Cast & Crew
When George Melton, an inventor developing a secret torpedo to demolish German U-Boats, mysteriously dies while opening his closet door and his secret plans disappear, the U.S. Secret Service summons detective Charlie Chan to investigate. Chan, who is visiting Washington, D.C. with his daughter Iris and son Tommy, instructs his offspring to wait for him at the hotel while he proceeds to the Melton house, but the two amateur sleuths decide to conduct their own investigation and follow him there. At the house, Chan is greeted by Secret Service agents Jones and Lewis and a roomful of people whom Melton had invited to a cocktail party prior to his death. Chan begins to question the assembled group: Mrs. Winters, a frivolous socialite; her chauffeur, Birmingham Brown; Louis Vega, a war refugee now involved in the importation of precious metals; Inez Aranto and her wheelchair-bound brother Paul; David Blake, a pompous politician; Mrs. Hobbs, Melton's housekeeper; and Peter Lasker, Vega's valet. When Vega discovers a set of forged plans hidden in the right side of the bookcase, Chan deduces that it was unlikely that Melton secreted them there because he was left-handed. Afterward, Chan sends Lewis back to headquarters to retrieve the completed coroner's report. As Chan and Mrs. Hobbs talk in a room upstairs, a mysterious figure enters the darkened hallway below and removes a painting, revealing a safe hidden behind it. Unable to open the safe, the figure disappears into the darkness. Later, Chan notices that the painting has been moved and discovers the safe. After Chan retires outside to speak to Jones in confidence, Birmingham steps up to the bar to pour himself a drink and notices the reflection of a gun trained at Chan. Birgmingham screams, causing the assailant to miss his target and flee. Chan then requests the key to the safe from Mrs. Hobbs, but soon discovers that the lock has been stripped and won't open. Proceeding to search Melton's lab, Chan, Tommy and Birmingham discover a book about electromagnetic fields written by a scientist named Von Vegan. When a shadowy assailant switches off the lights in the lab and begins to shoot at Chan and the others, Tommy hurls an explosive charge at their attacker, sending him scurrying. As Chan re-adjourns everyone in the living room, Lewis returns with the cororner's report. After scrutinizing the report, Chan calls the group into the hallway to demonstrate how Melton was murdered. Stepping into the closet, Chan pulls the light cord and explains that when Melton pulled the cord, the killer sent a lethal dose of electricity through the light switch in the living room, causing Melton to be electrocuted. Reconvening the group in the living room, Chan accuses Vega of being the celebrated electrical engineer and author Von Vegan, whose book he found in the laboratory. Chan continues that Vega, a foreign agent, killed Melton in order to steal the scientist's plans. As Vega begins to reply, he collapses, shot in the back. After whispering something to Lewis, Chan begins to question everybody about their acquaintance with Vega. When Lewis, following Chan's instructions, accuses Inez of Vega's murder and begins to manhandle her, Paul springs from his wheelchair to defend his sister. Paul then admits that after recovering from injuries he suffered in an accident, he remained in his wheelchair to test the intentions of his political enemies. Hoping to find the secret plans, Chan reassembles the group at the wall safe, and after fiddling with the lock, he opens the safe, causing a gun secured inside to fire. Chan then deduces that because Vega was shot in the back while everyone else was standing around the piano to his front, the murder weapon must be attached to the gun display on the wall behind the couch. Chan continues that the gun was fired by an electromagnetic field triggered by a switch hidden underneath the piano and accuses Peter of pulling the switch because he was afraid that Vega would implicate him in Melton's murder. After Chan dismisses everyone, Mrs. Winters hurries to leave the room but finds the door blocked by Lewis. Explaining that because she was seated at the piano, she was the only person who could reach the switch, Chan accuses her of Vega's murder and extracts the plans which she had concealed in her fur coat. After thanking Peter for acting as a decoy, Chan concludes that Mrs. Winters killed Vega because she was his accomplice in Melton's murder and feared he would confess and incriminate her.
James S. Burkett
Martin G. Cohn
Philip N. Krasne
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service
The Chan series proved a veritable cash cow for Fox throughout the 1930s, nearly rivaling the popularity of their pint size superstar Shirley Temple. Elegantly produced and wittily scripted, the Chans seemed unstoppable until Oland's sudden death in 1938. Oland, who had specialized in Orientals, portraying Fu Manchu and the evil Chinese war lord in Shanghai Express (1932) during his Paramount tenure, was successfully replaced by Sidney Toler, who likewise excelled in Far Eastern roles, making his debut as Chan the same year in Charlie Chan in Honolulu.
20th-Century-Fox, who concurrently also produced the Peter Lorre/Mr. Moto features, halted both series shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While Moto was Japanese, Fox felt that the mere fact Chan was Asian (never mind that as a Chinese, he had as much if not more reason to oppose the Rising Sun than the Americans) spelled no box office. Toler vigorously campaigned to obtain the screen rights to Chan - which he did in 1944. Needless to say, no major studio displayed any interest in picking up the series, and the actor was relegated to signing with the low rent Monogram Pictures.
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) was the initial outing, and was, in all aspects, a lukewarm inauspicious beginning. While the Fox Chans left no holds barred, utilizing fully orchestrated scores, leftover sets and costumes from larger scale pictures, plus a roster of great character actors, Monogram barred all holds - having little budget for scripts or production values. The once slick entertainments were now competently made programmers, frequently directed by house resident Phil Rosen, whose career began in 1912 as an Edison cameraman.
The Monograms' main asset was Toler's patented take on Chan, which diehard fans continued to champion - making the new pictures a keystone for the poverty row studio. Another highlight of these detective thrillers was the comedic addition of Mantan Moreland, who makes his first appearance in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service as a harried cab driver. The comedian's contribution to the proceedings immediately clicked with audiences, and Moreland, upgraded to Chan's manservant, quickly became a welcome regular.
Toler eventually completed eleven entries before his death in 1947, wherein he was replaced by yet another Caucasian, Roland Winters, who donned the Chan makeup six more times before Monogram finally pulled the plug altogether in 1949.
Producer: James S. Burkett, Philip N. Krasne
Director: Phil Rosen
Screenplay: George Callahan
Production Design: George Moskov
Cinematography: Ira Morgan
Costume Design: Dave Milton
Film Editing: Martin G. Cohn
Original Music: Karl Hajos
Cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Eddy Chandler (Lewis), Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Hargue), Benson Fong (Tommie Chan), Gwen Kenyon (Inez Arranto), Mantan Moreland (Birmingham Brown).
by Mel Neuhaus
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service
This was the first "Charlie Chan" film that Sidney Toler made at Monogram after leaving Twentieth Century-Fox. Toler, who had starred as "Chan" in many of the Fox films, bought the screen rights to the character from the widow of writer Earl Derr Bigger and continued to star as Chan for Monogram until his death in 1947, after which time Roland Winters assumed the role. For additional information on the series, please consult the Series Index and see the above entry for Charlie Chan Carries On. A modern source adds John Elliott to the cast.