CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA(director: H. Bruce Humberstone; screenwriters: from a story by Bess Meredyth/Charles S. Belden/Earl Derr Biggers/Scott W. Darling/ William Kernell; cinematographer: Lucien Andriot; editor: Alex Troffey; cast:Warner Oland (Charlie Chan), Boris Karloff (Gravelle), Keye Luke (number one son of Chan), Gregory Gaye (Enrico Borelli), Nedda Harrigan (Mme. Lucretia Borelli ),William Demarest (Sgt. Kelly), Charlotte Henry (Kitty), Thomas Beck (Phil Childers), Margaret Irving (Mme. Lilli Rochelle), Guy Usher (Inspector Regan), Frank Conroy (Mr. Whitely); Runtime: 68; 20th Century-Fox; 1937)
“The film had a convincing atmosphere, and it had the peerless Boris doing his chilling loony thing with great relish.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Probably the best Charlie Chan that starred the Swedish born Warner Oland in the feature role. He played the Charlie Chan role a total of 15 times (three others played it before he took over the role in 1931), with this film being his 13th performance. After his death in 1938 Sidney Toler (the second best to Oland) took over and was a more than competent replacement, his best Charlie Chan feature arguably being Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939). Chan is based on a real-life Chinese detective named Chang Apana, living in Honolulu, Hawaii, but embellished by the writing efforts of Earl Derr Biggers. Chan’s technique in wrapping up a murder case, was to gather all suspects in one room and have the murderer confess when all the evidence weighed against him or her.
This film is distinguished by Oscar Levant creating an opera called Carnival and William Kernell doing the libretto. It also has a fine cast of character actors, with Boris Karloff playing a former opera baritone named Gravelle who supposedly died in an opera house fire 7 years-ago in Chicago when he was locked in his dressing room. He now has amnesia and is in a loony bin in Los Angeles.
The film features the Confucian-like sayings of wisdom from Charlie and the acidly made retorts from the cops and suspects, in a battle of who can come up with the deadliest one-liner. Charlie is played with a subtle grace and aplomb by Oland, giving the film its life-force.
The film opens as Gravelle is playing the piano when he is interrupted by the mental institution guard who brings him the Los Angeles newspaper. Gravelle becomes upset at seeing a picture of his former wife Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) in the newspaper, announcing that she will appear in the opening of the opera Carnival; and, he angrily stomps his heel down on her picture, indicating his memory has suddenly come back to him. He easily overpowers the guard and escapes.
After unsuccessfully setting up a dragnet for the escaped lunatic the police inspector, Regan (Guy Usher), calls in his old friend Charlie Chan to help as the cynical veteran of the force, Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), makes some wise-cracks about why do we need this “egg foo young” private eye to help us. Soon Lilli appears in the police station with the lead baritone singer of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye), and asks for police protection, after telling them she received flowers backstage with a note that said: You will die tonite. Lilli is followed from the police station by a private detective who works for her husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy), who suspects her of having an affair with Borelli.
To help Charlie out his number one son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke, he played Kato in the Green Hornet), disguises himself as a cast member extra and snoops around the opera house, passing fingerprint clues to his father and creating some daffy comedy with the flustered Sergeant Kelly who is trying to track down the vengeful lunatic spotted in the theater by one of the wardrobe workers.
The plot thickens when a young couple, Kitty (Charlotte Henry) and Childers (Thomas Beck), insist on visiting Lilli but are denied access to her by the ever-vigilant and wrong-headed Sgt. Kelly. Gravelle also visits the dressing room of Lucretia Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), telling her to keep quiet as he intends to replace her baritone husband and sing the lead role in tonight’s opera opening. Being angry with her philandering husband and dismayed with Lilli, she agrees to keep quiet as Gravelle knocks Borelli out and goes on-stage replacing him. This is too much for Lilli, who recognizes her former husband after being certain he was dead and passes out. She is being cared for by her husband who only leaves her for a minute, but when he returns she is knifed to death as was Borelli.
But Charlie Chan uses the power of deduction and good old police work to narrow down the list of suspects to either the lunatic Gravely, the jealous Mr. Whitely, or the embittered soprano, Mrs. Borelli. He eliminates the young couple as suspects when he finds out that she’s the daughter of Gravely and Lilli, and only came to see her mother to get permission to marry because she’s underage. Her mother refuses to acknowledge the child, figuring it might ruin her career.
The film had a convincing atmosphere, and it had the peerless Boris doing his chilling loony thing with great relish. To enjoy it, one must overlook quite a few gaps in the story: such as Boris’ sudden recovery from amnesia, why someone would want to kill him in a fire, and why the police would put out a dragnet for an escaped mental patient who showed no signs of ever being violent. But the film is fun in an old-fashioned way and can be enjoyed for its many pearls of wisdom that come forth, such as Charlie explaining how a madman and a genius are sometimes similar because they both live in a world created by their ego. Now how can you beat that for Hollywood’s Oriental-style of profundity!
REVIEWED ON 10/2/99 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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