When a rash of seemimgly random murders are happening in San Francisco, the police call the legendary detective Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov) out of retirement. Arriving, he is met by his hapless grandson Lee (Richard Hatch), who is soon going to be marries to his fiancé Cordelia (Michelle Pfeiffer), but the investigations and further murders almost disturb the festivities. Lee's Grandmother Mrs. Lupowitz (Lee Grant) is also still distraught because her husband was murdered decades ago by the mysterious Dragon Queen (Angie Dickinson), who cursed the Chan family into the third generation and now is around again...
When the American author Earl Derr Biggers was looking for a new hero for his novels and plays in the middle of the 1920s, he noticed a newspaper article about two Chinese detectives in Honolulu during a holiday on Hawaii, creating the idea of Charlie Chan. At that time, oriental characters were almost exclusively villains and a friendly and thoughtful detective of this heritage was very unusual. Charlie Chan debuted in 1925 in the story The House Without a Key, which was first published as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post and later came out as a book. Until 1932 Earl Derr Biggers had written six Charlie Chan novels, which all proved to be very successful, but were only the beginning of a much bigger popularity of the Chinese detective.
Earl Derr Biggers had sadly died in 1933 at the age of only 48 after suffering a heart attack, but in 1929 he was able to sell some of the film rights to his Charlie Chan novels to 20th Century Fox, who brought the sleuth to the big screen in 1931 for the first time after a couple of earlier silent movies were made. Surprisingly, the Chinese detective was not even cast with a Chinese or Japanese actor, but with the Swedish-American Warner Oland, undoing Bigger's attempt not to stereotype his character. But nevertheless Oland became to best and most popular interpretation of Charlie Chan, playing this role until his death in 1938 fifteen times. 20th Century Fox had quickly found an adequate substitute in Sidney Toler to continue the enormeously successful film series - but four years and eight movies later the success was temporarily halted.
The difficult situation in Hollywood during the second world war made characters like Charlie Chan very unpopular, even if they had no racist or evil undertones - the fact alone that an American actor played a Chinese character was enough to warrant the end of the series for 20th Century Fox. Although Fox had lost interest in Charlie Chan, the smaller company Monogram Pictures was able to secure the rights and also managed to persuade Sidney Toler to continue his role.
As early as 1942, Monogram had begun to shoot new Charlie Chan pictures, although with a much lower budget, making them much more minimalistic and not as elaborate as the earlier movies. Sidney Toler played Charlie Chan in eleven films before he died in 1947, but with Roland Winters taking over the lead role, another six movies were shot. They were, however, not very successful and there was not much left of Earl Derr Bigger's original concept of Charlie Chan. Except a short-lived attempt to bring the oriental detective back in a television series, Charlie Chan all but vanished before the 1940s had ended.
There was, however, one last remarkable appearance of Charlie Chan on the silver screen, thanks to the independent production company American Cinema and then first-time producer Jerry Sherlock, who had brought the idea forward. It was not an attempt to revitalize the franchise, but more a one-off project to do a comedic hommage to the many classic Charlie Chan movies. What probably inspired Jerry Sherlock to choose a Charlie Chan adventure parody was an actor, who had recently extended his repertoire to playing detective roles: in 1978, Peter Ustinov had starred in the big-budget adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, playing Hercule Poirot to perfection. Therefore, only one choice for the role of Charlie Chan was possible - to cast the great Peter Ustinov himself.
Fortunately, Ustinov had a particular penchant and talent for imitations and immediately liked the idea of appearing as Charlie Chan. The versatile allround-talent had not only played Hercule Poirot once before, but in the 1975 Disney comedy One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing also appeared as a Chinese villain, where he was able to perfect his mock-oriental accent. It can safely be assumed that these two roles were what attracted the filmmakers to cast Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan, who makes a lot more out of his character than just an oriental Poirot in a white suit.
Taking care to include many aspects of the previous Charlie Chan incarnations, he also gives the detective a little bit of his own impish charme, but he never delves completely into parody and actually plays the role remarkably straight in the same manner he treated Agatha Christie's master detective. Chan also does not completely dominate the movie and wonderfully plays off the other characters in a way that only Peter Ustinov can. When the movie was released, the actor was accused of stereotyping his character, but Ustinov actually does without any typical racial cliches and even his accent is remarkably inoffensive.
