Wednesday, March 9, 2011
CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU (1938)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
This entry in the Charlie Chan film series was the first to feature actor Sidney Toler in the role (following the death of predecessor Warner Oland), as well as being the first to feature Victor Sen Yung as the “Number Two son” (following the departure of Keye Luke, the “Number One Son.”) In addition, it’s among the earliest of the films to spotlight Chan’s large Honolulu-based family, which contributes some warm character humor to “expectant grandfather” Chan. Still, the main mystery-plot is routine in all respects save the location, as Chan is forced to ferret out a murderer aboard a passenger vessel. In addition, the film is also of interest for its flirtation with the horror-genre.
The original Chan books by Earl Derr Biggers have a strong sociological mythicity, in that Chan’s ethnicity allows him to take the perspective of the “outsider looking in” at the majority culture in which he moves. A handful of the Chan films touch on this theme, but HONOLULU isn’t one of them, for most of the characters are as routine as the murder-mystery plot.
The only exception is the character of Doctor Cardigan (George Zucco), who seems to be a mad doctor escaped from a horror-film. In his shipboard stateroom Cardigan keeps a living brain kept alive by various Frankenstein-looking apparati, and he not only hints that he may’ve committed the murder but that he may be on some sort of “brain-collecting” fiend. He turns out to be a mere eccentric, which is something of a letdown since Cardigan is one of George Zucco’s strongest performances. In one interview Zucco lamented that he got stuck playing “evil old men,” but here he’s both creepy and amusing as long as one doesn’t yet know whether or not he’s doing a Lugosi. As Chan tries to suss Cardigan out during their first meeting, there’s a good “face off” scene that seems to portend a major clash of good and evil, reminiscent of a similar scene between Oland and Boris Karloff in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA.
However, a mere flirtation with horror-motifs is not enough to propel this mundane mystery into the realm of the uncanny, so its phenomenality remains simply “atypical" in my system.