Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen
Released by: Scorpion Films
Released on: August 9, 2016
Directed by: Clive Donner
Cast: Peter Ustinov, Lee Grant, Angie Dickinson, Richard Hatch, Brian Keith, Roddy McDowall, Rachel Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Ryan (no, not that Paul Ryan), Johnny Sekka
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Anti-Asian racism has suffused Western culture for two millennia, but it reached its apex in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it became standard belief that the Chinese and Japanese were separately out to take over the world (leading to Japanese internment camps on native soil during World War II). Newspapers in the United States and Great Britain touted the threat, and the slightest mistaken move from a person of Asian descent was touted as proof positive of his or her supremacist leanings, cunning, and danger. The term Yellow Peril (itself a racist play on negative beliefs about the color of Asian people’s skin) was coined in 1899, and with the birth of cinema around that same time, the noxious idea made the jump to the ‘big screen.’ In 1900, the movie Chinese Magic was released, with one of its alternate-release titles being Yellow Peril; it concerned a Chinese magician, ostensibly a vampire, who transforms into a bat. By 1913, the notion of Chinese madmen plotting the overthrow of Occidentals everywhere had become a literary staple, thanks in part to the publication of Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. A long series of books and film adaptations followed, as did a wave of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. and abroad.
It should come as no surprise, then, that by the 1920s, a pushback had begun. Popular author Earl Derr Biggers, inspired by the work of two detectives of Chinese descent working for the San Francisco police department, wrote The House Without a Key in 1925, and in so doing, introduced the world to an amiable, quietly reserved but witty Chinese detective of his own making, one Charlie Chan. The character returned in a series of novels, but his biggest splash on society was as the soft-spoken lead in innumerable films, first for Fox and later for Monogram. It’s easy to view the character as a racist stereotype in retrospect, but at the time, he was a positive breath of fresh air, the heroic answer to the mysterious and conniving killer Fu Manchu. The first three films to star the character minimized his role in deference to the racist attitudes of the time, but Fox’s second attempt at realizing a series based on him, Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), proved a big hit. Audiences immediately took to the fourth actor to play the role on the big screen, Warner Oland, of whom much has been made, given that the actor has long been touted as white. Swedish actor Oland, however, professed to having some Mongolian ancestry, a fact evident in his facial makeup. (For the record, Oland also starred as Fu Manchu in a Paramount series based on Rohmer’s novels.)
Fox’s series proved rabidly successful, outlasting even Oland himself, who died in 1938 from complications related to alcoholism. His replacement, Sidney Toler, was far less interesting a Chan, and eventually the series’ declining fortunes led to the rights being sold off cheaply to Toler, who took them to Monogram, where the films became cheaper and duller. By the end of the 1940s, as an increasing tolerance for Asian peoples began to manifest in the U.S. and Great Britain, the series died an ignominious death. (For the record, Chan was a mainstay with Chinese populations for many years to come.) Yet, by the 1970s, it was clear that Chan’s pronounced accent, penchant for fathering children, and quiet grace were being viewed in a less positive light. As with the Madonna/whore presentation of women, Asians were either evil masterminds or blandly innocuous heroes, with nary a shade between to be found. As audiences grew more sophisticated and demanding, both Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan fell to the cultural wayside.
Until 1980, that is. In that year, Fu Manchu was mined for intended comic gold as a vehicle for Peter Sellers, who played both white hero Nayland Smith and Chinese villain Fu Manchu. It went through two directors and extensive reshoots before being released two weeks after Sellers’ death—when its low-brow comedic prejudices were rejected by audiences. Yet, that rejection didn’t stop Hollywood producers from attempting to resurrect Charlie Chan as well. Perhaps the biggest mistake was spoofing Chan, a character already viewed as a biased representation long since consigned to the dust heap, rather than presenting him as a multi-dimensional, flawed, but ultimately good human being. Cast in the lead role was yet another lily-white actor, Peter Ustinov, who plays it with characteristic ridiculousness, accent and all.
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen concerns a series of murders that brings Chan out of retirement. Believing them to have been committed by his arch-nemesis, the dragon queen (Angie Dickinson), Chan has to reconsider his initial suspicions as he digs deeper into the case. He also has to contend with his number-one grandson, Lee Chan, Jr. (Richard Hatch), who is trying to establish himself in the family tradition of private detective by helping his grandfather, and Lee’s fiancé, the naïve Cordelia Farenington (Michele Pfeiffer).
Racial stereotypes aside, there’s a giant problem with Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, one that’s impossible to get over: It isn’t funny. In fact, it’s risible… unwatchably so. Ustinov is embarrassing, and Hatch and Pfeiffer are too green to leave much of an impression. It’s nice to see Angie Dickinson getting something to do, though Dressed to Kill (1980) is a much better showcase of her abilities. The direction is standard, but the script is simply too witless to engender any laughs.
Scorpion presents Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition with an MPEG-4 AVC encode, in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Some viewers may balk at the lack of detail, but the problem has absolutely nothing to do with the superior transfer used for Scorpion’s release and everything to do with Paul Lohmann’s original cinematography; he shoots the entire film in glossy sheen, which was popular at the time. The result is that the detail is somewhat subdued to begin with. Regardless, there’s still plenty to be had, which can best be viewed in the actors’ faces and in the textures of various cloths. There’s also a nice color palette; while in general they look fairly naturalistic, colors do pop on occasion, particularly blues, reds, and greens. Grasses and other plant material convey just how much detail and color there is to be had, despite the soft-focus photography, and should derail any threads that want to bitch about the look. Grain is not an issue (compare this to Warner’s Blu-ray release of Clash of the Titans, another soft-focus film from 1981; it’s a grainy mess). Neither is crush.
For the only audio track on the disc, Scorpion has opted for English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The track is blemish free, with no serious issues to report. It doesn’t exactly pop, but this isn’t the kind of film that calls for a 5.1 remix. Sound effects are modulated and mixed well enough, even if there are very minor occasional dips that require keeping the television or surround system remote relatively close. Overall, dialogue is understandable; where it isn’t has more to do with Ustinov’s and other performers’ accents than anything else. As for subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired, there are none.
There are a couple of extras that should interest fans of the film. The first and most important is a making-of featurette (21:35), first recorded for the DVD release of the film back in 2003. It features Alan Belkin, president of American Cinema; Jean Higgins, head of production for American Cinema; composer Patrick Williams; Sandra Shaw, head of advertising, publicity, and promotion; and actor Richard Hatch; The conversation mostly focuses on humorous anecdotes involving Ustinov and/or Pfeiffer. Hatch dominates the program, and he shares some amusing asides.
Two television spots running half a minute each round out the extras.
The Final Word:
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen is a terribly misguided film, but it’s also terrible for reasons apart from its misguided aspects. For one, it simply isn’t funny; for another, the mystery is torpid, to say the least. Thankfully, there isn’t much to complain about in the audio-visual aspects of the presentation. The image is fairly pleasing, and the sound is as good as one would expect from a title such as this.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era due out later this year.
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