Thursday, August 16, 2012
THE JADE MASK (1945)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
JADE MASK is an okay Charlie Chan mystery, a little stagey in terms of its direction by Phil Rosen (who helmed the superior BLACK MAGIC Chan-film the year before), The film does prove better than average in terms of the number of pseudo-Confucian bon mots tossed out by the Asiatic sleuth.
Analyzing JADE MASK's phenomenality allows me to address the question: how should one categorize films that use minor conceits of "science fiction," but are clearly not remotely within the marvelous bailiwick of SF? It's one thing to denote as marvelous, say, a war-film that has a death-ray in it, like Q PLANES, but what about the dozens of mysteries that have the characters chasing after some minor scientific "McGuffin," like a process that produces artificial diamonds, or, as in MASK, a formula that can render wood as hard as steel, thus proving of immense value to the then-current "war effort." After some thought I've decided that these represent such minor advancements in fictional science that they should be considered "outre devices" rather than full-fledged marvelous phenomena. Thus in this respect, and in respect to yet another device used by the murderer, MASK qualifies for uncanny phenomenality. The use of that device to commit murder qualifies as an uncanny version of the "bizarre crimes" trope.
The setup for MASK involves the murder of the scientist who conceived the wood-to-steel process; Chan (Sidney Toler) is called to the scientist's mansion due to the detective's vague connections with the American Secret Service. As usual for these type of mysteries, everyone in the victim's household hated him for one reason or another, giving Chan no small supply of suspects. The victim also had a lively interesting in the hobbies of maskmaking (hence the title, though there's no "jade mask" herein) and the use of ventriloquist's dummies. Rosen manages to get a few spooky moments out of the dummies, as well as the scientist's weird laboratory, which at times has an infernal look to it.
As usual, Chan's efforts to solve the mystery are complicated by one of his ambitious offspring trying to imitate-- or possibly, to show up-- Dad's detective activities. This time the offspring is "Eddie Chan," played by one Edwin Luke. Eddie is a conceited college graduate seeking to prove that his criminology studies make him his old pop's superior. This has the effect of making it a little more pleasurable to see Charlie deflate his son with insulting barbs, whereas with more likeable Chan-sons (like Benson Fong, who played "Tommy" against Sidney Toler's Chan), Chan sometimes seemed a little too cruel.
Making his fourth appearance as the comic-relief cab driver/chaffeur Birmingham Brown is the always enjoyable Mantan Moreland, whose character is dragged to the spooky mansion at the insistence of the younger Chan. However, this time Moreland doesn't have any standout gags, perhaps in part because his character and Luke's display little chemistry in the script, thus leaving the actors little to work with.