DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Charlie Chan Collection - Volume 1

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Michael Osadciw, Jun 24, 2006.

  1. Michael Osadciw

    Michael Osadciw Screenwriter

    Jun 24, 2003
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    Michael Osadciw

    VOLUME 1

    Studio: 20th Century Fox
    Film Year: 1934 & 1935
    Film Length: 293 minutes
    Genre: Mystery

    Aspect Ratio:

    Colour/B&W: Black & White

    English [​IMG] [​IMG] 2.0 mono

    Subtitles: Spanish
    Film Rating: [​IMG]

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Release Date: June 20, 2006.

    Set Rating: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] / [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Starring Warner Oland as Charlie Chan!

    ”Cannot see contents of nut until shell is cracked.”

    -Charlie Chan, Charlie Chan in Paris

    Guest Steve Owens writes: When Earl Derr Biggers published A House Without a Key as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post in 1925, he intended it to be a one-off story inspired by a real life Honolulu policeman he had read about a year earlier. He had no way of knowing that fan reaction would be so positive that he would pen five additional stories and that he character would be featured in 47 films, a television series, comic books, and even a cartoon series.

    Biggers initially got the idea for a mystery story set in Honolulu when he vacationed there in 1919. When he read about Chang Apana in 1924, he connected the two and wrote A House Without a Key. Hollywood also liked his stories and two silent films, now missing, were made by Pathe and Universal. Cecil B. DeMille offered Biggers $25,000 for the rights for a third story, but Biggers ultimately sold the rights to Fox which made Behind That Curtain in 1929.

    Chan’s character was nothing more than a cameo in that film and it wasn’t until 1931 when Warner Oland was cast as Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On that the series became popular with the public. Although not treated to the lavish budgets of Fox’s prestige pictures, the earliest Chan films were still considered “A” pictures and featured good production values. Warner Oland was paid the princely sum of $12,500 per picture for most of his films.

    Unfortunately four of the first five Oland Chan films are missing and are awaiting rediscovery. The second Oland Chan film, The Black Camel is not included in this set because Warner Home Video has the North American and Canadian rights. Oland played Chan a total of 16 times before passing away in 1938. Sidney Toler was chosen to succeed him and appeared in 11 Fox films before the series moved to Monogram for the final 17 films of the series.

    The four films of this collection are a quadrilogy of sorts, tracing Charlie Chan as he goes on his world tour from London to Paris to Egypt to Shanghai. All are entertaining mysteries and it is interesting to watch the progression of Oland’s characterization through these films.

    Charlie Chan in London is notable for being the first Chan movie based on an original story and features fine performances from Ray Milland, Alan Mowbray, and E.E. Clive as the dimmest cop this side of Inspector Lestrade.

    Charlie Chan in Paris was missing for decades and only came back into general circulation in the 1980s. It features the first appearance of Keye Luke as #1 son Lee. The onscreen chemistry between Oland and Luke is often cited as one of the reasons for the series’ popularity.

    Charlie Chan in Egypt is considered one of the best and most atmospheric of the Chan films. Rita Hayworth has a minor role under real name of Rita Cansino. Keye Luke does not appear so sidekick duties are provided by Stepin Fetchit. There is a school of thought that the studio was considering replacing Luke with Fetchit. Fortunately (in my opinion) this did not happen.

    Charlie Chan in Shanghai features another pre-stardom actor using their real name: Jon Hall was known as Charles Locher at this time. This is also the film with the memorable scene of Oland singing “Princess Ming Lo Fu” to a group of children.

    As the Fox series progressed the budgets eventually got smaller, but the high quality of writing and a steady diet of strong supporting cast members (Boris Karloff, Cesar Romero, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, and Marc Lawrence to name a few) kept the series going until 1942 when Monogram took over. Television airings from the 1950s through the 1990s kept the series alive for new generations. Now, with this DVD set, these films will be available for future generations as well.


    HTF DVD Reviewer Mike Osadciw comments: Now before you all bite my head off, let me explain the reasoning behind my star ratings. These ratings are determined by evaluating each film against each other. The best looking title gets the highest score and the least appealing title gets the lowest score. I decided against giving the best looking title a score of five stars because that will also imply that the image quality of that title is reference quality – and it isn’t. I have decided to rate the quality of the best looking title to other films close to its age and belonging to Fox’s Cinema Classics Collection and Film Noir titles. I think it’s best to keep the ratings consistent with these other titles for you to best understand the score given.

