One of the amazing things about movie characters is their unlimited supply of vehicles.
The protagonist’s car blows up? No problem! There’s always another car at the ready, and it never requires insurance or a trip to the vehicle registration office.
Even famed detective Charlie Chan is never without wheels. In the 1944 mystery, Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat, a bomb is placed in Chan’s taxi. Never mind that this device looks like something your kid brother made in shop class, the result is damaging all the same. Yet Chan’s resilient taxi driver is in a new vehicle in seconds – without doing any paperwork! (When was the last time you arranged anything for your vehicle without paperwork?)
Charlie Chan is the creation of one-time drama critic, Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers based the fictional crime-fighter on Chang Apana, an actual nineteenth-century detective with the Honolulu police force. Biggers’ detective lives in San Francisco, and has more than a dozen children. His mantra: “Once you have large family, all other troubles mean nothing.”
Chan is a shrewd fellow who can outsmart the best of ’em. (Really, it’s a wonder anyone dares commit a crime in San Francisco.) His crime-fighting resources consist of an ever-present hat, taxi fare and a brain that never shifts out of overdrive.
About today’s movie: Chan is not played by a Chinese actor. Noooo. Instead of hiring an actual Chinese person, the producers signed the uber-annoying Sidney Toler. Still, you have to hand it to Toler; as Chan, he has a certain charm and never once slips out of character. Even his slow, deliberate walk is consistent.
Toler, incidentally, appeared as Chan in over 20 Charlie Chan movies from 1938-47. In total, there were 44 Charlie Chan movies made from 1925-1947; Toler made five alone in 1944-45.
You’re likely wondering about the plot! The family of a man who was murdered six months earlier, approaches Chan because they are frustrated with police. The strange thing about the murder is that the man was killed in a room that was locked from the inside. Chan tells the family he’s leaving on a trip in 48 hours but he’ll solve the case before he has to pack. Chan is no slouch, so we’re confident he can easily do in two days what the police couldn’t do in six months.
Chan is aided by his eager Number Three Son, played by Benson Fong. An exasperated Chan continually pleads with his son to stop helping, but the son won’t hear of it. He’s determined to help his old man Get To The Bottom Of This.
One of our favourite characters is taxi driver Birmingham Brown, played by comedian Mantan Moreland. Brown is the man with the infinite taxi supply, and is always available for Chan & Son whenever they need a lift. Although Moreland’s character is a stereotype (he says “Mmm, mmm, mmm” when he’s displeased) he’s an expert at both the physical comedy and stealing scenes.
We’re not certain if we recommend today’s movie due to our aforementioned aversion to Sidney Toler. But if you like a smarty-pants detective – or, heaven forbid, Sidney Toler himself – then you should see Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat.
Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat: starring Sidney Toler, Joan Woodbury, Mantan Moreland. Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by George Callahan. Monogram Pictures Corporation, 1944, B&W, 65 mins.