|Tarneverro & Chan discover Shelah Fane dead in the pavilion|
Granted if you know nothing about the book The Black Camel is an engaging entry in the Charlie Chan series mostly due to the presence of Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi. But there are moments when one wonders what some characters are doing in the story. Who are Rita Ballou and her husband Wilkie? What about Huntley Van Horn? Why are they there? With larger roles in the novel on screen they have been reduced to little more than stage props. Rita has exactly one scene in which she gives an eyewitness account (also in the book) but that's the extent of her role, while the other two have little to do but express indignation. They are bogey characters, ciphers, mysteries more puzzling than the murder of Shelah Fane. The clues so abundant in the book come at the viewer too rapidly and are never discussed at length or in some cases are introduced then completely forgotten. What about that letter stolen when the lights went out? What was in it? Where did it go? Several fascinating scenes of detection are ripped out of the story to make way for quips and poor excuses for comic relief.
|Chan & Julie try to piece together the torn photo|
Mantan Moreland thankfully is nowhere in sight. But we do have Otto Yamaoka. There may not be any cringeworthy Steppin Fetchit-like antics but there are just as many embarrassing moments with Yamaoka as the rookie police detective Kashimo running amok, looking for evidence, and destroying a bedroom in less than one minute while "searching" for a photograph. "Boss! Clue? Another clue?" he says to Chan after popping into a scene every ten minutes or so like an obedient Golden Retriever delivering his master his slippers. When Chan dismisses him with insulting remarks ("Can cut off monkey's tail but he is still monkey.") and facetious orders ("Spend more time hunting for nothing to do!") it is more than welcome and Kashimo disappears for the most of the film.
Lugosi, with only two films behind him after his star making performance in Dracula, shows the promise of what could have been an impressive monster-less career on film. It's a shame that directly after this movie he would be cast in Murders in the Rue Morgue and be consigned to a career of nothing but mad scientists, vampires and sinister villains. Though first he appears to be a cad as Tarneverro he has what turns out to be a heroic part in this movie. Lugosi has a commanding presence, a gift for comedy, and a leading man quality not shown off in his later horror and mystery films. His scenes -- especially those shared with Oland -- are the highlight of the movie.
|Dorothy Revier vamps it up in 1929|
(photo by Walter Seeley)
Despite these quibbles The Black Camel makes for an engaging and entertaining period whodunnit. With Oland as Chan and Lugosi as his rival detective dominating the proceedings the minor faults of the less talented supporting actors and the silly comic moments with Yamaoka are easily overlooked. But I'd recommend reading the book first before watching the movie.