The House on Punchbowl Hill



















 
 

CHARLIE CHAN AND OTHER 20TH CENTURY-FOX SERIES:

The New Captain George's Whizzbang,  Issue #12/Volume 2, Number 6, 1971

 
 

Keye Luke and Warner Oland.

Fox studios merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935 and became 20th Century-Fox.  Under Zanuck, the new company turned out an impressive number of box office successes each season.  Not so well-known, perhaps, but nevertheless important, was the low-budget unit supervised by Sol Wurzel.  From it came the required "B" product deemed necessary to fill out double bills, and what made it distinctive was that 20th-Fox became the first company to be dominantly series-oriented in its supporting fare.  In other words, if a Fox "B" picture was released, it was a fairly safe bet that another one with the same main characters would be forthcoming.  True, some series never really got started, while others continued for years.  Whatever the case, 20th-Fox had a series for all occasions--comedy, mystery, adventure or action.

It really began before the merger, when Fox was just plain Fox, with the Charlie Chan whodunits.  Furthermore, the Chans remained the most popular series, despite the later competition.  The film exploits of the oriental sleuth have been recounted in detail elsewhere and should be familiar to all buffs.  However, suffice to say, the character was originated by Earl Derr Biggers, appearing in six novels (Biggers never wrote a novelette or short story about Chan).  Three of them had been filmed already when Fox filmed Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931.  The Swedish actor Warner Oland cleverly impersonated Chan, and soon other Chan mysteries were produced regularly.

Of the Biggers novels, The House Without A Key was remade as Charlie Chan's Greatest Case; The Chinese Parrot as Charlie Chan's Courage; The Black Camel was made for the first time as part of the series, Behind That Curtain had been filmed previously in 1929 as a non-series entry and never remade, while keeper of the Keys was never produced at all.  Of the pre-20th-Fox Chans, the following would seem to be missing from the studio vaults: Carries On, Greatest Case, Courage, Charlie Chan's Chance and Charlie Chan in Paris.  Periodic searches have been made for them without success.

Oland appeared as Chan in 16 films.  When he died in 1938, the series was resumed with Sidney Toler in the role, playing it 11 times for the company.  Toler continued the part at Monogram and was succeeded by Roland Winters, J. Carrol Naish stepped in for a TV series and at present a new Chan is in TV feature production with Ross Martin.

Ed Connor, our resident Charlie Chan authority, selects Charlie Chan On [sic] Treasure Island (1939) as the best of them.  This corner prefers Charlie Chan At The Opera (1936) for its spooky atmosphere, the addition of Karloff to the cast, and a generally superior script; and Charlie Chan On Broadway and Charlie Chan At Monte Carlo (both 1937) for their well-concealed culprits.  Of the Tolers, Treasure Island and Charlie Chan In Panama (1940) rate high.  For characterization it's Oland; he made the role his own, while Toler, although extremely competent, always seemed an interloper.

From 1931 to 1936, the Chans were the mainstay of the Fox "B" output.  Then came a little domestic comedy called Every Saturday Night, based on a play by Katherine Cavanaugh about the Evers family.  Thus commenced the first of many series by the new 20th Century-Fox.  The Evers family became the Jones family, and movie audiences had to contend with them for five long years.

The family consisted of one husband, bird-brained (Jed Prouty); one wife, scatterbrained (Spring Byington); one grandmother, understandably cynical (Florence Roberts); three sons, nondescript (Kenneth Howell, George Ernest and Billy Mahan in descending order); and two daughters, one an adolescent horror (June Carlson), and the other a beauty queen type.  In the latter role, June Lang was replaced by Shirley Deane after one film.

In Jones family #4, Off To The Races, Russell Gleason was brought in as a romantic interest, and it worked off-screen as well, for Gleason and Deane were married in reel to real life.  After motherhood, Deane was retired from the series and replaced briefly by Joan Valerie.  Somewhere along the way, the Jonses acquired an additional member, a reformed tough kid (Marvin Stephens) who became "adopted," but nothing much came of this.

The primary complaint about the Jonses was that you couldn't avoid them.  They were everywhere, on every dual bill.  Unlike the later Hardy family from MGM, they were increasingly caricatured and difficult to take.  Small rewards such as the inclusion of Slim Summerville or Joan Davis for a film of two was scant compensation.  Early in the series, under the capable direction of Frank R. Strayer, they were, at best, tolerable.  Thereafter, when Strayer moved to Columbia for the Blondies, one's patience was put to the test.  One genuinely amusing entry, an exception to the doleful proceedings, was Quick Millions (1939), with a story co-authored by Buster Keaton and a plum guest role for Eddie Collins, a rubber-faces clown who served as the model for Dopey in Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and who was ill-served by Fox although a contract player.  Collins, who died c. 1940, is lamentably forgotten today.

