Movie Review: Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)

“Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” is a 1940 mystery film directed by Eugene Forde and starring Sidney Toler as the titular character, Charlie Chan. The film follows Chan as he investigates a series of murders on a cruise ship traveling from Honolulu to San Francisco.

The plot of “Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” is classic whodunit fare, with a group of suspects all gathered together in a confined space, each with a motive for murder. The film opens with a group of passengers boarding the cruise ship, including wealthy businessman Gordon Drake (Douglas Dumbrille), his wife Ethel (Marjorie Weaver), his secretary Miss Finch (Sally Blane), and a young couple, Tom (Robert Lowery) and Sally (Charlotte Henry). Also on board is Chan and his son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), who is training to be a detective.

One of the weaknesses of “Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” is the character of Charlie Chan himself. Chan is a Chinese-American detective who speaks in a stereotypical accent and uses aphorisms and proverbs in his speech. While this portrayal may be considered offensive by modern standards, it was typical of the film’s period. However, his intelligence and ability to solve crimes through his superior detective skills set Chan apart from other characters of the time. Chan is a sharp, observant character who always seems one step ahead of everyone else.

As the ship sets sail, the first murder occurs when one of the passengers is found dead in their cabin. Chan is brought in to investigate, and he quickly begins to piece together the clues. However, before he can solve the case, another murder occurs, and the tension on the ship begins to mount.

The supporting cast in “Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise “is strong. Each character has their own distinct personality and motive, and the actors all give solid performances. Marjorie Weaver stands out as Gordon Drake’s wife, Ethel, who is portrayed as a flirtatious and somewhat unhinged character. Robert Lowery and Charlotte Henry make a charming couple, and their scenes together provide a welcome respite from the tension of the murder investigation.

The pacing of Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise is solid, with the tension building steadily throughout the film. The murders are well-plotted and intriguing, with each one providing a new clue for Chan to follow. The final reveal of the killer is satisfying and surprising, and the film wraps up neatly.

One of the notable aspects of Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise is its portrayal of the cruise ship setting. The film takes place entirely on board the ship, and the sets and costumes are lavish and detailed. The ship itself is a character in the film, with its various decks and cabins providing opportunities for the murders to occur. The use of the ship as a setting also adds to the tension of the film, as the characters are trapped on board with a killer and nowhere to ru

The portrayal of Asian characters in the film is problematic, with the Asian characters all being portrayed as stereotypes. Additionally, the film’s treatment of women is dated, with the female characters all being either flirtatious and flighty or demure and submissive.

“Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” mystery film is a good mystery and has a strong case. Its direction and pacing make it a worthwhile watch. The film’s use of the cruise ship setting is also notable, and the tension builds steadily, adding to the intrigue. I would say the film is problematic and emblematic of racist and sexist attitudes prevalent during the 1940s and doesn’t represent Earl Derr Biggers attitudes since his female characters and Charlie Chan have depth, nuance, and grit.

“Charlie Chan Murder Cruise” is an exciting study in book-to-screen adaptation. By casting Sidney Toler as the titular character, the movie automatically becomes a caricature, and the film loves to exoticize, fetishize, and other Chinese or Hawaiian Americans. It’s a standard portrayal of orientalism that is not subverted or challenged. I think a lot of the poor reputation of Charlie Chan is because of these racist films, which is a shame because the books champion Charlie Chan. I can’t recommend this movie as a good portrayal of Charlie Chan. Yellowface, racism, and sexism make this film something best left in the past, and hopefully, one day, we could get an adaptation that embrace the character written in Derr Biggers novels. Within The Chinese Parrot Charlie Chan specifically talks to other characters about how he hates talking with like a dumb person with an accent and being slavish to overbearing racist employers. He goes undercover as a barely literate cook and has much difficulty maintaining this ruse and yet, this is the character often portrayed on screen which is a shame. It seems Earl Derr Biggers iconic detective has yet to be fully realized on screen.


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