Charlie Chan in the Secret Service


Rating 2½

Directed by Phil Rosen

Written by George Callahan, based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers

Starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Arthur Loft, Gwen Kenyon, Sarah Edwards, George Lewis, Marianne Quon, Benson Fong, Muni Seroff, Barry Bernard, Gene Stutenroth, Lelah Tyler and John Elliott

When inventor George Melton (John Elliott) is murdered and his plans for a secret torpedo are stolen by Nazi spies, the Secret Service sends in Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to solve the case.


Charlie Chan is a fictional character, a Chinese-American detective based in the Honolulu police department. He was created by Earl Derrs Biggers, who wrote six novels featuring the character between 1925 and 1932. Biggers died at the age of 48 in 1933.

Following three films made during the silent era, the first series of Charlie Chan films began in 1931, with the Swedish actor Walter Orland in the lead role. Orland made a total of sixteen films for Twentieth Century-Fox, up to his death in 1938. He was 59 years old. Four out of the first five films are now lost. The American actor Sidney Toler took over the role following Orland’s death. He made eleven films for Fox up to 1942, when the series was brought to an end. In 1944 the series was picked up by Monogram Pictures, one of the so-called “Poverty Row” Hollywood films studies, still with Toler in the lead role. Toler made eleven more films, prior to his death at the age of 72 at the beginning of 1943. The role was then assumed by Roland Winters for six more films, the last one in 1949.

‘Charlie Chan in the Secret Service’ was the first Charlie Chan film Sidney Toler made for Monogram Pictures. The absence of any appreciable production budget is obvious and clearly the filming must have been completed in a matter of days. Most of the action is confined to a very small set.

The Walter Orland ‘Charlie Chan’ films are far and away the best and the films Sidney Toler made at Fox are far superior to those he made at Monogram. However, it still has a charm that makes it very watchable and seems impossible to reproduce these days.

There is some controversy surrounding the Charlie Chan character, with suggestions that he perpetrated offensive racial stereotypes, particularly since the character was always played by white actors. It has been suggested that this is no different to the “blackface” minstrels. There is certainly some truth to this, but Chan was an intelligent and thoughtful character who always got the better of his foes. I am perhaps biased because I view these films with a great deal of nostalgia, having watched and enjoyed them as a young teenager, but I don’t think there was any hateful intent in them, although I do feel slightly ambivalent about watching them again now.

Review posted 24 February 2009


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