Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Monday: Charlie Chan at the Olympics

This week's Movie Monday selection is 1937's Charlie Chan at the Olympics!

With the dust barely settled on the London Olympics, I thought it would be fun to spend at least one Movie Monday focused on a Olympic-centric movie. Strangely enough, the list of films with the Olympics as any sort of back drop is fairly thin, the most famous of which is probably 1981's Chariots of Fire. But that film won the 1982 Best Picture Oscar, so where's the fun in watching that?

So I decided to go down the prestige ladder a couple of rungs, to the somewhat-less-respected but hopefully-more-fun Charlie Chan programmer, Charlie Chan at the Olympics. Let's see who gets murdered, and if a javelin has anything to do with it!
This was either the fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth (various websites have conflicting info) time the Swedish Oland played Chan, so by this point making these movies must have either been a tedious chore or an effortless glide for the actor. But this particular installment is a little different, for various reasons, which we'll get to in a moment.
A plane carrying a device that allows it to be remote controlled goes down when the pilot is killed by a stowaway. Legendary detective Charlie Chan gets involved int he case when he and his son, Charlie Chan Jr. (Lane Tom Jr.), discover the crashed aircraft while on their way to go fishing.
Strangely, both the bodies of the pilot and the pilot's murderer are found--but the remote control device is missing! Chan determines that the best place to sell the device--to any number or foreign governments who might want it--is Berlin, which is currently playing host to the 1936 Olympics!

Chan, Hopkins (the plane's owner, played by Jonathan Hale), and Cartwright (the inventor of the device, played by John Eldredge) try to get to Berlin before the thief. They first take the Hindenburg (which blew up a mere two weeks before this film was released), and then the ocean liner Manhattan, which is also carrying members of the U.S. Olympic team, including Chan's son Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who is on the swimming team. Also on board are enough suspects to choke Agatha Christie.
Lee Chan is buddies with Betty Adams (the adorable Pauline Moore), who is suspicious of another woman making time with her boyfriend, Olympic pole vaulter Dick Masters (Allan Lane). Lee Chan agrees to keep an eye on them, acting as a detective in his own right.

We get a brief shot of the real-life Olympic stadium as Chan and the others see it from another blimp:
Chan realizes the device has been smuggled into Berlin via Betty's luggage, and swaps it for a book. Double-and-triple-crosses occur, fingers of suspicion are pointed all around, Lee Chan is kidnapped, and there's a fairly clever sequence involving one of the bad guys reading Charlie Chan's lips via binoculars:
It's this sequence, inside the stadium, where we get to see real footage of the Olympics, including one race featuring the legendary Jesse Owens, an African-American whose repeated gold medal wins showed up Hitler right in his own backyard:
Chan is taken to the mansion another man involved in the crime, along with the device (actually a copy containing a secret radio transmitter). It looks like Chan and His Number One Son are gonna get it, when the Berlin Police arrive. Shots are fired, and Chan reveals the murderer, tying everything together in a nice little bow.

The film ends with Lee Chan's swim meet, which he wins. After leaving the pool, he greets his father, who brought along the paddle he used to use to train the boy growing up:

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is diverting enough for a "B" programmer, but sadly its not much of a travelogue for the 1936 Olympics. Oher than some very brief footage, the movie doesn't actually get to the games until about 45 minutes in--and since the film is only 71 minutes total, that doesn't leave much time to sight-see, especially when is has to spend so much time unraveling the over-complicated plot.

A few years ago, I read a book about the honorable detective (simply called Charlie Chan), about how the character was created and how he is perceived in Asian culture nowadays. Sure, the constant fortune cookie aphorisms ("Truth, like football--receive many kicks before reaching goal")
are fairly embarrassing to our modern sensibilities, but there are a refreshing lack of stereotyped gags in this movie--Charlie Chan is considered a brilliant detective, a figure of respect, and his son is clearly just as much a member of the American Olympic squad as his white teammates. And, unlike the roles offered to African-American actors at the time, Chan and his son are the stars of this movie.

I've only seen one or two other Charlie Chan movies, so I can't say with any authority how this stacks up against the others in the series. It is amazing to see the movie manage to weave in two huge historic moments--the Hindenburg and the 1936 Olympics--even if the filmmakers didn't know what they had when they filmed it. As the Honorable Detective might say, "Movie camera like human eye--you never know what you're going to see!"

1 comment:

Christopher Mills said...

I'm a big Chan fan, and while this isn't the best of the series, it's a fun entry.

I was surprised that you didn't note how the filmmakers blotted out all the swastikas in the stock footage...

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