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Arts & Entertainment

Charlie Chan detective classics finally find their way to DVD

| Saturday, July 3, 2004

If you remember the Charlie Chan movies, it may be because the late Dave Crantz hosted late night showings of them on WTAE-TV for years in the 1970s.

Novelist Earl Derr Biggers' created Chan as an Asian police detective based in Honolulu but often solving crimes in mainland America before Hawaii was admitted to the union.

Three Chan films were made with obscure stars in the 1920s, then 16 of the most highly regarded ones were made with Swedish-born Warner Oland (1879-1938) for Fox. Four of the earlier Olands are believed no longer to exist.

Fox hired Sidney Toler (1874-1947) to take over but abandoned the series after nine with him. Toler made nine more for poverty-row Monogram. Like Oland, he died while doing the series.

Monogram brought Roland Winters aboard for six. J. Carroll Naish did 39 episodes of a TV series. Ross Martin did a TV movie whose first airing in the States was delayed for several years. A 1981 feature film with Peter Ustinov flopped.

After years on the shelf, the first six of Monogram's Chans (the 10th through 15th of Toler's 18) have resurfaced as a box set. In sequence of their original release:

"Charlie Chan in the Secret Service" (1944), "The Chinese Cat" (1944), "Meeting at Midnight" (1944; also known as "Black Magic"), "The Jade Mask" (1945), "The Scarlet Clue" (1945) and "The Shanghai Cobra" (1945).

None is rated; all are PG in nature because of bloodless slayings that trigger each plot. Each runs 65 minutes. The Monograms, significantly weaker than the Fox episodes, are all in the two to two-and-one-half stars range. ( Two stars to Two and 1/2 stars )

Watch the six back to back, and the threadbare formula is exposed. The productions are so modest that the stories barely seem to have begun when Chan collects all of the suspects in one room for sometimes preposterous, if always correct, solutions.

He's always "helped" by at least one of his 14 offspring - one of the older sons and sometimes a daughter, too.

In these six episodes, the eye-popping actor Mantan Moreland plays Birmingham Brown, the sort of stereotypical black character banished from the screen half a century ago. Birmingham changed careers from film to film -- cab driver, valet -- but was always nearby and always terrified of his own shadow.

There's little to admire in the films because the staging is so perfunctory, but they have an elemental mystery-plot appeal, even if the least obvious suspect always done it ... did it.

'Kotch'

Rated PG; 1971; Three stars

We loved Walter Matthau perhaps most of all when he was being a sardonic scoundrel ("The Fortune Cookie"), a slob ("The Odd Couple") or a wily curmudgeon ("The Sunshine Boys," "Grumpy Old Men").

For "Kotch," the only picture directed by pal Jack Lemmon, Matthau was Oscar-nominated as lovable grandpa Kotch - short for Kotcher - tolerated by his henpecked son (Charles Aidman), disliked intensely by his daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr, Lemmon's off-screen wife) and adored by his toddler grandson.

When he's pushed out of the house, Kotch becomes caregiver to an unmarried pregnant girl (Deborah Winters).

Less funny than it is warm, it contains a scene that was designed to be sympathetic in '71. A mother becomes shrill and files a complaint when she sees him pat her child on the bottom a couple of times in a shoo-away gesture.

The harm is unintended and nonerotic and the outcome facile. The sequence does, though, make an observation about how perspectives have changed in these troubling times.

'Dracula: Dead and Loving It'

Rated PG-13; two and 1/2 stars

For several years starting with "The Producers" in 1968, Mel Brooks could do no wrong. Did anyone ever have two funnier pictures in one year than his "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" in 1974?

He hit bottom with "Life Stinks" (1991) before recovering to a degree with "Dracula: Dead and Loving It."

Unlike "Young Frankenstein," which bravely was shot in black and white, "Dead" was filmed in color because the resistance to b&w was considered insurmountable by then, especially among young moviegoers, and because the blood had to be bright red.

That's according to the combined wisdom of the folks on the entwined audio commentaries -- one by writer-director-star Brooks and co-writers Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman and one recorded separately by co-stars Steven Weber and Amy Yasbeck.

The level of inspiration in writing, directing and acting gets everyone only so far here, but there are more and better gags than I'd remembered.

Although Leslie Nielsen's Dracula is a major player, much of the emphasis has been shifted. Brooks says he played Van Helsing as if he were the old character actor Albert Bassermann. There's more here than usual on the bug-eating lunatic Renfield (Peter MacNicol) and on Dr. Seward, no doubt to create more opportunity for Harvey Korman.

It's not bad, but you shouldn't wait for a Broadway musical adaptation.

'Too Late for Tears'

Unrated but PG-13 in nature; 1949; three stars

Made cheaply even by the standards of film noir, "Too Late the Hero" delivers two prototypes of the genre - satiny Lizabeth Scott as a relentlessly duplicitous golddigger and Dan Duryea as a heel who at some point stops being one step ahead.

Here, Scott and honest husband Arthur Kennedy accidentally acquire money belonging - OK, wrong word - to Duryea. The dough is such an aphrodisiac to Scott that she's prepared to sacrifice one whole gender to keep it for herself. And then Don DeFore surfaces under false pretenses.

A new DVD from Dark City Classics seems to have been copied from a substandard print. We can live with the occasional jump caused by missing frames, but exterior scenes set outdoors black-out completely where they should be merely shadowy, turning "Too Late for Tears" into a radio show where you're missing some visual information.

If the picture has fallen into the common domain, we may never see a better copy.

The DVD contains five-minute discussions of Scott and Duryea by film noir historian Eddie Muller.

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