When Warner Oland died in 1938, 20th Century Fox wasn’t about to lose one of its most lucrative products, so they quickly replaced him with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan – and, like Charlie himself had done, “carried on.” Their first effort — Charlie Chan in Honolulu — was rather weak, in part because director H. Bruce Humberstone had been too involved with the earlier series and clearly wasn’t that taken with Toler’s portrayal, while even more clearly, he didn’t like Sen Yung as number-two son, Jimmy Chan. (Upon Oland’s death, Keye Luke left the series out of a sense that only Warner Oland was the real Charlie Chan.)
By the second film, though, the series had hit its stride with a new director, Norman Foster, who approached things with a fresh eye — and a snappier, yet atmospheric, style. With Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, the third film, Foster crafted the most highly regarded of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan series. It has an intricate mystery that’s actually baffling for most of its length, the production is nicely designed, and the guest cast is definitely a cut above the average. In fact, everything about the film seems a little stepped-up from the rest of the series — even the usually rather lackluster Samuel Kaylin musical score seems better than usual.
But mostly, it’s the clever plot about a mystic, Dr. Zodiac, who uses his position to run an elaborate blackmail scheme. As always seemed to be the case, throwing in some quasi-supernatural or horror aspect boosted the film’s popularity — and, truth to tell, the seance scenes in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island are pretty creepy. By now, Toler had really gotten the feel of the character. And the rapport between him and Sen Yung — while never on a par with that of Oland and Keye Luke — was firmly established. This one definitely belongs on any mystery fan’s list.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Mountain Xpress film critic and film historian Ken Hanke (author of the book, Charlie Chan at the Movies) will present and introduce Charlie Chan at Treasure Island on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 6 p.m., in Lord Auditorium at the Pack Memorial Library, as the third in the four-film series Charlie Chan at the Movies, which will conclude Wednesday, Nov. 16 with The Shanghai Cobra.]