Charlie Chan in charge: 'The Black Camel'



Earl Derr Biggers' novels featuring Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan, whose politeness and seemingly slow approach to the mystery he's investigating at the moment mask a keen intelligence and understanding of his fellow man, may be forgotten today due to the controversy surrounding the character that has arisen in recent times. Such discontent over a perceived slight of Asians and Asian-Americans is unjustified in that Charlie, a man held in high esteem by colleagues for his prowess in crime-solving, is an appealing creation who fulfills a heroic role in the stories in which he was cast by Biggers. None of the negative stereotypes of Asians that filled pages of popular fiction in Charlie's time, such as Sax Rohmer's clearly villainous Dr. Fu Manchu, can be attributed to the soft-spoken sleuth whose use of old Chinese sayings and aphorisms help underline key points in the proceedings. The reader encountering the Biggers novels will find in the humble Charlie an engaging, responsible and likeable individual who quickly rallies the reader to his side.

It also worth noting that the six Chan novels by Biggers (1884-1933) remain readable, entertaining and mystifying, just the kind of material the author consistently provided to his audience. Already known for his successful novels SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1913) and LOVE INSURANCE (1914), the former a popular mystery George M. Cohan transformed into a smash Broadway verhicle (not to mention several movie adaptations), and the latter a romance attuned to the tastes of pre-World War I readership, Biggers' inspiration for Charlie arose from a desire to commit the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands to the printed page. An Ohio native, Biggers first came to Honolulu in 1919 and was captivated by what he saw. 

Four years later he began putting his thoughts about Hawaii on paper in an entertainment designed for the readers of the Saturday Evening Post, the famed periodical that serialized his story, THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY, prior to its appearance in book form in 1925. THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY is an intrigue that begins stateside but soon moves to the islands, its straight-laced Bostonian hero falling under the languid spell cast by the Hawaiian culture despite its modernization as an American territory. The murder case that ensues is investigated by Charlie Chan, whose modest introduction comes about halfway through the story and remains a subsidiary presence until the killer is unmasked.

Indeed, for those of us who come to the novels after a steady diet of the Charlie Chan movies in which our hero is the central character, it's almost maddening to find that for about half of the books, Charlie plays a secondary role to a group of recognizably American leading characters embroiled in a homicide or two that he is prevailed upon to solve. "Biggers had a bigger picture in mind and was less concerned with this Chinese supporting character," film scholar David Rothel said of Charlie's role in the second novel, THE CHINESE PARROT (1926).* Whether or not Biggers was uncomfortable with making his pidgin English-speaking copper too large a role given negative images of Asians that predominated in the 1920s and beyond is unknown without the benefit of further research. The author may have simply followed the conventions of slick-magazine fiction of the time and introduced Charlie to lend some mild exoticism to his stories. Staying the course of what was expected by his readership served Biggers well financially if not critically, perhaps another reason his works have unfortunately moved to the dustier shelves of American literary history.


Such is not the case with the fourth novel, THE BLACK CAMEL (1929), which Fox Film turned into a feature two years later. Charlie is introduced in the second chapter, much sooner than his previous entries onto the scene, and despite the usual plentitude of characters and suspects, he dominates the story. In THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY, THE CHINESE PARROT and BEHIND THAT CURTAIN (1928), Charlie's investigations are seen through the eyes of the stories' nominal heroes; here, however, Charlie's only companion is the reader, even if he is saddled with a comic relief assistant in Kashimo, a rookie detective of Japanese descent. For the first time since THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY, Charlie operates on his own stomping ground of Honolulu as he's drawn into the hunt for the slayer of movie star Shelah Fane in the beachside house she's rented during a location shoot.

Shelah, who's fallen in love with a wealthy British traveler, Alan Jaynes, is troubled by his proposal of marriage and summons Tarneverro, a Hollywood psychic in whom she's placed all of her trust. Tarneverro, who meets Charlie in the lobby of the Grand Hotel where the crystal-gazer is staying, then confers with Shelah upon her arrival in the islands. Because he's been fed information about Shelah from inside her household, Tarneverro forces a long-kept secret out of her that Shelah believes imperils any union with Alan. She informs Tarneverro that she witnessed the unsolved murder of screen idol Denny Mayo in his Hollywood residence three years earlier, and apparently reveals more about the incident to her eager mystic consultant. Tarneverro, re-encountering Charlie at the hotel while the detective awaits his Rotary Club dinner meeting, asks for Charlie's help in making an arrest later in the evening.

