Charlie Chan Collection – Shadows Over Chinatown / Docks of New Orleans / Shanghai Chest / The Golden Eye (DVD Review)

Charlie-ChanWriter Earl Derr Biggers created fictional Chinese-American sleuth Charlie Chan in a series of printed tales beginning in 1923.  In 1926, the first of more than 48 Charlie Chan films was put on the silver screen.  Actor Warner Oland, born in Sweden, began a popular run for Fox in 1931 in Charlie Chan Carries On.  After its success, Fox would produce 15 more Chan films starring Oland.  Not surprisingly, the films became the most popular in 1930s China.  After Oland died, Sidney Toler, an American actor with Scottish roots, took on the Chan role.  Toler starred in 22 Chan films, first for Fox and later for Monogram Studios.  After Toler’s death, Roland Winters became Chan in six more films.  The character has also been featured frequently on radio, television and in the comics.  Warner Bros. Home Entertainment brings back the legendary master of crime in the Charlie Chan Collection – four beloved films making their DVD debut, and now available for the first time, newly remastered, as a single collection.   Included are Shadows Over Chinatown, starring Toler in one of his last Chan films, plus Docks of New Orleans, Shanghai Chest, and The Golden Eye starring Roland Winters, the last actor to play the detective on film.



Charlie Chan movies have been popular over the years as there have been over four dozen movies made about the Asian detective with the first one starting it all off in 1926.  Originally, the movies starred Asian actors but they weren’t financially successful which led the Fox Film Corporation to cast Swedish actor Warner Orland as Chan for their 1931 movie Charlie Chan Carries On.   The movie was popular enough to lead to another fifteen more films with Orland until he died and was replaced by American actor Sidney Toler.  Toler went on to make twenty-two movies himself and in the process, he ended up buying the film rights himself when Fox decided to stop making Chan movies after their eleventh one.  Toler went on to make eleven more movies with Monogram Pictures until his own death in 1947.  The role of Chan was once again transferred to another actor as Roland Winters would make his own six movies before the franchise came to an end for a couple of decades.

This four movie collection of Monogram Picture releases comes from Warner Brothers and it includes Shadows over Chinatown (1946), Docks of New Orleans (1948), Shanghai Chest (1948), and The Golden Eye (1948), the first of which stars Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan while Roland Winter stars as the detective in the remaining three.  Despite my love for mystery movies, I had never seen a single Charlie Chan movie before this set.  I had heard of him of course, but up until now I had only seen Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot movies.  After watching these four movies, I now have an appreciation for the character, but I can see why modern audiences have mixed feelings about the franchise because of the casting of Charlie Chan and the stereotypes as well.

Even though Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers invented the character to be a smart, brave, and positive example to combat the then pervasive negative Asian stereotypes, by the time the movies came into being, some stereotypes of the time were still there.  Chan talks in pidgin English, is very traditional, and quotes Chinese proverbs about every other sentence.  On the other hand, he is very smart and is often a couple of steps ahead of everyone else, and he kind and generous to those in need.  Montan Moreland’s portrayal as Birmingham Brown is another reason that gives today’s audiences pause as that performance can be described as a negative black stereotype.  It’s also worth noting that Moreland frequently brings a lot of humor to the movies as he is the main comic relief with some help from Chan’s number two son.

But just like Chan, the character of Birmingham isn’t completely one-note as he does occasionally come to the rescue along with Chan’s number two son and they even help solve some of the cases too.  Another aspect that is often overlooked is the fact that Moreland actually brought a larger audience to the Chan movies, as he brought in a huge black audience that was happy to see a black actor on screen in a decent sized role and one that was an active participant along with the hero. The same could be said about the audiences in China too who up until then had only seen Chinese actors portrayed on screen as villains.  Since Chan was the hero of the movie, these movies were a huge hit in China and proved to be the most popular American movies shown there.

As for these four movies, I enjoyed all of them especially the first three movies as they had good plots and some funny lines too.  While I think I liked  Roland Winters portrayal of Chan the best, Sidney Toler was also good and had a knack for delivering some withering sarcasm at the ineptitude of Birmingham and his number two son who kept screwing things up. The plots themselves are fairly clever and kept my interest throughout.  My least favorite movie of the set is the last one, The Golden Eye, because it abandons the noirish feel of the earlier ones to set the mystery at an Arizona gold mine which kind of killed the whole atmosphere and mood that I liked.  If you can accept that these movies are a product of their time, then I think most people would enjoy them if they like mysteries.  These movies served as a nice entry point into the series for me and now I’d like to go back and see the rest of them, especially the ones with Warner Orland since none of his movies were included in this set.  

Here is what is in this set:

Shadows Over Chinatown (1946)
Charlie Chan heads to San Francisco on a murder case when he encounters a mother trying to find her daughter who’s gone missing. Chan also meets a young man, searching for his missing girlfriend. Charlie determines they’re both looking for the same person and soon uncovers a murder gang, which has been illegally benefiting from life insurance of the dead.

Docks of New Orleans (1948)
Charlie is asked to investigate after the mysterious demise of a New Orleans chemical company magnate, because even though the police believe the death was caused by a heart attack, a series of unexplainable deaths follow. Only Charlie Chan can solve the mystery!

Shanghai Chest (1948)
Three people are murdered in San Francisco – a judge, District Attorney and a juror. The fingerprints of a deceased man are found at all three murder sites, but could it really be possible for a dead man to be a serial killer? Again, leave it to Charlie Chan..!

The Golden Eye (1948)
An Arizona gold mine is suddenly making a ton of money. The mine’s owner, instead of delighting in his newfound wealth, confides to Charlie that something is wrong and he fears for his life. Charlie and “friends” go to the mine, pretending to be just visitors. They soon discover that the mine is being used as a cover up for some major crimes and that, indeed, somebody will soon be murdered.



Warner Brothers has done an amazing job restoring these movies as they look wonderful especially when you consider that they look this good.  The full frame black and white films look sharp and detailed and it could easily be mistaken for a Blu-ray thanks to this high quality.  The contrast levels are excellent and the black levels are solid and dark.  As far as issues go, they are minor only with a couple of instances where the films’ show signs of their age through specks and small scratches.  I’ll admit that I was really surprised to see how good these movies looked and I would love to see these on Blu-ray.



Charlie Chan Collection’s Dolby Digital track is also good but this is a front heavy track.  The dialogue is crystal clear and the music is also very present without overpowering the actor’s lines.   There isn’t much rear channel activity or ambience but since these movies from the 40s, one shouldn’t expect a top of the line sonic powerhouse.  Despite that, these tracks work just fine with the material.



Now it’s time for the bad news.  This set has absolutely no special features at all.  Not even a trailer.



I liked these mysteries a lot although some aspects of them were a little cringe-worthy because of the stereotypes.  The stories themselves are clever and and the acting is also good.  This new set from Warner Brothers is an easy one to recommend as it offers some excellent video quality that is far better than you could usually find on older movies like these released on DVD.   It’s too bad that there’s no extras included but that’s the only strike against this set.  Now I just have to check out the rest of the series!

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