By Ed Garea
The Scarlet Clue (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Phil Rosen. Writers: George Callahan (s/p). Based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Cast: Sidney Toler, Mantin Moreland, Ben Carter, Benson Fong, Virginia Brissac, Robert Homans, Jack Norton, Janet Shaw, Helen Devereaux, Victoria Faust, I. Stanford Jolley, & Charles Wagenheim. B&W, 65 minutes.
In 1942, 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on its long-running Charlie Chan films. A combination of below-par scripts and falling box office returns combined to convince studio execs to discontinue the once highly popular series. But Charlie Chan wasn’t done - not quite yet. Sidney Toler, who inherited the role of Chan after Warner Oland’s death in 1938, shopped the property around until he found a taker in Monogram Pictures. Beginning with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service in 1944, Toler would play Chan 11 times for Monogram before his death in 1947. Roland Winters would then take over the role of Chan for six additional films until the series finally ended in 1949.
While Fox regarded the Chan series as inexpensive “B” features, they nevertheless took a certain amount of care with their production. The plots may have been silly, but the direction (mainly by H. Bruce Humberston) was excellent, the pacing was sharp, the dialogue crisp and witty, and a most featured a good cast, including such actors as Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, Ricardo Cortez, and Cesar Romero. The result was a charming, comfortable series of films that go down in Hollywood history as one of the best “B” series, along with MGM’s Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare films, and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series.
Monogram, however, was a different story entirely. The studio had neither the time nor the finances to polish the Chan films. They were simply B-movies, average at best, nearly unwatchable at worst. The only change Monogram did make to the existing formula was to provide Charlie Chan with a chauffeur. Moreland was assigned the role of Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver and added comic relief for Number Three son, Tommy (Fong).
This film opens with Chan now working for the federal government and on the trail of a spy ring after secret government radar plans, aided by Captain Flynn (Homans) of the NYPD. Unfortunately, Flynn tails Chan’s one lead to the ring, a scientist named Rausch (Wagenheim), a little too closely; the result being that Rausch’s mysterious, unknown boss has him knocked off.
Chan discovers that the killer has given the police the slip and escaped in a car. Getting the license plate number, he traces it to owner Diane Hall (Devereaux), a radio performer who had reported it stolen earlier that evening. Accompanied by assistants Birmingham Brown and son Tommy, Chan visits the Cosmo Radio Center, where he finds a bloody heelprint identical to that left at the crime scene. Meanwhile, studio manager Ralph Brett (Jolley) telephones the spies’ ringleader, who uses the Western Union telegram service to advise Brett to be more careful, lest he meet the same fate as Rausch.
Later, Chan visits the Hamilton Laboratory, located in the same building as the radio center. He is told of numerous failed attempts to break in and steal the radar plans from the laboratory’s safe. Chan informs then that he had placed phony radar plans in the safe, just in case the spies should succeed.
Meanwhile, actress Gloria Bayne (Shaw), having found Brett’s matches in the stolen car, deduces he’s the killer the police are looking for and tries to blackmail him into giving her better parts in the future. Shortly afterward, she is dispatched in front of witnesses, including Chan; her cause of death unknown. Realizing that Chan is onto him, Brett asks his boss for help in escaping. He is directed to a service elevator, where the spy kills him by activating a trap door. Upon finding Brett’s body on an upper floor (a nice touch, considering the trap door would send him right down to the basement), Chan has an impersonator call the spy leader. Thinking Brett is still alive, the leader once again directs him to the service elevator, where Chan discovers the trap door.
Chan goes on to question the people who worked with Brett and Gloria, including Diane, who is acting in a dreadful soap opera at the studio. The sponsor of the show, Mrs. Marsh (Brissac) resents Chan’s intrusions and lets him and the police know in no uncertain terms. She also spends her time giving the producers a hard time about the quality of the show, proving to be an obstacle to Chan because of her obstinacy.
Diane is the next to go, killed in the same mysterious way as Gloria. She is followed by performer Willie Rand (Norton), who is killed while taping a television show after telling Chan that he may have uncovered some information crucial to the case. Investigating further, Chan discovers that a poisonous gas, activated by nicotine when the victim lights a cigarette, is the cause of death for Gloria, Diane and Willie.