Shelah has planned a dinner party with some of the movie's staff and friends. Disturbed by her confession to Tarneverro, she destroys a photo of Mayo, with whom she had fallen in love at the time of his slaying. Flowers are then delivered by her ex-husband, stage actor Robert Fyfe, whose company is performing in Honolulu. Shelah prepares for dinner while her faithful secretary, Julie O'Neill, and her ardent admirer Jimmy Bradshaw romp on the beach. When they return to inform Shelah the guests have arrived, they find her dead, stabbed in the heart. Charlie, alerted to the crime during his meeting, finds himself accompanied by Tarneverro. His investigation gets off to a rocky start when the lights go out, Charlie is struck in the face and a key piece of evidence, a last-minute letter to Tarneverro imploring him to keep silent about her knowledge of the Mayo killing, is taken from him. Presented with baffling clues and interference from surprising sources, Charlie eventually learns that Shelah was Mayo's killer, and her death was an unintended act of vengeance.

THE BLACK CAMEL is an absorbing work, and no less so because Charlie is the focus of the story and the other characters, while given their moments, are for a change in the subsidiary position. Charlie does answer to his chief, who's anxious to get Shelah's murder solved, but the chief knows well enough to leave Charlie to his own devices in getting to the bottom of things; time-wise, the swift-moving tale plays out over two days, even allowing for Charlie to banter with his sprawling family over breakfast at one point. The older kids are, of course, movie-mad and want all the details about the case that their father is still trying to arrange in his mind. When daughter Rose urges him not to spend too much time in "Oriental meditation," he sighs in response: "Should I pause to think deeply ... I would be plenty lonesome man in this new world."**

Respectful of the chief and aware he's outgunned by his wife and children, Charlie nevertheless is authoritative when politeness fails with his suspects. After the blow in the dark at the Fane residence has resulted in a slight gash on his face, the provoked Charlie makes it clear he can dish it out as well as take it. "But I give you my word ... the person who struck that blow will pay. I am in no mood to turn the other cheek tonight."*** Compare this statement with the line in the film version: "I am in no mood tonight to turn the other cheek. Assault will be met with compound battery."

Additionally, Charlie shuts down superior attitudes toward him, mostly exhibited by one of the party guests, arrogant planter Wilkie Ballou, whom Biggers describes as the latest representative of an old American family to have settled Hawaii. "You'd better be careful -- I'm not without influence," Ballou harrumphs at one point. "So sorry," Charlie responds, deflecting the man's anger. Yet in a later hostile exchange, Charlie calmly informs the fatcat, who demands the detective never return to his home, "I travel where duty takes me. ... You must go where waters are deep."

THE BLACK CAMEL, like the other novels, features a budding romance to provide the reader with some relief from the mystery element. But here the relationship between Julie and Jimmy isn't quite the distraction it represents in the other Biggers works, even with Julie's own secret surrounding Shelah's death. Rather, the appealing Julie is matched by Jimmy, an irrepressible promoter of Hawaii for the local tourist board whose portfolio of corny slogans provide some amusement on their own. That they will tie the knot is a foregone conclusion, with the girl even convincing Jimmy to leave the islands and return with her to California. In the movie, the screenwriters opted for the opposite as Jimmy wins his campaign for Julie to remain with him "in a bungalow nestled beneath two mortgages."

By the time Biggers composed THE BLACK CAMEL, his first two Chan novels had been made into silent films and production wrapped on the third, an all-dialogue version of BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, released by Fox on June 28, 1929, a week following the end of THE BLACK CAMEL's magazine serialization.@ It is unclear if response to Chan in the books or on film may have prompted the author to cast Charlie in a larger role, but that move may have been Biggers' intention from then on since the novels and films were popular. However, Charlie's fans were disappointed with the screen version of BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, which morphed the story into a vehicle for stars Warner Baxter and Lois Moran and cast its Charlie (E.L. Park) in a decidedly minor role.

However, the next two and final Chan novels reflected more interest in Biggers' unique sleuth, or at least made an attempt in that direction. CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON (1930), the only story carrying Charlie's name in the title, still brings him in much later in the proceedings when he joins a murder-plagued around the world cruise in search of the killer, who attacked Charlie's friend Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard when the ship stopped in Honolulu. Biggers spent the first half of the piece building up the characters and intrigue surrounding them and Duff, who was first introduced in BEHIND THAT CURTAIN. KEEPER OF THE KEYS (1932) not only brings Charlie back to the mainland for a case but spotlights him in the very first chapter.

When Fox decided to film CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, released April 12, 1931, it offered a fairly faithful version that kept Charlie offstage until he accepts the wounded Duff's request to finish the case. With Swedish-born actor Warner Oland, known for his portrayals of Asian characters (including, at the time, a three-film series for Paramount as Fu Manchu), starring as Charlie the film emphasized Charlie's presence. THE BLACK CAMEL, issued June 21, 1931, was next on the boards and Charlie's lead is one of its strengths, along with location shooting and rewarding performances from the supporting cast.

