Karloff vs. Lugosi: Whose Charlie Chan Movie Wins?



Their rivalry endures, so long after their passing. Going beyond simply a matter of personal preference, the popularity contest between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi is as familiar to movie fans as the old “chocolate or peanut butter” idea, longer lasting than the split over preferring Star Trek over Star Wars, and ultimately, as truly pointless a thing to try to settle as the notion of a “greatest movie ever made.” That said—because I’d gotten the idea of wanting to add something about the topic of the endless Karloff-Lugosi debate to our conversations here at MovieFanFare—I decided to take the approach of comparing their respective Charlie Chan pictures to see if I could discern a clear “winner” between 1931’s The Black Camel (Lugosi’s outing) and the 1936 entry Charlie Chan at the Opera (Karloff’s).

Like most of the old-fashioned murder mystery movies where we’re so very sure we know who the murderer is well in advance, I had a fairly strong idea ahead of time what my editorial verdict might wind up being; but likewise, following the trajectory of these creaky classics, after watching the films back to back, I found myself with a surprise twist at the very end.

First:  If you are not a die-hard Chan expert (as I am not; I swing more to the Thin Man series, and Sherlock Holmes, and Mr. Wong, for starters), or if you haven’t put to memory every entry in Bela’s filmography, you may even be exclaiming right now: Wait! Lugosi was in a Charlie Chan movie, too? Yes, indeed. While most everybody could tell you that Karloff appeared in a Chan film—because Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally regarded as one of the best of Warner Oland’s entries, if not the entire Chan series—my guess is that fewer people have much experience with or even knowledge of The Black Camel.

Considered a “lost” film until the 1970s, the fifth Chan film is the earliest we have remaining that stars Oland as the Honolulu-based Chinese police detective. Oland’s second appearance in the role—his first being the still-lost Charlie Chan Carries On—was released in 1931, scant months after Lugosi’s signature role of Count Dracula began to give moviegoers nightmares. The Lugosi-Chan film is also distinguished by being the only surviving Warner Oland picture actually based on a novel by Charlie Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, and the only production that was filmed on Hawaiian locations.

Released five years later in 1936 (one year after Karloff’s second turn in his most famous role with The Bride of Frankenstein), Charlie Chan at the Opera boasts a feature few other films can match in that an entire short opera was written for the production by American musician-actor Oscar Levant. We only hear bits and pieces of “Carnival” in the film, but the recurring short section that introduces Karloff’s Mephisto character in the film is ingeniously memorable and instantly recognizable.


The films themselves, though admittedly produced and released at somewhat different stages relative to the actors’ levels of stardom, seem to offer their own subtle verdict that squares with our popular understanding of their careers—with Lugosi receiving third billing on the title card of The Black Camel behind Oland and female lead Sally Eilers, and Karloff’s name invoked in a particularly unusual manner above the title itself. Not quite the situation with Marlon Brando and Christopher Reeve, certainly, since Oland is still fortunate enough to receive first position as the star of the film that bears the name of his character. If this were an element of our informal competition between the films, Karloff comes out the clear winner here.

My prejudice going in to watch both The Black Camel and Charlie Chan at the Opera was that I couldn’t imagine myself picking a “winner” between the two in the “Karloff vs. Lugosi” sense because I’ve never had any particular preference or critical feeling that either Karloff or Lugosi regularly bested the other in terms of raw screen ability. We all know who got the better end of the stick in terms of money, billing, and prestige throughout; we also know which one of them had another performer win an Academy Award for portraying him, lovingly, in an amazing modern-day movie. Opera I had seen before, years ago; I’d never seen Camel.

As I’m sitting down to watch the films, I’m thinking, this is gonna turn out exactly like when I asked who does Bond better

Was I ever surprised.

I’ll organize my compare-and-contrast of the two films by highlighting some important categories of consideration: The Hero, The Guest Star, The Movie, The Number One Son, and then a sum-up of my feelings about the films in The Drawing Room.


The Hero

There are an equal number of pithy aphorisms deployed by the quick-witted Charlie Chan in The Black Camel and Charlie Chan at the Opera (feel free to quote your favorites), so in that regard, we have a draw. Chan is a much different sort of person in Camel than he is in Opera, however. Oland’s Inspector Chan is far more aggressive in Camel, ordering suspects around and threatening people with arrest. The stakes seem grimmer; he even gets bloodied up during the film—his face sliced during an assault in the dark, after which he announces with fierce seriousness that he “is in no mood to turn other cheek.” He shows compassion in the film, for sure, but this is a Charlie Chan who means business.

