The House on Punchbowl Hill





















Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum

Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Distributed: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, September 6, 1940
Production: Began mid-May 1940
Copyright: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, September 6, 1940; LP9228
Sound: RCA "High Fidelity" Recording
Film: Black and white
Length: 5,718 feet
Running Time: 63 minutes
Production Code Administration Certificate Number: 6383
Source: Based on the character "Charlie Chan" created by Earl Derr Biggers
 

Associate Producers: Walter Morosco and Ralph Dietrich
Director: Lynn Shores
Assistant Director: Jasper Blystone (not credited)
Original Screenplay: John Larkin
Director of Photography: Virgil Miller
Art Direction: Richard Day and Lewis Creber
Film Editor: James B. Clark
Set Decorations: Thomas Little
Costumes: Herschel
Musical Direction: Emil Newman
Sound: Bernard Freericks and Harry M. Leonard    

 
CAST:

Sidney Toler: Charlie Chan
Sen Yung: Jimmy Chan
C. Henry Gordon: Dr. Cream
Marc Lawrence: Steve McBirney (also called "Mac")
Joan Valerie: Lily Latimer
Marguerite Chapman: Mary Bolton
Ted Osborn: Tom Agnew
Michael Visaroff: Dr. Otto von Brom
Hilda Vaughn: Mrs. [Joe] Rocke
Charles Wagenheim: Willie Fern
Archie Twitchell: Carter Lane
Edward Marr: Grenock
Joe King: Inspector O'Matthews
Harold Goodwin: Edwards
Stanley Blystone: Bailiff (not credited)
Jimmy Conlin: Tour Guide (not credited)
Charles Trowbridge: Judge (not credited)
Emmett Vogan: Prosecuting Attorney (not credited)
 



SUMMARY:

Charlie Chan is in New York sitting in on the sentencing of killer Steve McBirney who was convicted on evidence uncovered by the detective.  McBirney is sentenced to be executed at Sing Sing Prison on December 8, prompting the killer to coldly state that he won't have to buy any Christmas gifts.  After McBirney is led out of the courtroom, shots are heard, and, as an officer announces that the prisoner is shooting his way out, he escapes with the help of Grenock, his henchman.

Dr. Cream, a plastic surgeon who operates a wax museum featuring figures of infamous criminals as a front for his real business of altering the faces of fugitive criminals.  McBirney has gone to Dr. Cream for plastic surgery, and, as he recovers from the operation, is lying low until the heat dies down.  McBirney, intent on getting his revenge against Charlie Chan, coerces the doctor into luring the detective to the wax museum on the pretense of participating in a crime solving radio broadcast, the subject of which would be the Joe Rocke case, a case which Chan was quite familiar.  Although suspicious of Cream's real motives, Chan accepts the invitation, partially because Jimmy, who is now taking law classes in New York, had announced in class that his Pop would be appearing on the broadcast.  Chan also suspects that, with Dr. Cream's suspicious background combined with his skills as a plastic surgeon, that a visit to the wax museum might reveal a connection with the fugitive McBirney.

As the broadcast at Dr. Cream's Museum of Crime is about to begin, Chan is unaware that he is to be electrocuted as he sits in one of the chairs around a table.  However, at the last moment, Chan changes seats with Dr. Otto von Brom, another crime expert who had been instrumental in the conviction and subsequent execution of Joe Rocke for a murder he did not commit. Suddenly, the lights go out and a small fire sparks behind von Brom's chair, who, moments later, slumps to the table, dead.  The weapon proves not to have been electricity, but a poison dart that was blown at him by someone, clues reveal, who had been seated at the table.  The occupants of the museum are not able to call the police because the phone has been rendered out of order, and, until Chan can contact the police, everyone present is kept inside the museum.

Returning to one of the displays that Jimmy had earlier seen to be suspicious, Chan discovers a trap door that leads to a secret chamber below which turns out to be Dr. Cream's operating room.  The detective notes clues revealing that McBirney had been there recently.  Chan also declares that the method used to kill Dr. von Brom points to "Butcher" Dagan, who was once an associate of McBirney, and who was supposedly dead.

CONCLUSION:

Dagan, who has had his facial features altered by Dr. Cream, kills McBirney and tries to kill Chan as well. Inspector O'Matthews arrives on the scene with his men, and then, using a pre-arranged trick, Chan unmasks radio broadcaster Tom Agnew as "Butcher" Dagan.

