DATELINE: Lost Gem
Lugosi with Oland.
One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.
Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle: Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.
Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.
The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.
The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.
Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.
Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.
There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.
This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.