Review of “Charlie Chan in Egypt” (1935)

The drone shots are not from the movie, but this is as close as I could come.

Our Saturday pizza and bad movie night was something a little different. We chose a silly Charlie Chan movie, Charlie Chan in Egypt.

Plot:


In the opening scene, men dressed as stereotypical archaeologists pry a plaque inscribed with hieroglyphics off a stone wall inside some undefined underground space. Professor Arnold (George Irving) digs through the wall behind the plaque, removing large bricks with the help of a man dressed in Egyptian robes. The man in Egyptian robes gazes into the hole only to begin choking as if someone were strangling him. He falls over dead. A camera pans over a hidden room full of treasure. Has some vengeful god exacted a terrible price for the desecration of a beloved pharaoh’s tomb?

…Probably not.

The viewer next sees Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) flying in an open cockpit prop plane, hanging onto his black bowler hat. This is cut between stock aerial footage of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. The French Archaeological Society has sent him to investigate Professor Arnold’s excavation of Ameti’s tomb after some irregularities have come to light. According to an agreement with the Arnold expedition and the Society, artifacts from the tomb should go to the Society’s museums. However, they’ve been showing up in other museums. Could the professor be selling to the highest bidder? Could someone be stealing from under his nose? Or could there be something even more sinister afoot?

Chan meets an array of expedition members: Professor Arnold’s partner, Professor Thurston (Frank Conroy); Arnold’s assistant, Tom Evans (Thomas Beck); and Arnold’s daughter, Carol (Pat Paterson), who is dating Tom Evans. They tell him the professor has been missing. Carol is distraught with worry about her father. She believes Sekmet, the goddess of vengeance, is pursuing her and has severely injured her brother, Barry (James Eagles).

Tom does what any concerned man would do for his woman. He calls for the doctor to give her a sleeping drug.

Meanwhile, Thurston and Tom take Chan on a tour of their laboratory, the most advanced in Luxor. It even has an x-ray machine, which eventually shows the 3000-year-old mummy of Ameti has a bullet in its chest. Those ancient Egyptians were pretty advanced.

Thoughts:

In the scene in the lab, Chan has some of the best lines. On examining the supposedly unopened sarcophagus, Chan notes, “Varnish on 3000-year-old mummy case not completely dry.”

Thurston shows Chan the statue of Sekmet they’ve recovered from the tomb. “The ancients endowed her with many supernatural powers, Mr. Chan.”

“Cannot believe piece of carved stone contain evil,” Chan responds. “Unless dropped on foot.”

This is the charm of the Charlie Chan movies. Chan tweaks the noses of those around him while remaining infinitely polite. The downside is the racial stereotyping and the silly “ancient saying” spouted at every turn.

Asians are not the only people who are stereotyped. Black Americans are seen as lazy, foolish, and suitable for nothing more than servant roles. They are superstitious and frighten easily, like children. This was a common portrayal in the 1930s, so the Charlie Chan movies do not stand out in that regard.

The character of Snowshoes (why that name? Snowshoes in the desert? He’s out of place?) is played by Stepin Fetchit, the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902-1985). Stepin Fetchit billed himself as “the laziest man alive.” In this movie, he spends his time whining, complaining about having to do anything, and is afraid of the dark. When he’s first introduced, he’s on the verge of being scammed by a conman who promised to show him the tomb of his Egyptian ancestors—for a price. Snowshoes ain’t too bright.

Personally, I found the character annoying. I’d rather listen to a cricket in the room.

While the mystery itself was not exactly one to keep you guessing, this was fun. The viewer has the hysterical woman (is someone playing with her head, or is she just a silly woman?), the solicitous boyfriend (does he really care for the feeble-minded creature, or is there something else he’s got his eye on?), the reassuring partner (wasn’t he just a little too quick to answer when Charlie asked him about those diverted artifacts?), and the distraught disabled brother (what did he really see?) all to contend with.

A female servant named Nayda who sulks around the house, apparently spying on the Arnolds (could she be lacing Miss Arnold’s tea…?) is a very young Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino.

This is a silly movie. I liked it, even if it seems to show that Asian people are somehow incapable of using articles or plurals, and that’s somehow funny. The men who played Charlie Chan were not even Asian, but Caucasian. Warner Oland, the Chan of this movie, was Swedish-American. Yet it’s hard not to laugh when he ever so humbly tweaks the noses of those around him.

“Kind thoughts add favorable weight in balance of life and death.” Whatever that means.



Title: Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)

Directed by
Louis King…(as Luis King)

Writing Credits
Robert Ellis…(original screenplay) and
Helen Logan…(original screenplay)
Earl Derr Biggers…(based on: the character “Charlie Chan” created by)

Cast (in credits order) awaiting verification
Warner Oland…Charlie Chan
Pat Paterson…Carol Arnold
Thomas Beck…Tom Evans
Rita Hayworth…Nayda (as Rita Cansino)
Stepin Fetchit…Snowshoes

Released: June 21, 1935
Length: 1 hour, 13 mins

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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