NOTES:  According to David Robert Cellitti, the wax figure of Charlie Chan (and, perhaps we may assume that the rest of the wax figures used in the film) was made by a studio in Los Angeles called The Stubergh's, which was run by Katherine Stubergh.  "The late Katherine Stubergh was my mentor.  She supplied wax figures for such films as House of Wax, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Frozen Ghost and many other films...including Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum."

Adapted from: AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE CATALOG - Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960



CHARLIE CHAN'S APHORISMS:

Conviction of most dangerous public enemy bring more peaceful sleep.
 
Always prefer to utilize element of surprise, never to be victim. 
 
Only very foolish mouse make nest in cat's ear.

Any powder that kills flea is good powder.

Knowledge only gained through curiosity.

Mice only play when cat supposed to be in bed.

Old solution sometimes like ancient egg.

Justice can be brought to dead men.

Truth speak from any chair.

Every bird seek its own tree, never tree the bird.

Suspicion is only toy of fools.

Sometimes better to see and not tell.

Fear is cruel padlock.
 
Mock insanity not always safe alibi.

Justice, like virtue, brings its own reward.


OTHER WORTHY STATEMENTS:

Will imitate woman and change mind.  (To Dr. Cream after being convinced to participate in the "Crime League" radio broadcast)

Like busy mosquito, offspring keep chasing parent.  (To Jimmy)

Filial grief honorable music to ancient heart.  (To Jimmy)

Fingerprints may have message.  (To Jimmy, regarding a thrown knife)

Knowledge short, suspicion long.  (To Inspector O'Matthews regarding Charlie Chan's ideas on Degan's involvement)
 
Small nose for news in radio man first aroma of suspicion.  (To Instpector O'Matthews regarding Chan's suspicion of Tom Agnew)



REVIEW:

Variety, October 2, 1940

As a horrible example of what can happen to series pictures if they're continued indefinitely, 'Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum' has a certain interest.  But it has little other value.  If, as reported, this is the last of the series, it's neither surprising nor regrettable.  For the picture is a feeble effort which should get playing time only on the strength of its probable series audience.

Nothing much is to be said of the story, except that it follows the obvious slant indicated at the title.  There's a hodge-podge of action in the wax museum as the pigeon-English hero (what ever happened to that amusing dialog that Earl Derr Biggers originally created for the character?) strolls comfortably among villainous facial surgeons and their molls, escaped murderers, imbecile janitors, avenging widows, suspicious lawyers, radio announcers and engineers and a pulp mag version of a girl reporter.  There are wax figures all over the place and before long even the scripters seem to have been unable to distinguish between them and the real characters, or between their scenario and the remnants of a plot lying around a cutting room floor.  It's all flimsy, muddled, absurd and never for an instant believable.  But frequently it's just preposterous enough to be amusing.

Sydney Toler repeats his standard portrayal of Chan, while C. Henry Gordon and Marc Lawrence give their customary villain performances.  The others vary from passable to painfully inept.  Direction and production are routine, befitting the inglorious end of a once-popular series.

 
 

FILM NOTES:

POSSIBLE DATE: Late spring 1940
 
DURATION: One day  
 
LOCATION: New York City and Brooklyn, N.Y.
 
ACCORDING TO THE JUDGE, THE PRISON WHERE STEVE MCBIRNEY WAS SCHEDULED TO BE EXECUTED: "...Sing Sing prison..."
 
ACCORDING TO THE JUDGE, THE DATE SET FOR MCBIRNEY'S EXECUTION: "...during the week of December 9."
 
THE DAILY MERCURY HEADLINE AND STORY LINES:

THE SIGN IN FRONT OF DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM OF CRIME:

creammuseumsign.jpg

THE NEXT STOP OF THE BUS TOUR LEAVING DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM: Chinatown
 
THE NAME OF THE TOUR BUS DRIVER: Bill
 
DR. CREAM'S COLORFUL DESCRIPTION OF STEVE MCBIRNEY: "A little boy from New York's Hell's Kitchen, who went out west and made good in Chicago."
 
THE NUMBER OF BULLETS, ACCORDING TO GRENOCK, THAR STEVE MCBIRNEY "PUMPED INTO" BUTCHER DAGAN: "...thirteen..."
 
FACTS ABOUT THE SING SING PRISON ELECTRIC CHAIR ON DISPLAY IN DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM, ACCORDING TO DR. CREAM: "Still un use two years ago...109 murderers met death on it."
 
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, THE ONLY TIME IN HIS LIFE THAT HE WAS SURPRISED: "Only one occasion...when honorable wife announce arrival of thirteenth offspring."
 
