Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

“Small things sometimes tell large story.”

Charlie Chan Opera Poster

Synopsis:
When a delusional amnesiac (Boris Karloff) escapes from a sanitarium in search of an opera singer (Margaret Irving), Chinese detective Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) and his “number one son” (Keye Luke) are on the case.

Genres:

Review:
As I wrote in my review of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939), it’s a shame that Hollywood primarily cast white actors in the central role of this popular and long-running detective series (though it should be noted that Asian actors were originally tried, without box office success). Swedish actor Warner Oland was the original “white” Chan, appearing in no less than 16 films in the series before his untimely death from pneumonia in 1938. While Oland does a fine job, it’s much more refreshing (from an historical perspective) to see Chinese-American Keye Luke playing his Number One Son — and the presence of Boris Karloff in a meaty supporting role as a delusional former opera singer will surely be a delight for film fanatics. The story itself (about murder and jealousy among opera singers) is reasonably enjoyable, making good use of just a couple of settings — primarily an opera house during opening night of a new opera (written by Oscar Levant!). You’re sure to be kept guessing about the outcome, and will likely find yourself innocently entertained throughout.

Note: While it’s frustrating to see Chinese Americans portrayed in the Chan series as either benevolent or stereotypically eager-beaver, Charlie Chan and his son are at least a welcome alternative to the “yellow peril” posited in the notorious character of Fu Manchu; in addition, the screenwriters do a nice job presenting William Demarest’s skeptical, racist detective as a clueless dolt.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as Gravelle
    Charlie Chan Opera Boris Karloff
  • Keye Luke as Lee Chan
    Charlie Chan Opera Keye Luke
  • An innocuously fun yet challenging murder mystery
    Charlie Chan Opera Mystery

Must See?
Yes, simply to see the best of Oland’s Chan films.

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One Response to “Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must.

    I’ve always known about this series of Charlie Chan films but had never seen one til now. I didn’t realize just how many there were in this long series, but the length of it doesn’t help my enthusiasm about it – it starts coming off like the life of a tv show rather than a series of films. …like ‘Perry Mason’ or something. ~which is maybe not so bad for tv fanatics, but less of a treat for film fanatics (imo).

    In terms of this particular ‘film’…I find it slow, ponderous and talky, lacking in a suitable element of suspense or tension. As a kind of ‘show and tell’ cop story, it’s more tell than show in that sense. The story is actually at its best (and most tense) when we see sections of Levant’s opera!

    Of the cast, Oland does stand out – but, even in his case, the poor actor is saddled with a character written as one-note, a handicap which needs to be fought against.

    I started falling asleep three times when I watched this – and I wasn’t all that tired. But I now have a better appreciation of the Chan character that Peter Sellers plays in Neil Simon’s ‘Murder by Death’. 😉

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