    A fabulous job has been done to restore these titles and they have never looked so good before. Not including the other sources these titles have been available on in the past, when comparing this final cleaned up “version” of these films to the new transfer from film directly to HD tape (unprocessed), it’s a marvel to view the differences. Everything seems to be done in the digital domain these days using computer programs for cleaning and stabilizing each film frame. Hundreds of hours have been put in to cleaning up the films in this first volume and the results are more than impressive.

    I calibrated my projector to have a preset of 5400K for black and white films. It’s not quite as blue as 6500K and in direct comparison it is warmer. This is the settings to view black and white films (as projected in theatres) and this is how I watched this Charlie Chan Volume 1 collection. All films are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1.

    I believe Charlie Chan in Paris is the best-looking of this set. The film opens up with Charlie Chan emerging from an airplane. It’s dark outside but shadow detail is still excellent. Small raindrops can be seen splashing in the puddles surrounding the aircraft. The level of detail is very good for this film. Bright whites on collars and cuffs tend to have a little glow to them inherent in the source but never look clipped by digital video technology. There is some shifting in the image as it moves around on screen; there is a little bit of difficulty keeping it still but it’s a huge improvement compared to the raw film transfer. Most of the streaks, scratches, and dirt have been removed but a little bit still exists on a consistent basis. One slightly annoying artefact is a blur spot appearing at the top left corner of the image. It is there throughout the film and presumably can’t be removed because there are no frames without that spot. There is no “blur spot-free” frame in each scene that can be sampled and put over the affected frames. On rare instances, there are a few frames missing too making motion more rapid than fluid.

    Charlie Chan in Shanghai is variable in quality. At first I thought this was going to be the best looking picture in this set but then the picture quality changed on a shot-to-shot basis within scenes. I felt that depth perception what slightly greater on this title; foreground images such as people stood out more from the background – it looked less linear in a sense. But each shot varied significantly and there seemed little overall image consistency. The film would have average grain and then be extremely grainy (just watch the opening of the film when Charlie sings “Princess Ming Lo Fu” as an example, then it continues). Some shots appear very hard looking – rough, edgy, and there is noticeable edge enhancement from somewhere in the video chain at one time. …and then another shot would be clear and smooth like Charlie Chan in Paris. This strange variance in image gives it a score slightly less than Charlie Chan in Paris but just a step above Charlie Chan in Egypt.

    Charlie Chan in Egypt is without doubt the roughest looking of the four films. Film quality issues aside, it also appears to be lacking in quality with regards to compression onto DVD. There is “drag” in the image, a term I like to use when there is a slight delay with images catching up to the motion , creating a smeared look on screen. The cliff sides of Egypt, the dry sand and rocks on the ground never appear to look detailed and I really want to blame it on the compression. It seems like the details are there in the source but they are obscured with compression artefacts and of course, the limited resolution of the DVD format. Those with smaller screens will probably not notice this and this is probably how artefacts such as this show up (compressionists tend to use 20” screens) but on a 110” screen it’s easy to notice (in all fairness, NTSC wasn’t designed for 110” screens). The picture doesn’t seem to have as much real detail in the source like the other three films and has a little more dirt and scratches on it than couldn’t be removed. The source for this film isn’t as good as the others but is undoubtedly the best that was found for the hi-def transfer for this DVD.

    Lastly, Charlie Chan in London can compete for first place in terms of image quality – but it can’t in my opinion even though I gave it the same score 3/5. My reasoning behind this is because I saw “negative ghosting” and I couldn’t help not to see it. What’s negative ghosting? Well, if you read my review on Jitterbugs [in the Laurel & Hardy Collection], you may remember be talking about a white ghost that extends vertically above actor’s heads…white is generally the colour of these ghosts so I consider them “positive.” But this time, on Charlie Chan in London, the ghosts are back – and they are black – I think negative ghosting is the best name to give this effect. It is much fainter than the white (positive) ghosts but it is noticeable to me. The vertical direction is the same.

