Monday, August 30, 2010

Charlie Chan, No. 41 - The Trap (1946)

When the end came for former Chan man Warner “I’m Drunk” Oland, it gave me a certain perverse glee. Okay, fine, his performances as Charlie Chan remain beloved by the oddball online community that continues to worship these 75-year-old racist B-movies, but Oland himself was evidently a jerk. This is the guy who pioneered the cinematic form of Fu Manchu, let us not forget, and made a career out of a very specific form of anti-Chinese stereotyping. That his death resembled what Lindsey Lohan’s will someday merely solidifies this impression.

Sidney Toler’s final, pre-death Chans, however, carry the stench of tragedy about them. I’ll be honest, at the start of his Chan Toler tenure, Sid outdid Oland – for me. And he was a genuine actor before Charlie Chan, with real roles in real movies. It’s sad that a Caucasian actor in his late sixties could only find work because he had a vaguely Asianish face, and was fat. When Toler’s slow, steady descent into death became clear, we wasn’t even allowed a moment’s respite. No, not when a money-hungry Poverty Row studio could milk his existence and propped-up physical frame for a few more entries. It’s fortunate Monogram didn’t try to animate his dead corpse after the fact.

Here we are at The Trap, the end of the Toler era – it’s odd, how lead-driven franchises have “eras” in the James Bond sense, even while Sid’s personal output of 22 films equals the official EON Bond output. No matter, I bid you farewell, Sidney Toler. If only the last eleven films you did hadn’t been so astoundingly unenjoyable.

The Trap is racist, this we know, because A) it’s a Charlie Chan movie, B) it stars Mantan Moreland, and C) it’s from the 1940s. This is old hat now, but there’s more! The Trap is sexist too! Basically, The Trap posits that all females, or at least all young, attractive females, are skittish, prissy, incompetent and screechingly terrified of everything to the extent that they make Moreland’s negro stereotypes seem butch. It’s nice to see Sidney Toler bowed out with a touch of class.

The setup here – which is actually unique – sees roughly 8 or so showgirls wintering for a month at an isolated beachside mansion, where they shall be slowly picked off, one by one, by a sexually-crazed killer in the shadows. [Record screech.] Hold up! I thought this was a ‘40s murder mystery, not an ‘80s slasher flick! Indeed, even the final motive has the pungent reek of ‘80s exploitation, somehow. Even so, the proportions are all different here. Imagine it, a disposable slasher movie which focuses on the dialogue, the characters [sic], and the scenes in between the killings – while still being no better for it.

The setup takes a long time, not because this future stock plot is at all complex, but because they’re trying to buy screen time without Toler’s cancerous presence. Much of the movie makes feints towards being a genuine murder mystery (hah!), but all the soap opera nonsense between the showgirls (concerning jealousy, men, clothing, and a bunch of other stuff nobody cares about) is a simple red herring. To cut to the chase, the killer’s motive is such: To disgrace pornographer impresario extraordinaire “Maestro” Cole King (Howard Negley). Which, somehow, can only be done by the random, wanton murder of girls only nebulously connected to the man. It made more sense in the ‘80s, but at least then they had exploitative genre trappings to fall back on.

This thing really is a horror flick displaced by 35 years. Take for instance the first murder (some casual 12 minutes in – and these things are only 65 minutes long). Much like her inane sisters to come, underage ingénue Lois (all the characters – and their actresses – have names that sound like 1940s porn stars, if such a thing existed) holds no sense of self-preservation. Breaking out the shot clock, she simply stands and weeps uselessly for one minute as the gloved killer lurks ever nearer with a garrote. A garrote! I’m sorry, girl, but at least put up a fight! Yeesh!

The discovery of Lois’ body provokes quivering spasms of speaker-shattering screams from the remaining showgirl coterie. It is very, very, very irritating, meaning it is a trick The Trap will fall back on time and again. When Cole’s dogsbody Rick (Larry Blake) opines silk cord stranglings are an “old Chinese custom,” this provokes even louder shrieks from Cole’s harridans. “EEK! CHINESE!” Wow! Sexist and racist in one fell swoop. Charlie Chan movies, you make every hour feel like three, but I salute your efficiency when it comes to what truly matters.

The flock of brainless strippers – sorry, showgirls – putters around incomprehensibly like so many hens, as someone with a bit more sense (i.e., a man) proposes a solution. To call Charlie Chan, “the world’s greatest Chinese detective.” Cue showgirls: “AAH! CHINESE!” Okay, seriously movie, you can stop harping on that one note!

No, wait, the screaming continues, even into the next scene at Chan’s house – and the girls aren’t even here. They’re just that loud. “WE’LL ALL BE MURDERED! AAH!” And due to a series of farcical misunderstandings (read: the speech impediments of both black people and women), Birmingham Brown (Moreland) convinces Chan that his son Jimmy is dead. Quick, to the Chanmobile!, Birmingham’s coupe.

This confusion about Jimmy shall not last, as Victor Sen Yung’s quick arrival resolves it. Sadly, he does so by creeping about the exterior of the Malibu murder mansion. The harlots all see him. “CHINESE! WE’LL DIE!” Give – it – a – rest – already!

Charlie Chan languorously forces his decaying mortal husk up towards the murder room – “NO, NO, DON’T GO UP THERE! AAH!” Girls, please! Enough already! Seriously! Anyway, poor Chan is relegated to mostly being still and reciting lines. It’s no longer acting, but simply recitation. For Toler’s cancer was so far so far, all Monogram could hope for was that one take in fifteen in which Toler’s words were comprehensible – if even then. And when they’re not…well, that just sounds more “Chinese,” which works for ‘em too! “AAH! CHINESE!” Okay, girls, knock it off, or I won’t continue this review!

