Call them the un-PC PIs. Several months after “Memoirs of a Geisha” took a rather dubious step forward for the representation of Asians on the bigscreen, 20th Century Fox has excavated a pair of box sets devoted to the adventures of Charlie Chan, the famous if controversial Chinese-Hawaiian detective, and his lesser-known but arguably more interesting Japanese counterpart, Mr. Moto. Nicely restored and warmly packaged for Hollywood nostalgists, these first volumes provide eight evenings’ worth of enjoyably creaky entertainment, with extras that reveal much about the art and commerce of 1930s franchise filmmaking.
In 2003, Fox Movie Channel temporarily suspended a Chan retrospective, responding to criticism from Asian-American groups that the detective (played by Swedish thesp Warner Oland) was the Asian equivalent of thesps wearing blackface.
But while it may be a sad commentary on Hollywood’s reluctance to showcase an Asian actor in an Asian role, the fact remains that the highly idiosyncratic Chan — slanty eyes, pidgin English, droll Confucianisms and all — has a Hercule Poirot-esque appeal that transcends the question of his ethnic makeup. Oland’s engaging performance doesn’t just have its charms; more often than not, it’s the only reason to keep watching.
In “Charlie Chan in London” (1934), an English country house-style whodunit, it’s Chan — dapper, modest, sharply observant and unfailingly polite — who gets you through the sub-Agatha Christie plotting and stilted supporting performances. (Never mind Asian stereotypes; why does every woman in these movies have to come off as a hysterical fainting harpy?)
Even in Chan’s more exotic excursions to “Paris,” “Shanghai” and “Egypt” (all three were released in 1935), these fancy locales serve as little more than window-dressing for essentially the same circle of staid and suspicious Englishmen. By the time Stepin Fetchit turns up as a bumbling servant in “Charlie Chan in Egypt,” the sight of two widely derided caricatures sharing the screen almost qualifies as a refreshing change of pace.
The bonuses trace the movie Chan’s lineage — from his real-life inspiration, legendary Honolulu police officer Chang Apana, to the character dreamed up by detective novelist Earl Derr Biggers. With the exception of featurette “The Legacy of Charlie Chan,” which tactfully addresses the representational issues, the scholars and film historians interviewed couldn’t seem more smitten with their subject. And for sheer linguistic oddity, the set also includes “Eran trece,” the Spanish-language remake and sole surviving version of “Charlie Chan Carries On” (1931), starring Manuel Arbo as Chan.
Violent, chameleonlike yin to Charlie Chan’s benevolent yang, Mr. Moto, played by the elfin Peter Lorre, is no armchair sleuth. With his endless disguises, expert command of judo and willingness to kill anyone who provokes him, the Japanese adventurer is more a distant forerunner of James Bond.
Though he looks even less Asian than Oland, Lorre, one of the most watchable actors in any context, even more effectively defuses that shortcoming through strength of personality alone. If Mr. Moto’s professional identity — is he a businessman, mercenary or international police spy? — remains rather slippery, the films themselves reflect a remarkably consistent vision.
Livelier and more action-oriented than their Chan counterparts, the four films in this set — “Think Fast, Mr. Moto” (1937), “Thank You, Mr. Moto” (1937), “Mr. Moto Takes a Chance” (1938) and “Mysterious Mr. Moto” (1938) — were all directed by one man, Norman Foster, an unusual phenomenon in the rotational assembly line of ’30s B-moviemaking. Informative featurettes are devoted to Foster; to Sol Wurtzel, the “forgotten mogul” in charge of Fox’s B-unit at the time; and to Lorre’s longtime stunt double, Harvey Parry.
For the record (and for those who care), Parry wasn’t Japanese, either.