    Aside from these ghosts haunting me, the image quality is similar to Charlie Chan in Paris. It is fairly clear; it doesn’t have a lot of artefacts and seems to be cleaned up very good. We should be thanking Fox for investing so many hours in these films and the result is clearly positive.


    HTF DVD Reviewer Mike Osadciw comments: Like the video quality, the audio varies between each of these titles even though they were all recorded around the same time. The variances must be due to the sources available. The original mono Western Electric Noiseless Recording is available on all titles and none of them are “remixed” for 5.1 and that is fine by me.

    Charlie Chan in Paris is the best sounding; it has surprisingly clean audio with very low noise and sometimes none at all! The sound effects have very good fidelity for 1935 (and even best more recent mono films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid). Charlie Chan’s voice is a little muffled giving a thick sound into the air and other actors’ voices can have a bite to them with stressed vowels sounds jamming in my ears.

    Charlie Chan in Shanghai is good sounding too. That thick and veiled voice of Charlie Chan on Charlie Chan in Paris is lessened on this film. There is a bit more background hiss and not a lot can be said about the sound effects.

    The low score is the same for Charlie Chan in Egypt; this title just can’t seem to better any of the other films in this set. The voice of “Snowshoes” is so screechy I couldn’t handle it at any volume. It’s also difficult to hear what he is saying too because it’s compressed/distorted sounding. All of the dialogue in this film sounds further back in the recording. For the first 19 minutes of the film the sound seems to be at an acceptable volume level – then after that it spikes up a bit louder and becomes a bit more aggressive. I had to turn the volume down slightly to make it comfortable to listen to.

    Charlie Chan in London is acceptable sounding (except for its trailer, it sounds like it was recorded in a small tin can) with just a bit of hiss and occasional distortion.

    Music for all four films is extremely limited to the opening and ending of the films. These are dialogue-driven mysteries and uses pacing to hold our suspense.

    [​IMG]SPECIAL FEATURES [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] / [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Guest Steve Owens writes: Through books, movies, and other media the character of Charlie Chan has persisted over 80 years. Fox retained the services of John Cork to produce several bonus features which explain the origin of the character, the reasons for its success, and the legacy of the character. Some may be familiar with Mr. Cork’s work with regards to the James Bond DVDs.

    Throughout these features a variety of experts are consulted. Most notable to genre fans would be Dr. Howard Berlin (author of The Charlie Chan Encyclopaedia and Charlie Chan’s Words of Wisdom), Rush Glick (webmaster of www.charliechanfamily.com), Barbara Gregorich (author of Charlie Chan’s Papa: The Life of Earl Derr Biggers) and Ken Hanke (author of Charlie Chan at the Movies). Many others are also interviewed and only a lack of space prevents mentioning every one.

    The Legacy of Charlie Chan (13:30) - The theme of this feature is to show how the Chan character was a huge step forward in the depiction of Asians both in literature and on screen. Various members of the Asian community, including Layne Tom who played one of Chan’s sons, discuss how Chan helped change American attitudes away from the villainous images of Fu Manchu . Instead audiences see someone who was educated and in a position of authority. There are some misgivings that a real Asian actor was not used (in 2006 Jack Black plays a Mexican in Nacho Libre), but the general consensus is the positive nature of the characterization greatly assisted in changing the stereotypes perpetuated in early Western fiction and films.

    Also included is a 1935 public service announcement done by Warner Oland in character encouraging voters in Pennsylvania to remove a “Blue Sunday” law prohibiting movie theatres from operating on Sunday.

    In Search of Charlie Chan (25:45) - This feature highlights the men who made the character so popular (Earl Derr Biggers, producer Sol Wurtzel, director Hamilton MacFadden, Warner Oland, and Keye Luke). Also discussed is Lincoln Perry, who under his unfortunate stage name of Stepin Fetchit, appears in one of the films of this set. Actor/Director Rusty Cundieff (Chapelle’s Show) does a good job of putting Perry’s career in context and refers to him as a “trailblazer” and makes an interesting analogy to Beetle Bailey (“hard work being this lazy”).

