Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

“Sometimes black magic very close relative to blackmail.”

Detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) and his eager son (Sen Yung) investigate the sudden death of a writer (Louis Jean Heydt) who has received a mysterious telegram from the famed hypnotist “Dr. Zodiac”.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Asian-Americans
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Magicians
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Murder Mystery

It’s impossible to discuss 20th Century Fox’s popular “Charlie Chan” film series (based on the set of novels by Earl Derr Biggers) without noting the sad truth that in early Hollywood, the famed Chinese detective was never played by a Chinese man. Despite his best efforts, it’s difficult to forget that Sidney Toler (the second non-Asian to play the detective) is simply a white man in pseudo-Asian makeup, speaking in stereotypical pidgin English; this lessens the appeal of the movie enormously. With that said, the story itself is mildly entertaining, with multiple plausible suspects and some enjoyable back-stage glimpses at magic shows; and, since this is widely considered to be the best of the Sidney Toler series, it’s a good one to check out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effectively atmospheric imagery and cinematography

  • Sen Yung as Chan’s son — not a great performance, but it’s so refreshing to see an Asian (rather than a white) playing an Asian that he emerges as one of the highlights of the film

Must See?
Yes, but only as a representative example of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan series; it’s likely that another might suffice.


  • Representative Film


One thought on “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

  1. First viewing. Rather in agreement with the review – except that I don’t think this is must-see.

    Until recently seeing one other – ‘Charlie Chan at the Opera’ – I only knew of this series and had never followed it. I suppose because I sensed something formulaic playing out in films that followed the original. Having now seen a few, this does seem very much the case. Those who like nicely produced, reasonably engaging whodunits may find diversion here. But I find it lackluster from the get-go. Toler now standing in for Warner Oland doesn’t help. Oland may not have been Asian, but he is better at making us believe he could be. On the other hand, Toler’s performance is simply unfortunate and very distracting at all times.

    I’m not sure how many times Sen Yung was called on to play the somewhat feeble role of Chan’s son (at least several are listed at IMDb) but, it’s true – from watching him here, you would think he is not much of an actor. In actuality, the fault lies more in what he is being asked to play. One year later, in Wyler’s ‘The Letter’, the actor reveals he has considerable talent indeed.

    I find this mystery’s conclusion unsatisfying and was left with a kind of ‘So what?’ feeling.

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