The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume One

Charlie Chan was a borderline case that straddled the lines of acceptability. On the one hand, he was a positive, self-determined Asian character long before such characters were normally visible. On the other, he was played by Swedish-American actor Warner Oland and spoke ridiculous fortune-cookie aphorisms. In any event, you can decide for yourself how you feel after watching this new collection of four of his greatest mystery hits, none of which are the stuff of exciting cinema but all of which are reasonably watchable. Charlie Chan in London finds our hero trying to save a man slated for execution; he has two days to find the evidence to clear the man’s name and scours an English country manor for the real culprit. It’s the most average of the series but it still manages to score a few points for American vs. English slang. Charlie Chan in Egypt features him hunting for a missing archaeologist on a dig of a Pharaoh’s tomb; he has to solve mysterious deaths as well as the disappearance of priceless artefacts. You have to keep a scorecard in the battle of the stereotypes, which aside from Chan include wily Arabs and perennially humiliated black comic Stepin Fetchit. Charlie Chan in Shanghai finds him with son Lee (Keye Luke) cracking the case of a murdered detective by a smuggling ring. Strangely, almost no Chinese people show up in the entire feature, though there’s another framed innocent and a variety of clever clues. Best of the bunch is Charlie Chan in Paris, where he must figure out how a conspiracy of bond forgers can commit several murders at the same time — a springboard for some unusual twists and turns. Whatever your feelings about the character, as a gimmick he was pretty hard to resist — he sure could have enlivened Eran Trece, the Spanish-language version of the lost Charlie Chan Carries On and included on Shanghai as an extra. It’s the best looking of the bunch but is totally unremarkable in any other context and could have used Chan’s novelty to juice things up. Other extras include featurettes on Chan’s legacy as a racial symbol (London), the origins of the character in the works of Earl Derr Biggers (Paris) and the real-life detective on whom Biggers based him (Egypt). (Fox)