Okay…Okay, are we all settled down here?...Yes?...Good. I’ll get back to business.

Jimmy and Birmingham go on one of their usual bungling side investigations, to no effect. These are taking up more screen time than usual (that is, more uneventful creeping, lurking and shuffling), though they’re losing whatever spark they once had. All I can do is remark upon the latest thing that terrifies Birmingham, a negro – himself. Yes, he sees himself and screams. (Ugh, screaming!) “Aah, I’m corporeal!” it seems to suggest. [Sigh.]

Things calm down again briefly, as Chan takes statements from the coherent (male) suspects, all while he perches on the edge of a bed and visible struggles to control his failing heart rate. Poor Toler. His death almost happens ahead of schedule, then, as the girls’ O.S. screaming startles the living hell out of him. Oh, what is it this time? Mice in the wall! Not even anything to do with the “mystery,” simply mice. (Spoiler: It’s the caretaker cleaning up the old Prohibition chambers. Also mice.)

This portrayal of women must’ve been trying, even for ‘40s audiences, so next they throw us a bone (and a corpse), as footage that must’ve been the 1940 equivalent of Piranha 3D displays both buxom bathing beauties and mangled death. In a very ill-staged moment, one hussy runs after an errant beach ball (at a perfect 90 degree difference to its own trajectory) and thus “trips” over a poorly hidden seaweed carcass. It’s Marcia, whose strangulation wounds and nearby cord lead everyone to believe she committed suicide…by drowning. (The logic, is she not working for you too well?) Chan himself cannot mumble out an opposition, until Crime Lab™ can step in and explain otherwise.

Resolving a dangling “plot thread,” this proves Marcia wasn’t in the cabana – yes, this was an issue. And at the film’s repeated insistence, both “Marcia” and “cabana” are given very peculiar pronunciations – three syllables and a tilde, respectively.

Oh, and when Crime Lab™ does determine Marcia was strangled, Chan declares it was the sort of knot “only woman can tie.” That’s the extent of The Trap’s sexism: women have different powers! (Though Chan does imply, to the fullest extent possible under Hays, that homosexuals can also tie such a knot. Boy, these movies sure are tasteful.)

Having gotten everything he could from the men, Chan turns to the fairer and frightier sex. “OH NO! DON’T QUESTION ME, CHARLIE CHAN!”…Shut…up! So Chan questions one, somewhat more capable wench, who obtained womanly garroting skills when living out in Darkest Orient, and [discussion in regards to red herrings deleted].

Back to Birmingham (racism will be a nice break from sexism): He sleeps outside on top of the basement door. What sense does this make?! And when the door predictably opens, Birmingham comes to a bizarre conclusion: “Erfquakes! Erfquakes! What is you at?” Actually, do you think we could get back to the movie’s sexist content?

Charlie Chan is becoming increasingly more reliant on capturing murderers with traps (he actually hasn’t solved a mystery since 1938). This makes basically every movie a waiting game until the final 10 minutes. But here those minutes are! Things begin with a rehash of The Jimmy and Birmingham Show, as they run through their typical sub-Scooby routine yet again. Then they happen upon the shadowy killer in mid-choke, and chase the (admittedly stupid looking) killer away. Chan is suddenly here (editing masking Toler’s infirmities most unsuccessfully), claiming they have spoilt his latest trap…which was to…allow another murder to happen, apparently. (Chan’s actual dialogue: “Creeping around, ancient Chinese tradition.”)

No matter, it’s time for action, Monogram style! That is, through stock footage. Cranked-up police film of cars on PCH, combined with night filter and the same climactic music they play in every movie…well, all that combines to make a car chase. Then the killer’s car crashes. It turns out the dying killer is…Okay, I haven’t run through the characters here, and I’ve already explained the motive above. Let’s just say it’s Pamela Voorhees or someone, okay? She dies, and everyone laughs genially. The End. (Oh yes, the killer’s female…That’s kinda rare for these films.)

And as that ill-motivated archetype perishes, so too does, in a sense, Sidney Toler. This is the last we shall see of him, a far lesser man than when he began…

But it still isn’t the end of the Charlie Chan franchise! Oh Lordie no! For if they could already weather one actor’s death, why not another? Recasting is already on the table, meaning these Chan films shall continue on ad infinitum until some outside force (unpopularity, television, Monogram’s transformation into Allied Artists) forces it to stop. But while 1947 would see Monogram actually start to shed its B-model model and jettison most of its many, many B franchises, there was still a little more life left in Chan somehow. Enough for one more actor to essay the role, and six more films.

Related posts:
• No. 3 Behind That Curtain (1929)
• No. 4 Charlie Chan Carries On (1931)
• No. 5 The Black Camel (1931)
• No. 9 Charlie Chan in London (1934)
• No. 10 Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)
• No. 11 Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)
• No. 12 Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)
• No. 13 Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)
• No. 14 Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
• No. 15 Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)
• No. 16 Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)
• No. 17 Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
• No. 18 Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)
• No. 19 Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938)
• No. 20 Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)
• No. 21 Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)
• No. 22 Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)
• No. 23 City in Darkness (1939)
• No. 24 Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)
• No. 25 Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)
• No. 26 Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)
• No. 27 Murder Over New York (1940)
• No. 28 Dead Men tell (1941)
• No. 29 Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)
• No. 30 Castle in the Desert (1942)
• No. 31 Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)
• No. 32 The Chinese Cat (1944)
• No. 33 Meeting at Midnight (1944)
• No. 34 The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
• No. 35 The Red Dragon (1945)
• No. 36 The Scarlet Clue (1945)
• No. 37 The Jade Mask (1945)
• No. 38 Dark Alibi (1946)
• No. 40 Dangerous Money (1946)
• No. 42 The Chinese Ring (1947)

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