By 1940 even Prouty had tired of the series and balked at a new agreement.  The scriptwriters put Pop Jones in the hospital and out of the picture in On Their Own, with which the Jones family mercifully disappeared from the roster after 17 films.

"Charlie Chan's Secret"

As an antithesis to the Joneses, Jeeves, the indomitable gentleman's gentleman created by P.G. Wodehouse, was brought to the screen in 1936 in the authentic guise of Arthur Treacher, with David Niven playing his young master.  Treacher was ideal, but Thank You, Jeeves lacked distinction in script, production and direction, and was more chophouse than Wodehouse.  Another effort resulted in Step Lively, Jeeves the following year, and the project was discontinued.

Figuring that two Oriental detectives would be twice as popular, 20th-Fox purchased the rights to a character created by John P. Marquand and the Mr. Moto series emerged in 1937.  Peter Lorre, a fine young actor of offbeat and eccentric roles, was entrusted with the part and developed a strange but intriguing blend of Japanese and mittel-European mannerisms (the Japanese exclamation "Ah so!" became the interrogatory "Oh, so?" with Lorre).  With restrained makeup--glasses, flat hair-comb and slightly protruding front teeth--Lorre gave a good account for himself in eight Moto adventures produced from 1937-39.  Plots and locales were more exotic than the Chans.  The first two, Think Fast, Mr. Moto and Thank You, Mr. Moto, were adapted from Marquand novels while another, Mr. Moto in Danger Island, was a remake of John W. Vandercook's novel Murder In Trinidad.  Another one, Mr. Moto's Gamble, was salvaged from a proposed Chan film that had been abandoned due to the death of Warner Oland.  The casts were studded with fine Fox contract players including George Sanders, Jean Hersholt and Joseph Schildkraut among others, and Norman Foster, the actor-turned-director who got the series started and helmed most of them, showed a good feeling for suspense and bizarre situations.

With Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation, the series was curtailed.  Relations between the government of Japan had become increasingly strained, and the inexorable march of world events put a temporary end to Moto's film and literary career.  Marquand revived Moto after World War II in Stopover Tokyo and 20th-Fox bought the film rights, but by the time it had reached the screen the story had become so altered that Moto had vanished from the cast of characters.

An abortive attempt to resurrect Moto for the movies occurred in 1965, when an English unit made The Return of Mr. Moto for 20th-Fox release.  Replacing the diminutive Lorre was gaunt Henry Silva, who played Moto more as a Latin hipster than a shrewd Japanese.  The shoddy concoction marked a definite end to Moto.

Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto.

No less than four series were attempted for the 1938-39 season, and none of them lasted more than a trio of films.  First out of the paddock was a sports series, all revolving around Henry Armetta as the owner of an Italian delicatessen who would inadvertently become the backer of 1) a racehorse; 2) an automobile racer; and 3) a prizefighter.  Inez Palange appeared as Armetta's wife in all three, which were entitled Speed To Burn, Road Demon and Winner Take All.  Action specialist Otto Brower directed each one; dancer Bill Robeson had a featured role in Road Demon, and Tony Martin played the fighter in Winner Take All without warbling a note.  The films were mildly pleasant but apparently they ran out of sporting events for Armetta to invest in, for no further entries were made.

Michael Whalen and Chick Chandler were billed as the Roving Reporters in a trio of mysteries, beginning with a good one, Time Out For Murder.   But after two more, the last of which was directed by Ricardo Cortez, the Roving Reporters roved no more.

Since Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell had been a popular team at Warners, a similar idea of two chorus girls in and out of trouble struck the Wurzell fancy.  Resulting was the Big Town Girls--which by the way had a relation to a Claire Trevor film of 1937 entitled Big Town Girl.  Lynn Bari, endearingly referred to by a contemporary critic as "Claudette Colbert with muscles," was the worldly-wise chorus cutie in both Meet The Girls and Pardon Our Nerve.  The dumb blonde cohort was June Lang in the former, June Gale (now Mrs. Oscar Lavant) in the latter.

Unlike most series, the sequel was far superior to the first.  Where Meet The Girls was a feeble effort, Pardon Our Nerve was a fast and breezy hour, helped no end by smart dialogue and a buffoonish performance by Guinn "Big Boy" Williams as a simpleton pugilist inherited by the girls.  Further comedies along these lines were merited, but to no avail.

The forth series was Camera Daredevils, a couple of newsreel men who had a penchant for landing in the middle of mythical European revolutions.  It was Brian Donlevy and Wally Vernon in Shrpshooters, and Preston Foster and Vernon in Chasing Danger.  Actual events in Europe in the spring of '39 made the Lower Slobovian antics old-hat in short order and the Daredevils ran out of film.

