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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
Remind Me
,The Scarlet Clue

The Scarlet Clue

It may not seem like it today, but The Scarlet Clue (1945) was something of a high-tech thriller in its day, featuring a twisting plot which included such cutting edge technology as television, radar, teletype, short-wave remote control and a climatic tunnel that can simulate all types of weather conditions. The story, a later entry in the long line of popular lightweight mysteries in the Charlie Chan series, has Chan, Number Three Son Tommy and chauffeur/sidekick/comic foil Birmingham Brown foiling a murderous plot to steal government radar plans.

The Scarlet Clue was the 16th go-round in the role for American-born (and decidedly non-Asian) Sidney Toler. He took over the part from Swede Warner Oland in 1938 (after Oland's death), and would play it five more times until his own death in 1947. The technology is not the only thing that dates the movie. Although general audiences at the time took little note of the casting, it was a sign of the changing times when Chan's return to the screen in 1981 in the person of Peter Ustinov was met with loud protests by the Asian community.

The one actor in the cast of true Asian descent was California-born Benson Fong, as son Tommy. Fong began his film career as an extra in a 1936 Charlie Chan movie (Charlie Chan at the Opera) and first appeared as Number 3 in 1944. Although he would play the role a total of six times, his long career encompassed many other notable films, including the war drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the musical Flower Drum Song (1961), and the Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B. (1981). He also made numerous appearances on TV, including stints on the TV series Kung Fu and its made-for-TV movie spin-offs.

In films from 1933 on, former vaudeville star Mantan Moreland first played Charlie Chan's skittish chauffeur Birmingham Brown in 1944 and would play it 15 times until his movie career came to a halt in 1949. Because of the burgeoning civil rights movement and growing awareness of inequities faced by African-Americans, Moreland's humor became reviled as demeaning and stereotypical. It was many years before he could find screen employment again, eventually working with such influential and groundbreaking artists as Bill Cosby, Melvin Van Peebles, Godfrey Cambridge and Diahann Carroll. In The Scarlet Clue he gets to perform versions of his old vaudeville routines with frequent partner Ben Carter.

The technological aspects of The Scarlet Clue may have proved troublesome for Toler. At one point, he appears to get a genuine electric shock from a piece of equipment. But the cameras keep rolling as Toler throws in a quick ad-lib and pluckily completes the scene.

Director: Phil Rosen
Producer: James S. Burkett
Screenplay: George Callahan, based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers
Cinematography: William Sickner
Editing: Richard Currier
Cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Mantan Moreland (Birmingham Brown), Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Marsh), Ben Carter (Ben Carter), Benson Fong (Tommy Chan).

by Rob Nixon



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