Memphis 2004 Remembers Charlie Chan
Dr. Howard M. Berlin
As appeared in Issue #351
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The long-running Memphis Film Festival, held June 17-19,
2004 had something different for its 31st installment. This year, Ray Nielsen
and his organization added a tribute to the films of Charlie Chan, the
brilliant Oriental detective. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie
Chan is the most prolific detective on film, with a filmography that includes
an initial 10-part serial in 1926 followed by 46 films until 1949.
The unofficial "Chan
Fest" featured the screening of six films and included the appearance of
four Chan alumni: Noel Neill, who is best known as Lois Lane in the
Superman films and TV series; Joel Marston, who appeared with Noel Neill
in Sky Dragon (1949); Rita Quigley (The Trap, 1946); and
highlighting the quartet was Layne Tom, Jr., who played the roles of three
different Chan sons. All four Chan stars, as well as the other 13 guest celebs,
were available to chat with fans, pose for pictures, and sign autographs during
the Festival's three days. Sensing the popularity, several dealers brought
along memorabilia for sale.
Although the Memphis Film Festival officially started on
Thursday, the Chan Fest events were scheduled on Friday and Saturday. There
were no Charlie Chan events scheduled Thursday and I took advantage of
the opportunity to visit the dealer's area and meet many of the guest stars.
Because I had written two books on the Charlie Chan films, the yearning
to meet Layne Tom, Jr., who was making his first appearance at any film
festival, was at the top of my list. I was honored to have lunch with him and
his lovely wife Marilyn, whose aunt (Jean Wong) had appeared in two of the
Charlie Chan films. Both were gracious hosts.
One of 20 badges specially made to commemorate Charlie
Thursday evening's entertainment featured actor John Calvert, who once
appeared as Michael Waring, a.k.a. "The Falcon" in three films
following real- life brothers George Sanders and Tom Conway. Very dapper at 92
years young and assisted by Tammy, his lovely wife of 40 years, Calvert is now
known as the "Dean of Magicians" and entertained the audience with a
selection of his well-known illusions. Among these were his famous
"cigarette production" routine, the 100-foot rope escape, and the
double wrist tie.
Layne Tom, Jr. and his wife Marilyn.
During the performance, I bravely
volunteered my wrist watch which Mr. Calvert then appeared to have smashed into
hundreds of pieces, scattered all over the stage. Charlie Chan fans would
recall a somewhat similar situation mentioned in Charlie Chan at Treasure
Island, when Charlie Chan remarks to the magician Rhadini (played by Cesar
Romero) that Rhadini had once borrowed a watch of his during a show in Honolulu
and returned it in many pieces. Fortunately for me, Mr. Calvert returned my
watch in perfect working order. As a magic neophyte myself whose only skill is
being able to cut a deck of cards with one hand, Mr. Calvert was gracious in
providing helpful advice to me after the show.
Friday's Chan Fest schedule first saw the screening of Charlie Chan at
the Olympics (1937) featuring Layne Tom, Jr. as Charlie Jr., Chan's #2 son
alongside Warner Oland as Chan and Keye Luke who played Chan's #1 son. In this
film as an impish 10-year old, Tom is best remembered for his comical obsession
in attempting to track down a female suspect who wears a white fox fur. This
film was followed by the showing of Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938),
where Tom was now cast as Charlie's number #5 son, Tommy Chan.
"Honolulu" was the first film for Sidney Toler in the role of Chan
following Oland's death as was for Victor Sen Yung as #2 son Jimmy, following
the departure of Keye Luke from the series.
Sky Dragon (1949),
which was the last film of the Charlie Chan series, was also shown. The
film's cast included guest celebrities Joel Marston and Noel Neill who appeared
alongside well-known supporting cast members such as Milburn Stone, Lyle
Talbot, and Elena Verdugo.
The fourth film of the day was Charlie Chan at the Race
Track (1936), which featured Alan Dinehart, the father of guest star Mason
Alan Dinehart III, himself an actor.
Friday afternoon featured a panel discussion with the Chan foursome of Noel
Neill, Rita Quigley, Joel Marston, and Layne Tom, Jr., and was moderated by the
knowledgeable Michael Fitzgerald.
Besides giving their recollections of the Charlie
Chan films and answering questions from the audience, each discussed how
they got into acting, talked about some of their other films, and their current
activities. As would be expected, Noel Neill spoke about George Reeves and her
role as Lois Lane in the Superman series. "George did not like to
exercise," Miss Neill remembered in response to a comment from the
audience that he was a bit "paunchy." She currently works for actor
Tom Selleck, handling his fan mail for the last 20 years.