Warner Baxter had won an Academy Award for portraying the Cisco Kid (In Old Arizona, 1929) and according to the Fox-Wurzel scheme of things it was high time the Kid was galloping anew.  After Baxter's The Return Of The Cisco Kid in 1939, Cesar Romero assumed the role for a half-dozen outdoor romances.  Of all the Fox low-budget series, the Ciscos came closest to quality production values--and to one mind, were the most pedestrian so-called "action" films made.  Chris-Pin Martin's comedy was tiresome, and the series tended to meander in their prolonged complications concerning Cisco's affairs of the heart.  The one that was most acceptable was The Gay Caballero (1940), not only the fastest but the shortest.  The Cisco Kid joined Charlie Chan at Monogram in 1944, with Duncan Renaldo then Gilbert Poland.  Renaldo retrieved the role for a series produced by Phil Krasne and released through United Artists, then for the long-running television series.

The 20th-Fox rage extended to England, where that fine acidulous performer Gordon Harker ably portrayed Hans Priwin's Inspector Hornleigh for three films, ably assisted by Alastair Sim.  Each mystery was well-mounted and received favorable critical attention.

Linda Darnell made her film debut in Hotel For Women, or Elsa Maxwell's Hotel For Women to give its full title, in late 1939.  The general setting and some of the characters from that film were used by 20th-Fox in two 1940 dramas, both directed by Ricardo Cortez.  Interest was slight.

Also in 1940 came Michael Shayne, private eye.  Shayne, as depicted in Brett Halliday's novels, is a red-headed, hard-drinking (cognac), no-nonsense shamus, the direct descendant of Sam Spade, contemporary of Philip Marlowe.  The film series softened Shayne considerably, made him fast-talking, wise-cracking, and in the person of the dependable Lloyd Nolan, ingratiating.  The introductory member of the series, Michael Shayne, Private Detective, was based on the first Halliday novel, Dividend Of Death.  Although Halliday, (real name, Davis Dresser) was and is a prolific writer and Shayne material was abundant, the succeeding films were adapted from other works.  Sleepers West was a remake, and a change from the itinerary, of Sleepers East, a Frederick Nebel novel previously filmed with Preston Foster.  Dressed To Kill was from Richard Burke's The Dead Take No Bows (sleuth: Quinny Hite).  Blue, White and Perfect was adapted from and old Borden Chase pulp novel.  The Man Who Wouldn't Die was vastly changed from No Coffin For The Corpse (sleuth: Merlini the magician).  Just Off Broadway was an original screen story, and Time To Kill was really Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novel The High Window.  When the Marlowe novels became big box office, the latter was remade ineptly, with George Montgomery, as The Brasher Doubloon.

Nolan's expertise held the series together, with their variable scripts and the general lack of distinction in the production end.  Blue, White, And Perfect is probably the best, with Dressed To Kill also in contention.  PRC picked up the series and cast Hugh Beaumont in the role of Shayne in 1945.  They were cheaply made, but at least used the original Halliday novels as the basis for their scripts.  Richard Denning played Shayne on TV for a season in an undistinguished series, and Mark Stevens made a Shayne pilot TV hour that was telecast as part of an anthology series.  The latter was interesting in a shocking sort of way; from Halliday's hard-boiled character, Stevens, with his sober air and bespectacled presence, turned him into the equivalent of a C.P.A., more comfortable with bookkeeping than bullets.

With the passing of Michael Shayne, the series fever afflicting 20th-Fox abated.  A possible final try was Dixie Dugan, based on the comic strip and released in 1943, with Lois Andrews (better known as Mrs. George Jessel) in the title role.  Despite a cast including Charlie Ruggles, Charlotte Greenwood, Eddie Foy, Jr. and others, it failed to click and no further entries were made, if indeed any were contemplated.

After the end of World War II, the "B" structure at 20th-Fox completely changed.  Sol Wurzel formed his own independent unit and produced the "B" product for 20th release, but nothing developed in the way of a series.

Lest we forget, 20th Century-Fox and its singular predecessor was series conscious in its "A" product too, recalling the Edmund Lowe-Victor McLaglen Quirt-Flagg romps beginning with What Price Glory? in the silents; the Dionne Quintuplet-Jean Hersholt novelties, three of them; two Walter Winchell-Ben Bernie musicals; the first two Sherlock Holmes mysteries with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, before they moved to Universal; and three Technicolor Flicka outdoor stories.

Following the lead of 20th-Fox, practically every other company was busily engaged in at least one series from the mid-thirties on.  If nothing else, it afforded young players and novice directors an opportunity to display their talents.  And probably, for better or worse, set the pattern for television as we know it.

 
 

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