The screenplay for THE BLACK CAMEL by Barry Conners and Philip Klein, who had provided the scenario for CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, is from an adaptation by Hugh Stange that is remarkably close to the novel and all the better for being so. The biggest departure from the Biggers original is that instead of handing Charlie two homicides to investigate, Shelah Fane's and the earlier case involving Denny Mayo, he has a third to complicate matters. 

Smith (Murray Kinnell), the quirky and ultimately pitiable beachcombing artist who overheard a scene between Shelah (Dorothy Revier) and former spouse Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi) just prior to Shelah's demise, is shot and fatally wounded after blackmailing Fyfe into buying one of his paintings. Charlie at length arrests Fyfe for Smith's slaying, but is not convinced of the actor's guilt, leading to a concluding exposure of yet another killer in the Fane household. In the novel, Smith is still upright at the end, on the way to a reformation of his character, and even returns some of the money extorted from Fyfe, which the actor graciously lets him keep. But to ensure he will remain clean and sober, the chief grants Smith's request to stay in a jail cell overnight so he can further resist a return to the  dissolute lifestyle he'd led.

One of the movie's inconsistencies, at least to modern audiences, lies in the discovery by Charlie that a key photo of Denny Mayo in the back issues of the Los Angeles Times at the public library has been removed. This seems an illogical move given Mayo's popularity that despite the passage of time, someone (like Charlie's kids) would remember what he looked like, or that the library didn't carry old numbers of screen magazines containing Mayo's visage. Or perhaps not, since we get the impression the library is a rather staid institution that wouldn't be caught dead with such periodical on its shelves. 

Additionally, when Charlie learns that one of Tarneverro's secrets is that he is actually Mayo's brother Arthur and that both closely resembled each other, we are led to wonder why nobody has remarked on that resemblance, least of all Shelah, who was madly in love with Mayo and placed her full trust in Tarneverro's guidance.

Biggers does a better job of explaining this point in the novel. "Strange none of these Hollywood folks ever noticed a resemblance between Mayo and the fortune-teller," the chief remarks. Charlie responds: "Not likely they would. The two visit town at widely separated times and were not seen together there. Many people ... would not note the resemblance, but Tarneverro flatters me by assuming I am one who would." Tarneverro also informs us, when admitting to the family ties, that he was Mayo's much older brother and the facial likeness between them was fleeting.@@

Otherwise, the film of THE BLACK CAMEL condenses much of the novel into a 70-minute running time allowing for no lulls and some well-executed setpieces, including Tarneverro's eerily lit consultation with Shelah early on. The scenes filmed in Honolulu and its beaches during an April 1931 shoot present a time and mood so representative of the place that any attempt to duplicate the same on a sound stage would have been patently phony. The first dialogue sequence is of Shelah on a brilliantly white beach that aids in setting the tone of the film. The mood is further enhanced as Julie and Jimmy observe local high school students serenade Shelah at twilight, creating a serene atmosphere soon shattered by the discovery of Shelah's murder.

Much of pictorial and emotional feeling can be attributed to director Hamilton MacFadden (1901-1977), who despite modern-day criticism about the "banality" of his work (in the words of online critic Hal Erickson) does himself proud on THE BLACK CAMEL. A more appreciative critique comes from Chan movie historian Ken Hanke: "MacFadden does well by this film on nearly every level, employing an extremely mobile camera style, which while suffering from the occasional disadvantages inherent in the problems caused by location shooting with the bulky early sound cameras, manages to help keep the film moving at a brisk pace without sacrificing atmosphere in the process."@@@ Additionally, MacFadden called upon his earlier career as an actor by portraying Val Martino, director of the movie Shelah's making, during the same beachfront scene described in the previous paragraph.

As a film, THE BLACK CAMEL is significant for several reasons, especially in being the earliest surviving "official" Chan movie, discounting BEHIND THAT CURTAIN; CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON and the three films that followed THE BLACK CAMEL have been lost since the latter '30s, victims of a storage vault fire at Fox. With the THE BLACK CAMEL, we see Oland's early approach to the role before he settled into the more mellow interpretation for which he is most remembered. Quicker to action in this film and a bit more irritable than he would later appear, Oland makes Charlie recognizably human. He even hints at the more caustic characterization offered later in the decade by Sidney Toler, his successor in the role, particularly in dealings with the dimwitted Kashimo, a precursor of the pesky but useful Chan children who aid in his later investigations. 

