Thursday, August 28, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


I've reviewed a smattering of Charlie Chan films, which generally tend toward the naturalistic but sometimes include uncanny tropes as well. In contrast, Chan's greatest competitor in Hollywood films-- the "Mister Moto" series from 20th-Century Fox-- would seem to be entirely naturalistic in attitude.

MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE is one of the best of the eight Fox mysteries, all featuring the redoubtable Peter Lorre as the Japanese agent whose interests usually coincide with those of his Western allies from America and Europe. The movie packs a lot of characters and situations into its tight 63 minutes. Aviatrix Victoria crashlands in French Indochina, near the village of Tong Moi. Moto is already there, posing an archaeologist studying ancient ruins, and so are two American movie-makers, a portly rajah who gets a yen for Victoria, and Bokor, the local medicine man-- whose name is apparently swiped from the Haitian word for "evil sorcerer."

The complicated shenanigans end up being about guns being smuggled to Indochinese rebels. In the real world, I would have thought that a Japanese spy would have been trying to help the Indochinese kick out the French, in order to further Japan's mission for the "Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere." Nevertheless, Moto is working to support colonialism here, and in keeping with this ideology, the only authorities one sees are the corrupt Rajah and the superstitious Bokor. Asian culture as a whole isn't given a bad name here, though the trope of "exotic lands and customs" remains at the level of the naturalistic.

Moto, already undercover as an archaeologist, assumes a new identity as "Guruji," a wandering Buddhist monk. He appears in time to save the Americans from Bokor's wrath. This scene includes a naturalistic version of the "enthralling illusionism" trope, in that Moto proves his monkish powers to the natives by first charming a snake and then appearing to resist the heat of a burning brand pressed to his skin. The film doesn't explain how Moto performs these feats of illusionism, but they are conveyed to the viewer as being entirely naturalistic, as opposed, say, to the use of hypnotism and stage magic in the Charlie Chan film BLACK MAGIC.

On a side-note, heroine Victoria, as played by Rochelle Hudson, is a little more gutsy than many mystery-heroines. The character here turns out to be a spy (big surprise), and by coincidence the real-life actress apparently participated in some level of civilian espionage, as well.

DANGER ISLAND, one of the last three Moto films released in 1939, is a rather weak-by-comparison story of the spy-detective investigating diamond smuggling in Puerto Rico. Ordinary the "exotic lands" trope wouldn't be worth noting for this type of mundane mystery. However, there is a brief reference to certain local swamps being "haunted," and a moment in which the director shows the swampland looking "spooky." However, this never registers as anything but a vagrant impression. The scene is roughly the equivalent of those scenes in Charlie Chan films in which the comedy-relief characters would blunder into wax-museums or carnival "haunted house" attractions.

The best thing about DANGER ISLAND is its own comedy relief. Wrestler Twister McGurk (Warren Hymer) takes a liking to Moto after the agent continually bests McGurk with judo moves. The sight of the clueless American towering over, yet following in the wake of, the diminutive yet subtle "Asian" is the highlight of this routine entry. 

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