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Charlie Chan At the Wax Museum (1940)

“Knowledge only gained through curiosity”

For his 7th of 22 films as the famed Oriental sleuth, Sidney Toler, finds himself surrounded with a bevy of suspects and Number 2 son, Victor Sen Yung, coming along as his excitable sidekick who doubles as comedy relief.

To kick off the proceedings, Marc Lawrence, plays to form as a gangster who is found guilty of murder thanks to Chan’s bringing him to justice. Upon hearing the decision that December 9th will be the date of his execution, he has this to say in fine Cagney fashion,  “December 9th? Thanks, Judge. I won’t have to do any Christmas shopping.” He’ll escape the electric chair with a daring breakout that will soon find him at a mob hideout run by C. Henry Gordon. Gordon is fronting the Wax Museum known as Dr. Cream’s Museum of Crime.

Turns out Gordon is not only a master of creating waxworks, but is a one time plastic surgeon now employed by mobsters to change their looks in order to evade capture from law enforcement agencies. Lawrence is his next patient who is right at home in a wax museum catering to murderers on display for public amusement.

Now on to the set up to get Charlie and Number 2 to the museum. A radio station runs a weekly program on criminal cases broadcast live from the wax museum. Lawrence who has sworn vengeance on Chan for participating in his conviction devises a plan to bring Chan to the museum as a guest star on the radio broadcast to discuss a previous case he was involved in.

A case in which Chan believes an innocent man was sent to his death due to the evidence given by a scientific sleuth played by Michael Visaroff. Both sleuths will be on hand for the broadcast to give their deductions and reasons for the outcome. The past case figures heavily in the murders to come.

Being a “chip off the old chopstick”, Number 2 son, Sen Yung, against his father’s wishes sneaks into the wax museum after closing hours to listen in on the show live rather than study for his next law school exam. This allows the film to give the audiences of 1940 a scare or two with Sen Yung wandering about in the darkened museum with numerous criminals and their grisly acts on display. With a raging thunderstorm outside, a sarcophagus and mummy complimented by an Iron Maiden as museum props we easily get that haunted house feeling.

All we need now is Vincent Price wandering about in his full House of Wax wardrobe and make-up.

“Knowledge short; suspicion long.”

Others that turn up for the radio program are Gordon who gives in to the vengeance seeking Lawrence who has rigged a chair around the discussion table with electricity so that Charlie himself can be electrocuted. We’ll also have a female newshound (always a popular plot device) played by Marguerite Chapman, Gordon’s beautiful assistant, Joan Valerie, Hilde Vaughn as the wife of the man put to death that the radio show is to discuss, a Fairbanks Jr. look-a-like, Archie Twitchell, and a few other faces to fill out the cast and subsequent murders that are to take place.

Cut off from the outside world, the radio show begins but when someone else is killed in Charlie’s place, our famed sleuth goes into deduction mode. When he discovers that Number 2 son is in the house, the pacing picks up with plenty of opportunity for Chan(isms).

Only very foolish mouse makes nest in cat’s ear.”

With Sen Yung on hand, we’re treated to plenty of action and comedy sequences followed by the many hollow deductions he offers up to his “Pop.” It won’t be long before he’s accused every one at the wax museum of murder though Charlie does his best to keep him in line.

Sidney Toler would make eleven of his 22 Chan films under the banner of 20th Century Fox before the series was sold off to Monogram where the actor would carry on for his next eleven mysteries. Toler was a good fit for the role following the death of Warner Oland who had played the role previously to great success beginning with 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On up until his death in 1937 following his 16th film as the detective, Charlie Chan At Monte Carlo. Toler made his series debut in 1938’s Charlie Chan In Honolulu and would continue playing the part up until his own death at the age of 72 in 1946. His final mystery came with the release of 46’s The Trap.

Marc Lawrence as the gangster out to get Chan has a prolific 224 credits to his name at the IMDB beginning with an uncredited role as a Henchman in 1932’s If I Had a Million. He’d remain in front of cameras for over seventy years ending off with Looney Tunes : Back In Action in 2003. You’ll spot Marc in titles that include San Quentin, Johnny Apollo, This Gun For Hire, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Man With the Golden Gun and Marathon Man. Impressive. He also guested on countless TV shows once that medium took off in the 1950’s.

Lynn Shores was a one time director in the Chan series based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Unlike the director, Victor Sen Yung, was a series regular once Toler assumed the leading role from Oland. Oland was teamed with Number 1 son, Keye Luke, whereas Yung stepped in as Number 2 son once Toler hired on to continue solving mysteries for Fox Studios. Yung costarred with Toler in thirteen mysteries and would even stick around for five more titles once Roland Winters took on the role of Chan before the series faded out at Monogram.

Charles Chan films have remained popular fare among classic film buffs and when the mysteries are running on all cylinders are highly entertaining whether it’s Oland and Luke or Toler and Yung on the trail of killers, crooks and spies. If you’ve not yet had a look at the series, I trust you’ll take the time to solve a mystery or two.

Maybe you’ll come back to them as often as I have over the years past and hopefully solve them all over once again in the years ahead.

12 Comments »

  1. I thought Warner Oland was better as Charlie Chan. Nothing against Sidney Toler, but Oland just seemed so perfect. The early Charlie Chan’s were written by Robert Ellis, an actor turned screenwriter.

    • I’m in agreement. Oland just seemed to become the character and had a charm that I don’t find with Toler despite Toler doing fine. I also loved that banter between Oland and Luke just a shade more.

    • Agreed. They offer so much entertainment value in small packages. With due respect to the other mystery series of the 30’s and 40’s they stand above the others for me. Even Moto and Holmes though I do love them as well. But if I had to pick just one……

  2. Picked up nearly a dozen Charlie Chan DVDs over a year ago and have enjoyed them all (half Toler, half Oland). Formulaic for sure, but who cares? I was surprised to see Keye Luke (of Kung Fu fame) as one of Charlie’s many his sons.

    • I just love to revisit the Chan series. Like watching a rerun of a favorite TV show. Keye was wonderful in these as a young man. He actually has plenty of screen credits long before the Grasshopper who would make him a household face if not a name.

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