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Charlie Chan's Clueless

by Mark Cammack    July 30, 2021

Movie poster for Charlie Chan's Clueless. Warner Oland is smiling while pointing to a small rectangular block with a question mark on it.

Charlie Chan's Clueless is a little known lost film from 1937 with an unusual premise. Warner Oland resumes his fine role as Detective Charlie Chan. He has help from Keye Luke playing his "Number One Son" Lee and Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown the chauffeur.

Colorized photo of Warner Oland, Mantan Moreland, and Keye Luke.

Warner Oland, Mantan Moreland, and Keye Luke.

A formula for success can be seen throughout the many movies in this genre. A person has been or is murdered and others are in distress. Charlie is just arriving at a destination or has a deadline to be somewhere else. He may need to catch a train or plane. With a kind heart, search for justice, and alleviation of suffering in mind, he forgoes his schedule and takes time to help. It is up to Detective Chan to track down the killer amongst danger, long odds, and sometimes unsophisticated peers.

Our brains are challenged with intriguing clues, situations, and characters along the way. There are also funny moments. It is a mix of the serious and silly or Yin and Yang as it were.

Charlie Chan's Clueless is different. It doesn't just lean toward silliness, it makes full use of all the actors comical abilities. It breaks the mold with side-splitting laughter. The movie begins in typical fashion as our team is pursuing a mad scientist who created the Shocker - a device that sends out Z-Rays in the form of a bolt of lightning or a less perceptible wave depending upon the frequency and energy used. While the apparatus can kill, it may be set to dull the victim's thinking. This creates easily controlled humans reducing them to mere robots. The crazed inventor Dr. Zentroff plans to release miniature versions of the device to homes. The units are disguised as entertainment boxes where people can watch programs from afar. A central network will control the outcome by altering messages and frequencies. Dr. Zentroff wants to rule the world.

While seeking Dr. Zentroff, Charlie and company come across a secret lab. It is dark. Birmingham tries to turn on a light and emblazons the room with the Shocker instead. He gets zapped and Charlie rescues him while being electrified in the process. Both are temporarily affected leading to comic relief. It is up to Lee to look after them until they recover. Realizing the need for an immediate vacation, Lee humorously hides clues and keeps detective seekers at bay by any means possible.

Birmingham Brown turns on the Shocker

Birmingham accidentally turns on the Shocker.

Charlie often gives sage advice to his son and others. Lee is wondering whether to keep seeing his new girlfriend who seems to be unpredictable. Normally Charlie has the perfect wise saying as a solution, however...

Lee asks out of habit,"Pop, I don't know what to do. One minute she's nice and then she won't talk at all. What do you think?"

Charlie replys,"Fickle girlfriends like tires on automobile. Always keep spare in case of blowout. Can I have bubble gum?"

Lee responds in frustration,"Pop? That didn't help. You need more rest. Oh, here's your gum."

Charlie smiles and continues,"Better to blow big bubble than big case."

Meanwhile Birmingham escapes and is getting into trouble by wandering aimlessly around town. He is mistaken for a taxi driver in his chauffeur's uniform while bank robbers try to make a quick get away. Hilarity ensues as the addlepated Birmingham drives them around in circles at high speed ignoring stop lights and other vehicles. The shaken robbers decide to turn themselves in to the police for their own safety. That is just the beginning of the adventure...

Admittedly, the premise of the dangerous device is a little iffy. Who would sit at home in front of an entertainment box that captures their mind and dictates their choices and behavior? Remember this is a comedy and not to be taken seriously. The overall script and acting are first-rate and well-worth watching if you can find a copy.


Charlie Chan's Clueless parody work, Warner Oland, Mantan Moreland, and Keye Luke colorized photo, and Birmingham & The Shocker are copyright 2021 Mark Cammack. Charlie Chan images from B&W films are originally from the public domain. The derivative works have been edited and colorized as needed. All rights reserved.

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© Copyright 2021 Mark Cammack. All rights reserved.