Chan is the calm in the middle of the storm that is the three-ring circus of his night at the Opera. While he is never hesitant to offer corrections to his skeptics, it’s more in the spirit of introducing them with firm but smiling “Contradiction, please” interruptions.

Though the films are only five years apart, it’s amazing how much younger Warner Oland appears in The Black Camel; perhaps his documented struggles with alcoholism are partially to blame for his far more weathered appearance? Not that this seemed to take any particular toll on the star’s acting chops; he more than holds his own in a tense and rather touching showdown with Karloff when they finally face each other. There’s no lack of charm in Oland’s performance in Opera, but the Chan character here, for all his resourcefulness, lacks an edge I found very appealing in the Lugosi picture.


The Guest Star

The characters played by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi have entirely different relationships with Chan in their respective films; while Karloff’s tormented asylum escapee is hunted down by Chan as he prowls an opera house during a performance, Lugosi’s suave, crystal ball-reading mystic becomes something of an ally to Chan during his investigation even as he remains a suspect in the key murder. Frequently in The Black Camel, Lugosi and Oland are side by side in important exchanges of plot and character development; we can contrast that to Opera, which often finds Karloff alone in his own moments.

How the characters function relative to each movie’s plot isn’t the only distinction we can spot; a careful viewer will observe just how many more solo close-ups Karloff is afforded in his film, with Lugosi mostly appearing in two-shots at best.

Asking me to choose between the actors’ performances would not just be a futile gesture from my personal perspective, I also think it’s legitimately a non-issue here. Both men make great use of their unique screen magnetism in the films; the surprise, perhaps, is that Lugosi’s role contains a degree of pathos we usually associate more with Karloff’s more interesting roles; in Camel, Lugosi channels some of the wounded magic I thought he worked to fine effect in countering Karloff’s more sinister side in their Poe film The Black Cat.


The Movie

For as much as its style of direction and performance mark it clearly as an “old-fashioned” movie, I found The Black Camel to be a crackling good film with an involving story. The cast of characters is an especially colorful bunch. Not only are we treated to the pleasure of dueling exotic accents when Oland and Lugosi are onscreen, we have a pleasing array of “types” in the male supporting roles by way of a delightful Continental in Victor Varconi, a shaggy-artist sort in Murray Kinnell, and—gasp!—a holy-cow-is-that-really-him early turn by Father Knows Best leading man Robert Young.

Speaking of gasps, Lugosi and Dracula fans will be overjoyed to see the Count and his lunatic servant sharing the screen once again, with Dwight Frye appearing as the murder victim’s butler. Yes, you’ll instantly be thinking “Well: The butler did it,” since Frye’s work here is just a shade or two shy of his unhinged intensity as Renfield…but of course it’s not that easy.


The Black Camel came out the same year as Dracula, and know what? It’s better directed than Dracula. No, I’m not saying Camel helmer Hamilton McFadden is a better director than Tod Browning. But any objective viewer cannot escape that one film is more cleanly and evenly realized across its running time, and it’s not the long-revered vampire classic. Much fuss is made about the film’s Honolulu locations, but the glistening oceans and sun-soaked landscapes of the daytime exteriors have nothing on what really surprised me about the cinematography, which is its sublime use of darkness and low key lighting; the camerawork is credited both to Joseph H. August (who shot Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Daniel B. Clark (who shot a number of westerns and became a Chan film veteran).


Charlie Chan at the Opera is a study in contrast as far as story, mood, and execution. While there is indeed pathos to be had in absorbing the details of the Karloff character’s backstory as well as some similar clues of note (each mystery involves a crucial photograph), what Opera does most is move. We can certainly credit director H. Bruce Humberstone for keeping up the pace, and the conceit of the Opera screenplay is absolutely marvelous—having a murder investigation taking place backstage during the run of a performance, and having the film play out in something (kinda sorta barely) approximating real time.

Once this element of the film is properly underway, however, Opera frequently makes use of the kind of slapstick we would later come to love in the Inspector Clouseau movies; you can’t help but think of the Sellers films when Chan’s Number One Son (Keye Luke) dresses up in knight’s armor and scurries around backstage while he’s being chased by the bumbling, racist Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest).

