series on radio of thirty-nine episodes). These will be discussed in future articles on this website.
For more information about Charlie Chan, click on the links below to read articles.
The Novels by Earl Derr Biggers:
Charlie Chan Movies
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