October 15, 2013

Charlie Chan Meets Frankenstein

After two decades toiling in bit parts and secondary roles, Boris Karloff was propelled to instant stardom with the release of Frankenstein in 1931. A box-office draw on his own, the actor, through most of the Thirties, would still be routinely billed as “Boris ‘Frankenstein’ Karloff”. Even ads for a gangster film, like Behind the Mask or Scarface, tagged Karloff as ‘Frankenstein’. 

In 1936, when 20th Century Fox landed Karloff as guest villain in Charlie Chan at the Opera, the studio gleefully played up their star menace  — the film’s title card reads “Warner Oland VS Boris Karloff” — and went all out with Frankenstein references, even name-checking The Monster in the film itself. Maurice Cass, playing the harried stage manager says, “This opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!”.

Karloff plays Gravelle, opera singer and revenge-minded sanitarium escapee. Dressed in a flamboyant Mephisto costume, with cape, lipstick and a cat-eared skullcap, Karloff lip-synchs tunes written by Oscar Levant in a rich baritone provided by Tudor Williams. “Never has Charlie Chan met an opponent like Karloff!” crowed the film’s promotional herald. “Never as he been staggered by the enormity of the crimes known only to the Frankenstein of the Mad House! 

Newspaper ads exploited the Frankenstein angle: It’s “Boris “Frankenstein” Karloff” in North Carolina’s Davidsonian of January 13, 1937, and an February 5 ad for Schine’s Strand in Lexington, Kentucky, misspells Boris’s name, but bills the film as Charlie Chan Meets ‘Frankenstein’. I wonder if this fooled anyone. Were there any patrons who were disappointed that the famed Oriental detective didn’t actually go up against Karloff with bolts in his neck?

Due, in no small part, to Karloff’s presence, Charlie Chan at the Opera is considered by many to be the best of all the Chan films.

Created by Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan was, ostensibly, a heroic antidote to Yellow Peril enormities and Asian stereotypes. Nevertheless, in the Hollywood series — stretching to an amazing 44 titles over 18 years at Fox and Monogram — Chan was played by Caucasian actors Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. Asian actors Keye Luke and Victor Sen Young appeared in support, often as comedy relief.

An interesting side-note: Scott Darling, one of the screenwriters for Opera, went on to pen some of the Mr. Wong films — poverty row Chan knockoffs — wherein Karloff played the Oriental sleuth. Darling also scripted The Ghost of Frankenstein (1941), Universal’s fourth Frankenstein film, with Lon Chaney Jr. replacing Karloff as The Monster.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is up on YouTube. The Frankenstein reference comes on at 17:30.
The films of Charlie Chan at the Charlie Chan Family Home.


Caftan Woman said...

There are few things in life I love more than backstage mysteries, Charlie Chan and Boris Karloff. "Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera" is my happy place.

Caffeinated Joe said...

Karloff is really a great presence to have in any film. I love his Body Snatcher film, his portrayal there is perfect.