A great many people consider Charlie Chan at the Opera to be the best Charlie Chan movie of all time. Keye Luke told me it was his favorite of the eight (Technically, 10 if you count the two low budget titles from the late 1940s) films in which he played Charlie’s “No. 1 Son” Lee, and there are few people who would place it much lower. The presence of “special guest” Boris Karloff has even made it a favorite of viewers who aren’t Charlie Chan fans. (Notice that Karloff rated special above-the-title billing with Warner Oland in the film’s amusing main title that reads, “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera.”) It certainly impressed 20th Century Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck, who blasted director H. Bruce Humberstone for making a B-picture that looked better than the studio’s A product. And there’s no denying that it’s every inch a handsome production — in part because of Karloff’s presence, which caused the film to be approached in terms of an atmospheric horror picture. Karloff plays a deranged opera star who escapes from an asylum (in the midst of a thunderstorm, of course) and sets out to revenge himself on those he considers responsible for his plight. Fortunately for all concerned — well, not so much for the victims or the murderer — Charlie is on the scene. It’s slick and fast-paced, and benefits not only from Karloff’s presence, but that of William Demarest as an ill-tempered and racist cop who resents Charlie’s presence — at least till he learns better. There’s also a pretty impressive fake opera called “Carnival,” which was written by pianist, composer, raconteur, and professional house guest Oscar Levant. Reportedly, Levant was roused from his usual aversion to work by the prospect of creating what he’d always wanted to see — an opera where all the singing was brought to a dead stop by a character entering the scene and proclaiming, “Silencio!” He got his wish, but that part of the opera didn’t make the final cut of the film. (It can be heard in complete recordings of the piece.) Oh, well. It’s still a nice complement to the mystery.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Charlie Chan at the Opera Tuesday, Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.