Speaking of which, one can almost understand Charlie's bemused frustration with his boisterous, slang-spouting clan in a delightful depiction of the novel's breakfast scene after the kids chide him about handing them "baloney" and "applesauce" about the Fane case. "Come on, pop, spill the beans!" a daughter urges.

"Baloney, applesauce, beans!" Charlie splutters. "One would think you took lessons in grocery store instead of school!" (Compare this to his response in the novel: "Enough! Vast English language is spread out before you, and you select for your use the lowliest words. I am discouraged.")

THE BLACK CAMEL is also held in high regard by fans of Bela Lugosi, effectively cast as Tarneverro soon after his screen appearance as DRACULA (1931). THE BLACK CAMEL offers us one of the actor's best roles in a non-horror vein as Lugosi coolly and rather charmingly glides through the part, forsaking his trademark ominous line readings for a lighter interpretation. As pointed out by Hanke, Lugosi and Oland mesh perfectly, the film making Tarneverro less of a hindrance to Charlie than he appeared in the novel. When one examines Lugosi's pre-DRACULA film career, Fox appears to have treated the Hungarian-born thespian with more respect than Universal, the scene of Lugosi's career-making roles in seminal horror films, and his fine work in THE BLACK CAMEL reveals the talent range Universal and other studios failed to recognize in the man.

Interestingly, Lugosi's fellow DRACULA cohort Dwight Frye is cast as Jessop, the Fane house butler. Although Hanke found Frye miscast and his performance "perfectly dreadful," he actually acquits himself well in a mostly non-spectacular role (until the end), more restrained than his lunatic Renfield and soon-in-coming part as the freakish Fritz in Universal's FRANKENSTEIN, released toward the tail end of 1931. Violet Dunn, at the time the second Mrs. Hamilton MacFadden, arouses sympathy as the ill-fated maid Anna, while C. Henry Gordon, who played John Ross in CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, makes his second appearance in a Chan film as Huntley Van Horn, the co-star of Shelah's movie and one of the suspects in her demise. Gordon was to play more important roles in three later Chans, among them CHARLIE CHAN IN THE WAX MUSEUM, which hit theaters three months prior to his death at 56 in December 1940.


Dorothy Revier makes her opening scenes as Shelah count, while Sally Eilers and Robert Young, both on the verge of greater things in their careers, are affecting as lovebirds Julie and Jimmy. Eilers, a Baby WAMPAS Star pick for 1928, was then married to western movie star Hoot Gibson and scored her best screen role at Fox in her next film BAD GIRL, co-starred with James Dunn under the direction of Frank Borzage. Awarded with good parts during her tenure with the studio, Eilers' momentum slowed as the new decade dawned, and one of her most-seen portrayals in later years, especially with the advent of home video, was as hero James Lydon's mother in the Poverty Row psychological thriller STRANGE ILLUSION (1945).

Young made his movie debut with a bit in the Pathe two-reeler THE CAMPUS VAMP (1928, in which Eilers co-starred) and made THE BLACK CAMEL his first role of any significance. He followed up as Helen Hayes' son in the weeper THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET, which won Hayes the Oscar for best actress of 1931. The film launched Young's lengthy association as an agreeable leading man and second lead for M-G-M and at RKO before finding his latter-day niche as family man Jim Anderson in TV's FATHER KNOWS BEST (1954-1960) and as MARCUS WELBY, M.D. (1969-1976). His performance as Jimmy contains all of the charm that signified not only his persona on screen but also in real life.

One of the best of the Chan novels, THE BLACK CAMEL also translated into a movie vehicle for the character and for Oland, the man who became immortalized in the role. Both the book and film retain their qualities of good storytelling and characteruization, and deserve to be better known as a century approaches since their respective appearances in print and on celluloid. As Charlie observes in the closing line of the novel, "a gem is not polished without rubbing, nor a man perfected without trials."

* David Rothel, THE CASE FILES OF THE ORIENTAL SLEUTHS: CHARLIE CHAN, MR. MOTO AND MR. WONG, Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2011, p. 9.
** Earl Derr Biggers, THE BLACK CAMEL, Bantam Books reprint, New York, 1975, p. 113.
*** THE BLACK CAMEL, pp. 41-42.
@ My thanks to the Charlie Chan Family Home Page for that valuable piece of information. Bobbs-Merrill Co. of Indianapolis, which published all first editions of the Chan novels, issued THE BLACK CAMEL in book form later in the year. The release date for BEHIND THAT CURTAIN is from Denis Gifford, KARLOFF: THE MAN, THE MONSTER, THE MOVIES, New York: Curtis Books, 1973, p. 139.
@@ THE BLACK CAMEL, pp. 180-182.
@@@ Ken Hanke, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE MOVIES: HISTORY, FILMOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1989, p. 12

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