Vintage Cable Box: “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen”

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“Absence of suspicion often denote presence of danger.”

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“Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen”, 1981 (Peter Ustinov), American Cinema

Peter Ustinov puts on the spirit gum to play the immortal Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Richard Hatch (Apollo from the original Battlestar Galactica) plays Charlie Chan’s Number One Grandson, Lee Chan. He is about to be married to the very beautiful Cordelia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Lee Grant, as Hatch’s mother, is concerned that the girl he intends to marry is neither Chinese nor Jewish. Hatch is infuriatingly clumsy. He slices through his tie trying to cut a bagel in half, and he wreaks general havoc everywhere he goes.

Unusual murders have been occurring in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Brian Keith is the stressed-out, ulcer-ridden detective on the case. Charlie Chan arrives to offer assistance. There seems to be a connection between the recent killings and the titular curse of “The Dragon Queen” (Angie Dickinson) she bestowed upon the Chan family for three generations (Why not four? Or forever?) when Chan accused her of a murder in the past, but the curse doesn’t make much sense given that “The Dragon Queen” has been present at all of the locations where the recent killings have occurred, so it really isn’t a curse, is it?

Created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1926, Charlie Chan was played by four different actors before Peter Ustinov, and only one of them was Asian. These serials and movies were serious and often intense mysteries with some humor, but not enough to overpower any existing narratives. The decision to make “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen” almost a spoof of the character is haphazard; especially since the filmmakers try too hard to make it funny. There’s so much chaos and slapstick, you’d think it was less Clive Donner and more Mel Brooks, but there is one crucial difference. Mel Brooks would’ve been funnier.

There is much to commend, however. The cinematography is gorgeous and the set design and wardrobe are impeccable. It’s unfortunate that the technical aspects of the film (not to mention the casting) were wasted with a ridiculous and incompetent script.

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Michelle Pfeiffer is almost distractingly beautiful, and she makes it very difficult to concentrate on the movie. Roddy McDowall is wasted in the role of a handicapped butler. How practical is it to have a servant confined to a wheelchair? There is one funny gag in the movie that made me chuckle. Lee Chan and Cordelia are tied up in an attic, with the old candle burning through the rope trick that would send an anvil down on their heads. Further, they’re being watched by a big guard dog. So they come up with the idea to sing Happy Birthday to the dog to get him to blow out the candle before the rope can snap, and it works!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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