Monday, February 22, 2016

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)


Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

As we count down to another summer Olympics, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1936 summer Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany. It was a time rife with political, racial and ethnic tensions. Hitler and the Nazis were growing in power and the Olympics was an ideal platform for their propaganda. A remark made by a villain in the film Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) beautifully illustrates how the games were symbolic of something much greater than the sports being played in the stadium:

"A most illuminating spectacle Mr. Chan -- the nations of the world about to struggle for supremacy on the field of sports. Yet behind all this there is another struggle going on constantly for world supremacy in a more sinister field." - Zaraka to Charlie Chan

What could bring Charlie Chan, the humble police detective from Honolulu, all the way to the Berlin for the Olympic games? International espionage of course! In director H. Bruce Humberstone’s Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) the drama starts with a mysterious plane crash. Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) and his #2 son Charlie Chan Jr. (Layne Tom, Jr.) investigate. The test pilot was murdered and an important new invention has been stolen; a military device that controls airplanes remotely. It turns out the device is in the possession of a lady wearing a white fox stole, Yvonne Roland (Katherine DeMille) . She’s on a boat along with hundreds of Olympic athletes heading to Germany for the games. Roland’s part of an international spy ring and is on a mission deliver the device (often referred to as a robot) to the diplomat from an unspecified country Charles Zaraka (Morgan Wallace). Several people want to get their hands on that device and Charlie Chan is on the case to retrieve it for the US government.

Layne Tom Jr., Warner Oland and Keye Luke in a publicity still for Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

"Hasty accusation like long shot on horse race. Odds good but chances doubtful." - Charlie Chan

It just so happens that Charlie Chan’s #1 son Lee (Keye Luke) is on his way to the Berlin Olympics too. He’ll be there to compete in the 100 meter swim. Lee takes over from Charlie Chan Jr, who is left behind in Honolulu, as his father’s sidekick. There are multiple story lines going and Lee is not only trying to compete at the games but he’s also trying to help his dad solve a mystery and to patch things up between his friend and fellow athlete Betty Adams (Pauline Moore) and her beau Richard Masters (Allan Lane), who is smitten with the mysterious Yvonne. At one point Lee is kidnapped and the ransom is of course the device. Charlie Chan faces the international spy ring head on with some help from the Berlin police.

"Truth, like football, receive many kicks before reaching goal." - Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is the 17th film in the Charlie Chan series and the 14th starring Warner Oland as the title character. It’s the first film featuring Layne Tom, Jr. as one of Chan’s sons and his performance in this film is quite charming. He went on to make a other Charlie Chan films with Sidney Toler. The DVD’s special features includes an interview with Layne Tom, Jr. who passed away last year.

Warner Oland and Katherine DeMille in Charlie Chan at the Olympics
 Katherine DeMille’s performance as the exotic and mischievous Yvonne is notable. She was the adopted daughter of legendary direct Cecil B. DeMille. I thought Lee, #2 son, and his storyline were particularly interesting. His character is clearly infatuated with Betty and could whisk her away from her beau Masters who only seems to only have a halfhearted interest in a relationship with her. But the audience knows this is completely out of the question because Lee is Asian-American and Betty is Caucasian. It’s a sad reminder of race relations during that era.

As an entry in the Charlie Chan series this film holds up because of two very special factors: the Berlin Olympics and the Zeppelin Hindenburg.

Jesse Owens relay race (Source)

Although some scenes take place in the Olympic village and the Berlin Olympic Stadium, everything was filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot and at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with stock footage of the actual games stitched in to establish the setting. The Berlin Olympic games were televised on Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow", Germany's first TV station, and German film director and producer Leni Riefenstahl was given an enormous budget to film the epic 4 hour documentary Olympia. There exists a lot of footage of these games some of which was used (source unknown) in Charlie Chan at the Olympics most notably the opening ceremony and Jesse Owens competing in the 4X100 sprint relay. Jesse Owens becomes a minor part of the story as we see some of the actresses playing American Olympic athletes cheer him on from the sidelines. For classic film fans who plan to watch Race (2016), a Jesse Owens biopic in theatres now, it’s a good idea to go back in time and dip into this curio of a film.

The film is very careful to exclude any elements Nazi culture. The Berlin police display their national pride but there is no mention of Hitler and they don't wear Swastikas on their uniforms. Footage of the Zeppelin Hindenburg was edited so that the Swastika on the tail is not visible.

Zeppelin Hindenburg (Source)


When Charlie Chan is abroad it’s usually because he’s on vacation and happens to be around to solve a mystery. In this case, Charlie Chan travels quite a distance to help solve a case. The film lays out his journey from Hawaii to German: 18 hours from Honolulu to San Francisco, then a 13 hour flight to New York, travel to Lakehurst NJ and take 61 hour flight on the Zeppelin Hindenburg to Hamburg. Charlie Chan at the Olympics was released on May 21, 1937 just a couple of weeks after the infamous Zeppelin Hindenburg disaster . Despite the catastrophe and the developments with Hitler and the Nazis, this film still made it to theaters against all odds. An IMDb trivia bit says this film was pulled shortly after its release but I found no concrete evidence of that.

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) is a curiosity not to be missed by classic film enthusiasts and history buffs alike. It suffers from a convoluted plot and too many characters but is still a decent entry into the series. The film is available on DVD as part of Fox’s Charlie Chan Boxed Set Volume 2.

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