    The Real Charlie Chan (20m) - Fox traveled to Honolulu to interview a number of locals including family members about the life and times of Chang Apana who was Biggers’ inspiration. His story is incredible. A very small man, he used a whip as his only weapon and once single-handedly arrested 70 individuals in a single event. Listening to the curator of the Honolulu Police Department Museum (Officer Eddie Croom) and a veteran columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser (Bob Krauss) it is obvious that Honolulu is very proud of this man and his legacy. No wonder he was named one of the 100 most influential people in Honolulu's history last year.

    Several other bonus features are included:

    Eran Trece (79m) - Fox also treats us to a very good print (with optional English subtitles) of the 1931 Spanish language version of the currently missing Charlie Chan Carries On [The 1.33:1 picture’s quality is roughly the same as Charlie Chan in Paris. It has a neutral look to it and has the occasional bit of dirt and grain, but I have to admit that I was very surprised to see how good this title looked! – Mike] Although a different cast was used, some of the same sets, and even footage, were ported over from the American version. The film itself is quite enjoyable and Manual Arbo, who resembles Warner Oland, makes a delightful Chan. Fox later remade this as Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise and there is great similarity between the two films.

    Trailer for London (2:05) - This trailer is in decent shape for its age. The audio is a bit rough but understandable and exhibits a tinny character. The video has some jumps but looks remarkably well. It's interesting to note that the trailer uses alternate versions of scenes than what was finally used in the film. Presumably no trailers exist for the other three films in this set as they are not included. Some of the advance publicity mentioned a trailer for Eran Trece but I could not locate it.

    Restoration comparison (4:30) - Several years ago Fox invested $2 million restoring the Chan series. For this DVD Fox did some additional clean-up work. Each film had between 75 and 120 hours of digital restoration done to remove cue marks, minimize scratches, etc. Using a split screen, you can see "before" and "after" for each of the 4 films in this set. Those of us who watched 16mm prints on TV back in the 1970s have never seen these films look so good. [It is amazing to see the differences in the split-screen scenario. While I still notice the film frame jumping around on screen, this has been dramatically reduced when comparing it to the film transfer direct to the HD tape. The result is a much more stable image that is clean from most debris. – Mike]

    Liner notes by Sylvia Stoddard - A supplemental booklet featuring liner notes by historian Sylvia Stoddard is also included. She provides information on the films and Biggers. This, as well as the double sided inserts featuring cover art and chapter listings, is a nice touch in an era when most paper inserts have been deleted. Also included is a flyer promoting the upcoming Mr. Moto Volume 1 (August 1) and Michael Shayne (sometime in 2007) sets [Be careful when looking for these inserts; they are not tucked in any keepcase but can be found slipped in between the four keepcases. When pulling the cases out of the cardboard box these inserts may fall on the floor or be crinkled when putting discs back into the set. Also, the supplemental booklet’s first page is sealed down with temporary glue. The glue can be removed without damaging the insert if you gently bunch it up and “roll” it off the page with your fingertip. – Mike]


    When the Fox Movie Channel pulled the Chan films from television in June 2003 and Fox Home Entertainment said in January 2004 the films would stay in the vault, it could have been the end of the line for this venerable detective. However these actions caused fans of these films to deluge FHE with requests for these films (Steve Feldstein told the NY Post last week these were among their most requested titles). Consequently Fox has opened the vaults for what is the first of hopefully multiple box sets chronicling the adventures of the detective who is second only to Sherlock Holmes in number of film appearances.

    In addition to doing a remarkable restoration job to films for which no original materials exist, Fox has provided ample historical and contextual information surrounding these films and thrown in a rare bonus movie. It is recommended that anyone seeking more information about this series or the films should refer to the books or website listed in the special features section. www.charliechan.net is also a valuable resource.

    Highly recommended.

    Reviewed by: Steve Owens & Mike Osadciw
    June 24, 2006.
  2. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

    May 7, 2001
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    Fantastic review Mike & Steve -- very well done. Let's hope this set does well and keeps the incentive high enough for Fox to keep digging and digging...!!

  3. Chris*W

    Chris*W Stunt Coordinator

    Apr 14, 2004
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    Great review guys! I've never had the opportunity to view any Chan films, so this set is going to be a real treat. Many kudos to FOX for having the guts to release these classic films, with decent extras to boot.

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