ACCORDING TO INSPECTOR O'MATTHEWS, THE DATE OF STEVE MCBIRNEY'S DRAMATIC ESCAPE FROM THE COURTHOUSE: "Three weeks ago yesterday."
 
CHARLIE CHAN'S INTENDED DESTINATION, TOWARD WHICH HE WAS TO LEAVE THE NEXT DAY: Honolulu
 
CHARLIE CHAN'S COMMENT REGARDING JOE ROCKE: "Innocent man hanged for crime he did not commit."
 
THE TIME THAT CHARLIE CHAN WAS ASKED TO APPEAR AT DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM FOR THE "CRIME LEAGUE" BROADCAST: 8 p.m.
 
THE AIR TIME FOR "THE CRIME LEAGUE": 8:15 p.m.
 
THE TIME OF THE LAW SCHOOL LECTURE THAT JIMMY CHAN WAS SUPPOSED TO ATTEND: 8 p.m.
 
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, THE SUBJECT OF THE LECTURE AT JIMMY CHAN'S SCHOOL: "Old Roman law."
 
THE NUMBER OF TIMES THAT MCBIRNEY HAD SUPPOSEDLY SHOT (OR "PLUGGED") "BUTCHER" DAGAN YEARS AGO IN CHICAGO: 13
 
THE AMOUNT OF VOLTAGE, ACCORDING TO GRENOCK, THAT WAS SET TO FLOW THROUGH THE CHARLIE CHAN'S CHAIR DURING THE "CRIME LEAGUE" BROADCAST: 2300 volts
 
THE EXHIBITS SHOWN TO CHARLIE CHAN BY DR. CREAM:
 
"The tragedy of the 'Broadway Butterfly'"
"'Jack the Ripper' - London's mystery murderer of the year 1888"
"Henri Desire Landru - 'The Bluebeard of Paris'"
 
ACCORDING TO TOM AGNEW, THE CASE THAT WAS ORIGINALLY TO HAVE BEEN DISCUSSED ON THE RADIO THAT NIGHT BY "THE CRIME LEAGUE": "I thought we were doing the Bradley Case."
 
THE SPONSOR OF THE "CRIME LEAGUE": The Murphy Arms Company
 
THE NUMBER OF THE "CRIME LEAGUE" BROADCASTS AT DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM, AS ANNOUNCED BY TOM AGNEW: "We are gathered for our thirteenth weekly broadcast in Dr. Cream's extraordinary museum of crime."
 
THE TIME GIVEN TO WILLIE FERN BY GRENOCK, POSING AS THE "WARDEN," TO THROW THE POWER SWITCH FOR THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: 8:20 p.m.
 
THE DATE OF THE KILLING SUPPOSEDLY COMMITTED BY JOE ROCKE: June 9, 1929
 
THE METHOD OF EXECUTION USED ON JOE ROCKE: Hanging (gallows)
 
THE TYPE OF POISON, AS DETERMINED BY CHARLIE CHAN, THAT WAS USED TO KILL PROFESSOR VON BROM: "Tonga poison used by Dyak headhunters in Borneo."
 
ACCORDING TO DR. CREAM, THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE WIRE CUTTER USED BY LILI LATIMER: "That figured in the Willem Otto murder.  It was used by the killer."
 
CHARLIE CHAN'S ANALYSIS OF THE "TOOTHPICK" FOUND ON THE TABLE FOLLOWING THE MURDER OF DOCTOR VON BROM: "Hollow toothpick made from goose quill possible blow-gun."
 
THE NAME USED BY GRENOCK ON THE TELEPHONE FROM THE BASEMENT OF DR. CREAM'S MUSEUM WHILE PRETENDING TO JIMMY TO BE A POLICE OFFICER: Lt. Leslie (of the Homicide Bureau)
 
THE PERSON WHOM WILLIE FERN THOUGHT HE WAS "EXECUTING" WHEN HE THREW THE POWER SWITCH: "Red" Maddox
 
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, STEVE MCBIRNEY'S "SIGNATURE": "Sheet of paper torn to form string of paper dolls."
 
IN HIS OWN WORDS, THE THREE CLUES THAT LED CHARLIE CHAN TO SUSPECT THAT "BUTCHER" DAGAN WAS THE MURDERER: "Quill toothpick, bamboo dart, and poison called Tonga."
 
