By the beginning of 1938, 20th Century-Fox’s “Mr. Moto” series was building steam. The second of two stylish entries was still playing in theaters, critical response was good, and star Peter Lorre – previously known mostly for his unsettling villain roles – was proving to be a hit with ticket buyers as an unconventional hero.

The studio had shepherded their new property carefully. Dissatisfied with the second Moto adventure to be filmed, Mr. Moto Takes a Chance, the producers had already pushed that installment back in the schedule to make room for the stronger entry Thank You, Mr. Moto. As 1938 began, events conspired to elbow that hapless film aside a second time. This time, though, the problem had nothing to do with the Moto series at all. This time, we can blame it all on Charlie Chan.

The movie started life as “Charlie Chan at the Ringside,” which would have been the seventeenth Chan film starring Warner Oland. Filming commenced on January 10, 1938, but everything went quickly off the rails when Oland walked off the set, claiming that the sound stage was dangerously drafty and insisting that the production be relocated. Panicked at the thought of losing the major cash cow which the Chan series represented, the studio responded with cajolery, negotiation and even a little trickery in order to effect his return – but by the second week of production, after putting in only three days before the cameras, Oland walked again and for good.

After years of colorful character roles ranging from Pearl White serials to Al Jolson’s landmark vehicle The Jazz Singer, Oland had found real stardom as Chan, becoming popular with the movie-going public and commanding a respectable salary – but he was miserable. By 1938 he was struggling with a failed marriage, drinking heavily, and exhibiting the erratic behavior of a man spiraling into a nervous breakdown. In months to come, he would check himself into a hospital and reconcile with Fox (who signed him to a new contract to continue the Chan series) – but he never made another film. During a trip to his native Sweden in 1938, he contracted bronchial pneumonia and died at age 57.

In the meantime, Fox had a sound stage filled with unused sets, a cast and production crew cooling their heels waiting for a star, and nearly $100,000 already invested. In desperation, the studio decided that the only way to salvage their new Chan film was to erase Chan himself from it and graft it onto the popular new Moto series. After a down-and-dirty rewrite (which consisted of little more than changing the leading character’s name from Chan to Moto), Peter Lorre stepped before the cameras on January 24 to film his first scenes for what would become Mr. Moto’s Gamble.

As a Moto movie, this one is noticeably off-kilter from the beginning. The first thing we see following the credits is Lorre behind a desk, holding forth on the subject of murder. But the homicide in question hasn’t been committed by our hero on one of his mysterious missions, or one of the thugs he confronts in exotic locales. This murder is purely theoretical, just part of the lesson plan for a criminology class Moto is teaching to a group of wannabe detectives in San Francisco.

That’s no stretch at all for a stolid establishment figure like Chan, but it flies in the face of everything that the series has told us so far about Moto. A man who shrouds himself in secrecy and achieves his ends through guile and violence, an enigmatic figure who turns up without warning in danger zones in Egypt or Asia, he’s as likely to be found at the head of an American classroom as James Bond or Jason Bourne. But in this bizarre departure from the series he’s not only ensconced as a teacher of the deductive arts, he’s treated by everyone as a well-known and respected practitioner.

Not that Moto’s peculiar talents will be missed, for what follows is a stock B movie whodunit, so generic that it serves as a vivid illustration of just how much Oland’s performance contributed to the success of the Chan films.

As B programmers go, it’s a well-mounted production. While most of it takes place within stock Fox interiors, some care has been taken with a convincing boxing arena set and an outdoor training camp. The supporting cast is filled with familiar and likeable contract players like Ward Bond, Lynn Bari, John Hamilton, George E. Stone and, in a bit part as a gangster, a pre-Wolfman Lon Chaney, Jr. And yet, despite the studio’s best efforts, there’s none of the spark of the Chan features; without the sleight of hand of Oland’s avuncular charisma to keep the viewer amused, it’s too easy to see what an undistinguished and routine affair this (and by extension, any Chan feature) really is.

Lorre works hard to inject some quirky energy into his scenes, but his hands are tied by the second-hand script. Working with a director (James Tinling) more suited to the comparatively serene rhythms of Chan than the sinister undertones maintained by regular Moto director Norman Foster, Lorre is never allowed to display the hint of danger that ordinarily lurks beneath his deliberately eccentric façade. The brutal ju-jitsu battles that had become a trademark of the series are reduced to a pair of pointlessly tacked-on sequences, one of them strictly for laughs. Worse, his dialogue is peppered with aphorisms originally written for Chan, and not even the considerable talent of Peter Lorre can make those fortune-cookie proverbs sound like human speech. The result is half a Moto, an imitation Chan without gravitas.

Shortly following the classroom opening, Moto is seated at the once-titular ringside, where he witnesses the death of a boxer during a match to determine who will face the heavyweight champion. In short order, it’s determined that the fighter has been poisoned; once that same poison is discovered on his opponent’s boxing gloves, it looks like an open and shut case. Moto, of course, suspects otherwise, and most of the film’s 71-minute running time is devoted to a rambling investigation that takes him from the city morgue to the champ’s training camp and, eventually, back to ringside, where a very Chan-like death trap (involving a timer and a revolver) has been set for him.

That he avoids the trap and solves the mystery goes without saying, and the movie’s wrapped up in light, entertaining fashion. “Light,” in fact, pretty well sums up the entire enterprise; Lorre is surrounded by comic relief in virtually every scene, from the students in his criminology class to Harold Huber as another of the humorous police detectives he’d played twice before in the Chan series. The movie’s relentless straining for laughs is epitomized by the presence of former boxer “Slapsy” Maxie Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom, who made a career of playing good-natured lugs, puts in a featured turn as a dimwitted kleptomaniac enrolled in Lorre’s class. For fans of the regular Moto entries, watching Rosenbloom and Lorre interact is downright painful.

The only true bright spot is the appearance of Keye Luke, retained here as Lee Chan, Charlie’s Americanized Number One Son. In a rare series crossover, Lee is attending Moto’s class on the sly while letting his parents think he’s studying art. At one point he mentions that the elder Chan, back in Hawaii, has sent his regards to Moto in a recent letter (the art studies ploy apparently not fooling Charlie one bit).

Par for the course for Number One Son, Luke is also present primarily for comic relief – paired for much of the film with Rosenbloom – and the material he’s given to perform is silly, negligible stuff. Yet there’s a Harold Lloyd-like earnestness, a freshness, to Luke’s delivery that lifts much of his performance above the low comedy. He’s even allowed to solve a portion of the mystery on his own. It’s been said that the studio had briefly considered reconfiguring the Chan series to make Lee the star when Oland walked off the set, and one can’t help wondering what a breath of fresh air he could have brought to the series. (Charlie Chan movies, of course, would continue to be made through 1949, the lead role being taken by Sidney Toler and then Roland Winters. Though each man brought his own charm to the role, neither ever matched the colorful characterization created by Oland.)

Despite the desperation of its construction and the waste of its leading man’s talents, Mr. Moto’s Gamble did well at the box office and received generally positive reviews. Unfortunately, its success told Fox that Lorre’s character could still sell tickets even when involved in less sophisticated situations, and encumbered with stock comic relief. The quality would never be as high again as in the series’ first two entries, but Mr. Moto still had a few noteworthy outings in his future.

September 27, 2011 · Posted in Legends