And there, we have another way we can distinguish between the two films. Yes, both The Black Camel and Charlie Chan at the Opera find our dim-witted Caucasian critics needling Chan with their questions about “Chinese puzzle boxes” and “Chop Suey” insults, and so on; it feels more restrained in Camel, and as I pointed out earlier, that film’s more assertive Chan gives as good as he gets.

The character played by William Demarest in Opera is just an out-and-out creep, and his racial slurs get tiresome and off-putting very, very fast. I found myself aching for a moment of comeuppance, the way the condescending Charles Martin Smith gets his at the end of Deep Cover when Laurence Fishburne finally asks him “What’s the difference between a black man and a n*****?”

Sadly, the Charlie Chan of Opera is way too polite for that. If someone, finally, were to dare cast a Chinese actor in a 21st-century revival of the Chan series and include a similar character as a lunkheaded, race-baiting foil, we’d no doubt see a different outcome.


That’s actually the feeling I got the most while watching Charlie Chan at the Opera, which was: This movie has the potential to seed a great remake. While I complimented the quick pace of the film, it must be said that the scenes themselves are pretty stiff—especially those involving the opera performances. I imagine a director like Scorsese, for example (not that he’d be the least bit interested), or another director with an equal mastery of fluid movement and a sense of theatricality, really going to town on this screenplay.

In full-blooded color and thunderous sound, ratcheting up the passion of the “Carnival” scenes and snaking around backstage as clues are hunted down and bodies are dropping and some sort of threat to Chan himself comes into play? There we’d have a sumptuous treat of a film.


The Number One Son

We get to see Charlie Chan and his amazing Chan clan in their entirety during a brief dinner scene in The Black Camel. Mrs. Chan doesn’t have any lines (surprise!), but the kids have one or two adorable moments. The key familial relationship in a Chan picture, however, is always embodied by the repartee between the sleuth and his “number one son.” The characterizations of the number one sons in these films are as different as their fathers.

In this case, you’re really kind of obliged to hand it over to Keye Luke, who plays Lee Chan in Opera, if only for the fact that he’s treated as a little more than a punchline. He has a lot more lines than Camel counterpart Otto Yamaoka, who’s relegated mostly to bursting in and screaming “CLUE!” only to have Chan sneer and dismiss him with a sly insult. Having said that, I confess that these moments supplied me with some of the biggest laughs in either film.

“Spend more time hunting for nothing to do,” Chan hilariously tells Kashimo at one point in The Black Camel; later, in frustration at his son having inadvertently caused the pieces of a picture to scatter, Chan calls him a zebra. He’s confused. Chan, at the top of his lungs, clarifies: “A SPORT-MODEL JACKASS!”


The Drawing Room

Well, those of you who’ve made it here to the conclusion are, as movie fans frequently are, way ahead of the game in guessing that I’m going to name The Black Camel as our “culprit” for the far superior film between the Karloff and Lugosi entries. Or, maybe I should rephrase that by saying that Charlie Chan at the Opera is “guilty” of being way overrated. It’s slicker, and maybe in better viewing condition (the preface to the Camel DVD makes it a point to remark it’s been assembled from the best surviving materials; I found it to be perfectly watchable for its vintage), but there is something antiseptic about the later film, a creeping dullness in some of its overheated hokum, that neutralizes the joys we get from a terrific Karloff performance.

The Black Camel, on the other hand, is a little more rough around the edges in every way—but ramps up its “murder mystery” cred with deliciously moody lighting and a Charlie Chan with an attitude. In sections, it’s as if the otherworldly Lugosi vibe has enveloped the entire movie; when Oland’s face emerges from the darkness to intone the eerie quote about death from which the film takes its title, I was on board for the whole thing.

A minor tag: We get to see Chan in his trademark white suit in The Black Camel. In Charlie Chan at the Opera, it’s nowhere in sight. I’d make a laundry joke here, but I think Sergeant Kelly has me covered.

Both are fun movies, but in this Karloff-vs-Lugosi showdown, the prize of the better Chan movie so clearly goes to Bela, case closed.

Or is it still wide open, as Charlie Chan would say, “like swinging gate”? You tell me.