‘There’s no studio so big that it won’t bend over to pick up a dollar’ is an old-time Hollywood maxim, but applies just as easily to today; Amazon Prime proudly display this 1936 programmer at little cost, since the film is now in the public domain and the studio don’t have to spend a penny to screen it. Having said that, the print itself is pretty sharp, and probably hasn’t looked this good since the original release. But there are various reasons that the Chan series haven’t been tv staples like the Sherlock Holmes films featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and most of these reasons are do to with changing attitudes to race.
Charlie Chan’s Secret is, of course, that he’s played by a man of Swedish decent, Warner Oland, who legend has it was often inebriated on set. There’s little evidence of such excess here; Chan is investigating the disappearance of Allen Colby, a white, privileged heir to a family fortune, who seems to have vanished in a ship’s sinking. Chan finds a pocket book which contains Colby’s notes about his fears of assassination, and decides to travel to the family mansion, dubbed a ‘squirrel cage’, to investigate. Colby gets there first, but is promptly murdered, but by who? Only Chan has the smarts to figure it out…
As a rule of thumb, is you have to ask is something is offensive, it’s probably because it is. A Swede playing a Chinese detective is as genetically wrong as Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan in Dr Strange, surely? And that wouldn’t happen in the 21st century, right? The character name Charlie Chan is synonymous with a racial stereotype, but Chinese audiences embraced Oland and these films, making him something of a celebrity. Indeed, Charlie Chan’s Secret has a surprisingly positive attitude to the central character, who generally knows what’s going on and who’s doing what to whom. Chan’s fortune-cookie aphorisms vary in quality, but his deductions are sensible and grounded in some kind of forensic reality. Only a sight gag about the size of Chan’s family plays into stereotype; perhaps the notoriety of the character comes from the rarity of admirable Chinese characters in Western films at the time.
At only 70 minutes, Charlie Chan’s Secret doesn’t offer the guided tour to out-dated manners that might be anticipated; the big secret, as with the Sherlock Holmes mystery Pursuit to Algiers, comes from Chan’s ability to disguise one of the family members in plain sight, and it’s the one device in the film that falls flat because it’s so painfully obvious. But today’s racism exists without much help from Charlie Chan, and these simple, route-one programmers just about turn a few negative stereotypes into something more positive. So maybe these films aren’t the hotbed of racism that might be expected; as Chan says, ‘Hasty deduction like ancient egg. Look good from outside.’