Charlie Chan at the Olympics
I never thought I'd see a Charlie Chan film - much less at Sydney
University, but here it was! And what a surprise! The film is packed
with electronic gadgets, which were apparently an obsession of the
director, H Bruce Humberstone. It even has a trip on the Zeppelin
Hindenberg, which Charlie takes from Lakehurst, New Jersey, across the
Atlantic Ocean to Friedrichschafen in Germany, in a trip lasting 61
hours. This was a publicity stunt which unfortunately backfired when
the real Zeppelin blew up when it returned to New Jersey. Of course
this is fascinating now, in retrospect. But best of all is the inserted
newsreel footage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, showing Jesse Owens and
the rest of the US relay team winning gold medals, and a runner from
New Zealand also winning gold!
Charlie himself was played by Warner Oland, a Swedish actor. To my
surprise, he didn't look too bad as the Chinese detective, and what is
more, no one says or does anything remotely racist or patronising to
Charlie or his two sons. Of course, that is just my opinion - others
may disagree. But I am usually pretty sensitive to that sort of thing,
and I didn't find anything too questionable here. Charlie's eldest son
is a member of the American swim team, and actually wins a gold medal.
But nobody says anything about his ethnic origins - mind you, there is
a girl he doesn't get. He's not even in competition for her. Maybe
that's a subltle form of discrimination. but you have to look pretty
hard for it.
The other interesting aspect to this film is the treatment of the
Germans. This film was released in 1937, when America was isolationist.
The Germans are treated fairly neutrally, except for the German police,
who wear silly spiked hats and are a bit like the Keystone Cops. But
they are redeemed a bit in the end, and made more human through
acquiring senses of humour. This is a million miles from the evil Nazis
of 1942's Quiet Please, Murder.
The Spiral Staircase
I hadn't seen this classic for around 20 years, and only then on TV, so
it was good to see it on the big screen. Stunningly directed by Robert
Siodmak, with superbly creepy music by Roy Webb, and murky, shadowy,
Gothic cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, this film still frightens
the daylights out of you.
The producer at RKO for this 1946 classic was Dore Schary, who later
headed up MGM. Robert Siodmak, a German director steeped in the shadows
and angles of German expressionism brought his considerable skill to
this old-dark-house-style thriller. Schary and Musuraca love the
shadows so much that even in the final scene, when the tension is over,
the telephone is duplicated in a huge misshapen shadow.
Dorothy McGuire gives a lovely, sensitive performance as the mute
servant. Her final scenes are quite heartbreaking. Ethel Barrymore
stands out as Mrs Warren. She brings a certain sense of strength
mingled with mystery, so she keeps you guessing til the end. Elsa
Lanchester does a wonderul turn as a tippling servant. And Myrna Dell
turns up again in a bit part as a victim.
The way the director and the cinematographer photograph the three
staircases in the house provide endless delights for the eye. But the
best, and most horrific, is that of the killer's eye. That one haunts
you long after the film has ended.