Tuesday, February 19, 2013

COOL FLICKS: The Black Camel (1931)

Tarneverro & Chan discover Shelah Fane dead in the pavilion
The Black Camel (1931) is a good case of a screenwriter's sticking too closely to his source material and falling into a trap of his own making. Normally, I am the first one to decry movies that deviate from the original story in film adaptations based on novels, plays or what have you, and I should be happy with this ever faithful adaptation. But here odd choices on what to leave out of the movie make for some head scratching moments.

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
One interesting choice is to allow the viewers to see several of the characters monkeying with the evidence. In the novel these scenes are done offstage and Chan must detect them through examination of evidence and questioning of the suspects. Engaging the viewer by allowing us to see Julie and Tarneverro do their business in an effort to protect another person gives the film a modern touch that the traditional, often old-fashioned, source novel does not provide. It also gives the characters more of an active role in the story rather than being confined as subjects of constant interrogation as is the case in the book.

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)
The other cast members do serviceable work. Dorothy Revier, at one time a popular silent screen actress, is given little to do in her few scenes as Shelah before she is murdered. Her role in the book is larger and we get an idea she is a vain diva who is using her star persona to mask a secret that is terrifying her. Revier conveys her terror in the usual silent era pantomime histrionics and otherwise looks gorgeous in her diaphanous flowing costumes. She really knows how to wear her clothes as they say in the trade. In other words, she lets her costumes do the real acting. Robert Young, looking like a teenager, is appropriately boyish and goofy as Jimmy Bradshaw, the starry-eyed young man in love with Julie O'Neill (Sally Eilers), Shelah's secretary. The only other actor worth mentioning is Dwight Frye in the unbilled role of Jessup. Straight from his turn as the schizoid Renfield in Dracula opposite Lugosi, Frye is cast as the butler (in the book a supercilious septuagenarian) now made into a much younger servant pining for Anna, the maid. In a bizarre twist in the finale Jessup is revealed to be a lunatic allowing for Frye to once again display his skill in portraying a goggle-eyed nutcase.

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.


  1. My knowledge of movies before the mid-thirties is abysmal.

  2. I love the idea of Bela Lugosi as a sort-of hero. I think he really was kind of dashing. It's really too bad that he got typecast so rigidly.

    I think I saw this but not so I remember so it's time to see it again if I can find it.

    Thanks, John.

  3. Thanks for this detailed review. We watched all of the Chan movies as they were released in sets in 2006-2008 (I hope I have the dates right), and it is time to start over again. At the time we had not read any of the books (and I have only read one so far).

  4. P.S. THE BLACK CAMEL is available online at youtube. The entire movie.