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ROGER ROSENBLATT: Recently, AMC, the American Movie Classics cable channel, presented the country with an invaluable gift. From 6 AM Saturday morning to 8:30 AM Sunday morning it showed Charlie Chan movies non-stop, Chan after Chan.
ACTOR: You haven’t called Chop Suey in on the case, have you, chief?
ACTOR: No, but it’s not a bad idea. And take your hat off. You can learn a little politeness from the Chinese too.
CHARLIE CHAN: Honorable father once say politeness golden key that open many door.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: There was Charlie Chan of Monte Carlo, Charlie Chan on Broadway, in London, in Panama, at the opera, and more and more. Earl Derr Biggers’ famous Chinese-Hawaiian detective played alternatively by Sidney Toller and Warner Oland, filled over 24 hours with his sayings for every occasion, his ability to unearth every clue, and, most of all, his elegant and unswerving sense of justice.
ACTOR: Fingerprint on card not hers.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Modern viewers wince at certain elements of Charlie Chan films today–the de rigeur presence of the hapless, buffoonish African-American, and the frequent putdowns of Asians, themselves.
ACTOR: They’re all Chinese.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: But justice, the heart pleasing enactment of justice, could always be counted on. At the end of every movie Chan gathers all the suspects in the room and the guilty party is named–the end.
CHARLIE CHAN: You are murderess.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The reason one ought to give thanks to AMC for showing these movies back-to-back is that they serve to continually remind viewers how little justice they get to see in other places.
Televised murder trials are followed by explosions of rage and despair when it is perceived, as it often is, that justice has not been done. When a celebrity adds to his fame by confessing some transgression on a talk show, where is the justice in that?
No justice for Cambodia’s Pol Pot, no justice for Saddam Hussein, no justice yet for the Bosnian murderers. Would it not be gratifying to be able to summon all the criminals to one room and call in Charlie Chan? Unfortunately, one cannot do that in the world as it is, and so the idea of justice has become a quaint dream.
Big justice and small, how are the frauds to be brought to justice, or the liars and cheats, or the gossips, or the back-biters, or the talentless and overpraised? Where is justice for the people who claim credit for other people’s work, or in the ingrates, or the fakes?
Where’s the justice at a book party where people are invited to lie through their teeth, or at a dinner party, where an absent friend is torn to tatters? We need a new series of Charlie Chan movies: Charlie Chan at the dinner party; Charlie Chan at the power breakfast, at the fund-raiser, at the HMO, the newspaper. Who would dare? How about Charlie Chan in Congress, or Charlie Chan in the Oval Office? Is there a producer in the house?
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” Woody Allen created a sort of anti-Charlie Chan film. It is a wonderful piece of work but a sad one because, in the end, though all the principals are gathered in one place, the ambitious and the shallow and even the killers go free, while the good and authentic people are punished.
ACTOR: When did you get back?
ACTRESS: Got back this morning. I’ve been trying to call you all day.
ACTOR: Look at this. Look at this. I finally won her heart.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That’s not the way life always winds up, of course, but the glorious beauty of the Chan films is that justice is never denied. This may be why we take to detective stories in general. We can count on Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Monsieur Poirot, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Nick Charles, Philo Vance, Lew Archer, and the rest to do what life only does sometimes–bring the bad guys down.
CHARLIE CHAN: One pleads inconvenience of bringing everyone here tonight.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The great thing about Chan is that he brought the bad guys down in the presence of the good guys. Justice was done, and so was exoneration. In that final room the camera would zero in on all the faces of the potentially guilty, but in the end only one person did the crime. The rest of us could go home, clear as daylight. There was innocence and guilt and justice done at last, expressed in the unequivocal sentence–
CHARLIE CHAN: You are guilty man.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m Roger Rosenblatt.