Charlie Chan at the Olympics
This may be the most historically awkward movie I’ve ever seen.
It may be the most historically awkward movie there is. It’s Charlie Chan at The Olympics. Setting aside any debate on racism inherent to the entire Warner Oland / Charlie Chan series, this film merits that title. With plenty of amazing occurrences that, while innocuous enough when the film was produced, would require the film to be pulled from distribution within a couple years.
The first hint that things are going to be awkward is that the Olympics in question are, of course, the 1936 Berlin games. The film actually incorporates a large amount of footage from the games. Because of it’s setting the film has Chan and his Hawaiian police colleagues working closely with the friendly, helpful, Berlin police. Again this is set in 1936, so, you know, those helpful, friendly were, well, Nazis. Nazis who at one point are entrusted with guarding the crucial piece of defense technology that serves as the Macguffin. Of course, this Macguffin is, stolen early in the film, via a treacherous attack at a military installation. Because the filmmakers were making a Charlie Chan movie here, it had to be a military installation near his home base of Honalulu, so of course… Pearl Harbor. Now I know you’re thinking, “wow, Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany all tied together in one movie from the late 1930’s”. It gets worse. Want to know how Chan and his associates get from Hawaii to Germany? Well, they take a couple flights to the US East coast, and then board a Zeppelin. But not just any Zeppelin. Nope, the film decides to be very specific on this point. They travel to Lakehurst, New Jeresey, and travel via The Hindenburg. It’s as if this film were cursed. Here’s a real reflection on how our society has changed. This film was released on May 21, 1937. That is, this film, featuring characters traveling on the Hindenburg from Lakehurst, NJ, that is, it was released less than two weeks after the actual Hindenburg went up in a ball of fire, claiming 35 lives, in Lakehurst, NJ. This was one of the first great disasters recorded live, with news quickly disseminated around the world. Yet this film still was released. That would never happen today.
I’ll admit I spent most of the rest of the film just shaking my head at the way history can turn things around. As for the actual quality of the film. There’s an interesting and almost compelling mystery and the film spends a gread deal of effort to capture the spirit of the Olympic games. (In addition to Charlie Chan’s case taking him to Berlin during the games, his “number-one” son Lee (Keye Luke) is a member of the US Olympic swimming team, and through him we meet several other Olympians.) However, this movie was made in an era when 20th Century Fox was churning out around 6 Charlie Chan movies every year, so there’s clearly not the highest degree of quality. In a lot of ways it’s more like a TV procedural than a full-fledged film. It’s not a bad movie, not on it’s merits, but it’s not really worth seeing.