Tuesday 20 June 2017

The Sky Dragon

Cabin Clue

The Sky Dragon
USA 1949 Directed by Lesley Selander
Monogram (via Warner Archive) DVD Region 1

I don’t think it was deliberate but, for one reason or another, The Sky Dragon was the last of the 47 Charlie Chan talkies made between 1929 and 1947. This brought to an end what had been a ‘mostly’ profitable series of films, albeit via a law of diminishing returns as the series went through cheaper studios and shrinking budgets as it wore on. Original number one son Lee Chan, as played by Keye Luke, is back as the only one of the Chan offspring present, playing opposite Roland Winters in his last go at the honourable Hawaiian detective. Luke had returned a few films previously and, while he was once the juvenile comic relief, putting him back in here in that spirit maybe made a bit less sense because he and his on screen father Winters, were both the same age.

Also back, of course, is the later series regular Mantan Moreland, continuing his wisecracking, perpetually fearful chauffer routine as Birmingham Brown although, it has to be said, the only decent scenes he gets in this are opposite Lousie Franklin, who plays the maid of one of the murder suspects in this film.

There’s also, much to my delight, the inclusion of actress Noel Neil in the proceedings. Noel Neill was, as you no doubt know... the original Lois Lane, first starring in that role opposite the very first cinematic Superman Kirk Alyn in the theatrical serials Superman (1948) and Superman Vs Atom Man (1950). This was one of a few movies she made in between those two serials. Of course, she also went on to reprise her role as Lois Lane opposite George Reeves in the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman from the second series onwards (Phyllis Coates left the role after her first season). She later turned up in a “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo as Lois Lane’s mother in one of the extended cuts of the 1978 motion picture Superman The Movie (again opposite Kirk Alyn, playing Lois' dad) and later performed as an old, dying woman ripped off by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in the opening of the 2006 movie Superman Returns. I think she also got some ‘Super’ TV cameos under her belt as well (before her death last year at the age of 95).

Alas, Noel is wasted in this movie as she doesn’t have much to do except provide a friendly female face and provide Charlie Chan with helpful information to clear her fiance of the murder charge when the occasion arises but... it was nice to see her here again, for sure.

This film starts off in an airplane as a man is murdered for the half a million dollars he is carrying while the rest of the crew and passengers are drugged, unconscious. These passengers include Charlie Chan and his number one son who then set about the rest of the movie trying to find the identity of the killer and, as usual, try to find the truth of the matter while the police jump at every opportunity to convict an innocent person of the crime. The police never really came off that well in these films, to be fair.

This is not the best of the Chan films I’ve seen, in all honesty, but it is pretty fast moving for it’s ‘just over an hour’ B-movie running time. The trail of the mystery is kept lively by a bunch of murders, incidents, tussles with possible suspects and Lee Chan pulling a wedding director from a fire after his garage has been set ablaze... with him in it... in an effort to destroy some camera negatives which will reveal the all too obvious, to this viewer at any rate, identity of someone in the film.

However, while the pacing is quite tight, I can’t say I was really all that impressed with the film and nothing much really stood out other than the occasional, expected, Charlie Chan aphorism which are peppered throughout the short running time with, it seemed to me, just a little less joy than they have been in some of the previous films. I liked the idea of the murder and theft taking place on the plane but would have really loved it if the entire movie had taken place in that plane with Charlie solving the crime before the plane lands and it would have given the perpetually cash strapped Monogram Pictures a cheaper budget, too, I would suspect... having to shoot on only one set. However, after the first quarter of an hour the action moves out of the plane and I suppose it’s easier to keep the pacing up when your characters can go from incident to incident as the story progresses. Monogram had been going since 1924 but released their last movies in 1952, so things must have been really tight by this point.

It would have been nice to see the series continue on after The Sky Dragon, although there was still a little life in the character after these films had come to an end. For me, those early days of Warner Oland playing Charlie opposite Keye Luke as a much more youthful “number one son” are still my favourites... but I honestly don’t mind Sydney Toler and Roland Winter’s takes on the character and I will probably be rewatching these movies over and over until I die (which hopefully won’t be very soon). Take this movie for what it is, a mildly entertaining entry into a great series of classic Hollywood detective yarns. And...  just by way of a heads up... although it’s the last in that series of Charlie Chan films, I’m not planning on making this my last review of a Charlie Chan movie. Watch this space.

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