After a thorough search of the building, the spy leader's office is found. When the leader returns, Chan, Tommy, Birmingham and the police chase him through the radio studio, only to see the leader meet death by the trap door when trying to use the elevator to escape. In the basement of the building, they discover the dead body of Mrs. Marsh, the ruthless radio sponsor, who turns out to be the spy leader. Chan declares the case solved.
The Scarlet Clue is one of the better Chan films from Monogram, with a steady hand from director Rosen. The director simply used the sets from the previous Chan film, The Jade Mask (the weather chamber was used as a gas chamber in the earlier film). Rosen, who began his directorial career in 1915, worked mainly for independent studios such as Invincible, Mascot, and Republic before settling in at Monogram. In the ‘30s he directed good films like Dangerous Corner (1934) for RKO, and The President’s Mystery (1936) for Republic, with a story by FDR himself (!). Now he was directing B-level assembly line features for the bottom of the bill. His last feature was The Secret of St. Ives in 1949 for Columbia. He passed away in 1951.
George Callahan was a screenwriter who never graduated beyond the B’s before going into television. He wrote several other Monogram Chans in addition to this one. The rather unusual murder method - a toxic gas in a thin glass tube or (as here) a plastic capsule that kills the victim when the vessel is broken and the gas inhaled - goes back to Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), although Callahan probably took the concept from Monogram’s 1938 Mr. Wong - Detective. However, he gives it a neat little twist in that the gas is harmless until the victim decides to smoke, in which case it interacts with nicotine to become fatal. Since practically everyone smoked back in the ‘40s, it was not out of the ordinary. But there are potential ideas in the script that go unrealized. Case in point is the charwoman Hulda Swenson (Faust, with a really rotten Swedish accent) for the radio station, who always seems to be around when something is going down. Is she the killer, or even a suspect? No, at the end it’s lamely revealed that in fact she is a British agent working with Chan to uncover the spy ring.
Another case in point is going to all the trouble to build a prop-laden laboratory and a studio with both a radio and television station that end up as merely background scenery. Much could have been done with these settings, but Monogram is content to use them merely as window dressing.
What it lacks in plot, it must make for with characters. Toler is his usual phlegmatic self, slower than in his Fox days, but not yet reaching the level when the intestinal cancer that killed him took hold, and he gets off his aphorisms with his usual verve. One of his best lines, courtesy of screenwriter Callahan, comes when son Tommy says he had an idea, “but it’s gone now.” Toler replies, “Possibly could not stand solitary confinement.” He also comes up with a quick ad lib after accidentally being shocked by the electrical equipment in the laboratory.
Fong, for his part, is adequate as Tommy, getting into trouble as he tries to solve the case for his father. He began his film career as in extra in 1936’s Charlie Chan at the Opera. Although he would play the role of Tommy Chan six times in the Monogram series, Fong also appeared in such notable films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Flower Drum Song (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (with Elvis Presley, 1962), Our Man Flint (1966), and S.O.B. (1981) in addition to innumerable guest appearances on television.
It’s Moreland, however, who walks away with this movie; not that there’s much to walk away with. He steals every scene he’s in, as his quick, witty repartee keeps us in the movie, especially when it begins to lag, which is to say, often. He also has a couple of splendid scenes with nightclub partner Carter, as the two of them perform a hilarious double-talk routine where one finishes the other’s sentence. It’s every bit as good as Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on First?” routine, and the tragedy is that we can only see it in a B-picture from a Poverty Row studio. Moreland, who appeared in all 15 Monogram Chans, saw his move career end when the series concluded in 1949. The emerging civil rights movement and its subsequent shift in America’s consciousness caused Moreland’s humor to be assigned to the trash bin as stereotyping and demeaning. It wasn’t until the 60s that he began to work regularly, appearing with such artists as Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles.
All in all, The Scarlet Clue is a decent time-passer, especially for hardcore Charlie Chan fans. It tends to be rather slow and dull at times, but there are some exciting moments and plot devices that should keep our interest. An entertaining chapter in the Chan saga, though well below the level of the Fox Chan movies.