Rita Quigley conceded that she will probably never shake off
the reputation of her being known as the hysterical screamer in The
Trap, her final film right after she got married, now having six children
(four previously died) with 12 grandchildren. She also talked about what
happened to "Baby Jane," her real-life sister, child actress Juanita
Joel Marston and Rita Quigley at the one of the guest
Miss Quigley also mentioned
that no one suspected that Sidney Toler was ill while making The Trap,
his final film which was completed a few months before his death. She also
recalled what it was like to go on a "date" with Mickey Rooney, which
was really a well-chaperoned publicity function. "There was nothing
serious between us," she remarked.
Joel Marston recalled how he grew up in Washington, D.C.
watching early Charlie Chan films with Warner Oland, as his father was a
vaudeville theater musician. To those in the audience, Marston admitted,
"In a lot of these pictures, people think it's fun to make these. It's
hard work! I mean, you get up early in the morning and work all day long, climb
trees, ladders, and ride horses."
He thanked all movie fans because, "As actors, we are
only seeking love and you give it to us and we appreciate it." Marston
also appeared on the stage including six on Broadway and he now keeps in shape,
working as a water aerobics instructor three time a week in Jacksonville,
Layne Tom, Jr. has the sole
distinction of playing three different Charlie Chan sons, and probably
generated the most interest during the panel discussion. When as a young child,
he got his start in entertainment literally as a song and dance man, singing of
all things, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling!" Tom also gave his
recollections of appearing with child star Shirley Temple in Stowaway
(1936), with Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, and C. Aubrey Smith in The
Hurricane (1937), and as an uncredited extra in San Francisco (1936)
that starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy. Layne
explained when he got out of the Navy following World War II, he turned down a
five-year movie contract with Monogram to go to college instead to become an
architect, a profession he retired from about nine years ago.
Noel Neill, a.k.a. "Lois Lane"
Radio re-creation cast. (L to R) John Calvert, Nancy
Saunders, Ed Nelson, Layne Tom, Jr., Mason Alan Dinehart III, Sally Fraser, Jim
Kocher, and Ray Nielsen.
Jon Kaplan (right) presents a special award plaque to Kurt
Schmidt in recognition of his hosting the Charlie Chan Message Board, an
internet discussion site since 1995.
He revealed that the making of The
Hurricane was done on an indoor set and he marveled how the
"hurricane" in the film was man-made. He also explained his feelings
about Fox Movie Channel's abrupt cancellation of its airing of Charlie
Chan films last Summer because of protests from some Asian groups. When
asked if he felt that the Charlie Chan character presented a negative
stereotype of Orientals (now Asians), Tom responded that, "It was all a
bunch of nonsense."
The entertainment for Friday evening continued the Memphis
Film Festival's tradition of the presentation of a radio show recreation
complete with sound effects and organ music. This year's production was an
episode from The Falcon series, "The Case of the Murdering Misses."
John Calvert reprised his role as Michael "The Falcon" Waring and the
rest of the cast included Festival stalwarts Ray Nielsen and Jim Kocher along
with guest celebrities Ed Nelson, Rita Quigley, Mason Alan Dinehart III, Sally
Fraser, Joel Marston, and Nancy Saunders. This episode would be special in that
the script was specially rewritten to include the part of Charlie Chan, played
by Layne Tom, Jr.
Saturday's offerings first featured the screening of
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (1940), Layne Tom Jr.'s appearance as
Willie Chan, Chan's #7 son. Following the film's showing, I gave a presentation
with a slide show on "The Who's Who of Charlie Chan's Family." The
final Charlie Chan film screened was The Trap (1946), which
included Rita Quigley, and was Sidney Toler's last film before his death. All
the Charlie Chan films were well attended with some venues even bordered
on standing room only.
The Memphis Film Festival concluded
Saturday night with an awards diner. Following a buffet dinner, specially made
plaques that featured the reproduction of a lobby card that represented a film
of each guest were presented to the guest celebrities. In accepting her plaque,
Rita Quigley praised Sidney Toler's acting, calling him a "very nice
man." When his turn came, Layne Tom, Jr. emotionally remembered his cousin
Virginia Quin Kay, who had only passed away the previous month, and she would
have been proud to be here. Virginia was an avid fan of the films, as her
mother (and Layne's first cousin) played Charlie Chan's #1 daughter in one
film, while her uncle, Richard Ung, and cousin Barbara Jean Wong also appeared
in several of the Charlie Chan films.
Besides the plaques awarded to the guest celebrities and
many of the people affiliated with the Memphis Film Festival, a special plaque
was awarded by Jon Kaplan, on behalf of many Chan fans, to Kurt Schmidt, the
host of the "Charlie Chan Message Board," a non-commercial, internet
open discussion site that has linked Charlie Chan fans together since
For the Charlie Chan fans who were in attendance, the
2004 Memphis show was indeed one to remember.
Layne Tom, Jr. proudly shows off his award