ACCORDING TO CHARLIE CHAN, DR. CREAM'S "SIGNATURE": "Five crisscross scars" on the back of the neck of his criminal "patients" "to tighten and alter contour of face skin."
 
TRANSLATION OF JIMMY CHAN'S CHINESE (CANTONESE) DIALOGUE UPON HIS DISCOVERY OF MCBIRNEY'S BODY: "Come here, hurry!  There's a dead person here!"  (Below is pictured this bit of dialogue as it appears in Chinese characters on the very first page of the CONTINUITY AND DIALOGUE TAKEN FROM THE SCREEN for "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) dated August 6, 1940.

 
 

GLOSSARY:

automat - A machine from which food or sandwiches is dispensed.
Jimmy Chan: "That's a toothpick from the automat."
 
blown over - To have subsided, waned, or passed over with little lasting effect.
Dr. Cream: "...why not come back in a month, when this get away has blown over?"
 
Cain - In the Bible, the eldest son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy and was condemned to be a fugitive.
Charlie Chan: "But, Degan, true child of Cain, hate him."
 
Chinaman - (Today considered offensive)  A person of Chinese descent.
Grenock: "Get that Chinaman before he gets us."
 
Chinatown - A neighborhood or section of a city that is inhabited chiefly by Chinese people.  New York's Chinatown is the largest in the United States.
Tour Conductor: "Next stop, Chinatown, the mysterious Orient in the heart of New York."
 
copper - (Slang)  A police officer.
Grenock: "...and won't that copper be surprised."
 
death house - The cellblock in a prison where those condemned to death await execution.
Steve McBirney: "Your evidence sticks me in the death house..."
 
double cross - A deliberate betrayal; violation of a promise or obligation.  Originally, the term was used in sports gambling, referring to the duplicity of a contestant who breaks his word after illicitly promising to lose.
Steve McBirney: "Hope you never double cross me, Doc."
 
Dyak headhunters - The Dyak, once a fierce and feared people, were among the original inhabitants of the island of Borneo, located in the western Pacific north of Java.  In 1927, forensic doctor William Krohn set off for Borneo to collect ethnological specimens for Chicago’s Field Museum, living among the Dyak people, learning everything he could about their beliefs and way of life.  The results of his work were published in his book Among the Dyak Headhunters.
Charlie Chan: "Tonga poison used by Dyak headhunters in Borneo."
 
framing (Slang)  Making up evidence or contrive events so as to falsely incriminate a person.
Willie Fern: "...didn't he knock off Butcher Degan for framin' you?"
 
Hell's Kitchen - For decades after the Civil War, Hell's Kitchen on New York City's West Side between 14th and 52nd Streets, and Eighth Avenue and the waterfront, and the Tenderloin just to the east, frequently boiled over with crime and corruption.  Notorious gangs ruled the streets between the tenements, grog shops, slaughter houses, railroad yards, and gas works.  During prohibition Hell's Kitchen was the domain of Owney Madden and "Mad Dog" Coll who scared even the city's underworld.
Dr. Cream: "A little boy from New York's Hell's Kitchen..."
 
Henri Désiré Landru - the Bluebeard of Paris - (1869-1922) An infamous murderer who, between the years 1914 and 1918 killed 11 victims, 10 women and the teenaged son of one of the women.  Landru would seduce the women who came to his Parisian villa and, after he been given access to their assets, he would kill them - probably by strangulation - and burn their dismembered bodies in his oven.
Dr. Cream: "And here we have Henri Désiré Landru - the Bluebeard of Paris."
 
Jack the Ripper - The name given to an unidentified serial killer (or killers) active in the Whitechapel area of London in the second half of 1888.  Although there have been numerous theories over the intervening decades, Jack the Ripper's identity may never be determined.
Dr. Cream: "This is Jack the Ripper, London's mystery murderer of the year 1888." 
 
knock off - (Slang)  To kill or overcome.
Willie Fern: "...didn't he knock off Butcher Degan for framin' you?"
 
map - (Slang)  The human face.
Steve McBirney: "Change this map.  Fix it so no cop will ever know me."
 
mugs - Thugs, hoodlums.
Inspector O'Matthews: "Oh, he'll get five years for lifting mugs' maps."
 
queer - (Slang)  To ruin or thwart.
Steve McBirney: "You queer this, and you're both through."
 
yarn - (Informal)  A long, often elaborate narrative of real or fictitious adventures; an entertaining tale.
Mary Bolton: "What a yarn."
 
For a complete list from all films, please visit our Charlie Chan Glossary.

 
 

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