The supporting roles are actually much more than that, because Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen was ultimately an ensemble piece with not only one, but many brilliantly chosen actors. Chan's "Number One Grandson" Lee Junior was cast with Richard Hatch, who had become especially famous as Captain Apollo in Glen A. Larson's science-fiction television opus Battlestar Galactica only shortly before and was eager to play more comedic roles. His character is basically the bumbling, inept sidekick of the detective and was clearly inspired Peter Sellers' and Blake Edwards' Inspector Clouseau in the way that he goes through the world totally oblivious that he is wreaking havoc upon everybody. Surprisingly, Hatch proves to be a more than competent comedian and plays his role brilliantly with making a fool out of the character, but not himself.
Lee Junior's fiancé Cordelia was played by a young actress with the name of Michelle Pfeiffer, who was just at the beginning of her career, which she described in her own words as "I needed to learn how to act... in the meantime, I was playing bimbos and cashing in on my looks." While she is in fact playing a cute bubbly blonde in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, her role is actually a parody of many similar characters often appearing in the classic Chan movies. Michelle Pfeiffer has visible fun playing Cordelia deliberately completely over the top, giving her almost silent-movie like expressions and like her co-star Richard Hatch at first seems a bit foolish, but then turns out to be amazingly good in a role that could have been an embarassing disaster.
For the two other female key characters, the filmmakers were able to win two amazing American actresses. The mysterious titular Dragon Queen was played by none other than Angie Dickinson, who had a long and distinguished Hollywood career, making her a real legend. Her role is actually quite small in terms of dialogue, but Dickinson is almost omnipresent in the movie, making small appearances throughout the story and in the flashbacks and also taking part in a big chase scene and the finale. She plays her character magnificently straight without a hint of satire or irony, providing the much needed counterbalance to the funnier characters.
Dickinson is, however, not joined in this by the equally great Lee Grant, another Hollywood legend with a screen and stage career even going further back. She portrays the not only slightly crazy Mrs. Lupowitz as the quintessential mad heiress and gives a wonderfully unhinged and diva-like performance. Not taking herself entirely seriously, her Mrs. Lupowitz is another one of the really satiric characters of the story, closely followed by the great Rachel Roberts as the even more paranoid and downright crazy housekeeper Mrs. Dangers. Her appearance is, however, overshadowed by her tragic suicide shortly after the movie was completed, leaving in question how much of her character had contributed to her fragile mental health - the filmmakers even had a replacement on standby in case Rachel Roberts would not be able to continue. But her last screen appearance is, in spite of all the silliness, a wonderful conclusion of a great careeer.
The most memorable minor character of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen is, however, the wheelchair-bound butler Gillespie, another completely satiric role. He is played to perfection by the british actor Roddy McDowall, who mostly became famous with the original Planet of the Apes movies, but was not really able to show his acting talents because of the thick ape masks. In a complete reversal, his Gillespie has actually very little dialogue, but in return the actor makes full use of his wonderful facial expressions, making the butler wonderfully cynical, devilish and mysterious. Brian Keith as the hypochondriac and ill-tempered police chief Baxter is really only comic relief, but also a send-up of all classic police investigators. His complaints about all the crime happening are one of the few and best running gags of the story.
The script was written by David Axelrod and Stan Burns, a team of authors who almost exclusively worked for television, cutting their teeth in the comedy circuit of the 1970s. Their story, based on a treatment by producer Jerry Sherlock, is a mix of old Charlie Chan movies with the addition of more history of the Chan family itself. Fans of the franchise will instantly recognize many elements and undoubtetly will also not like some of the more loose interpretations, but as a movie in itself Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon queen is very consistent. The idea to start the movie with a black-and-white flashback completely in the style of the original could not have been done better, but the movie does also not take itself too seriously: the little movie-in-the movie literally breaks the fourth wall in an altogether strange way and the many big and small slapstick and action sequences underline the basically playful nature of the film.
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen also was not a cheap movie by a long shot - the budget is unknown, but American Cinema seemed to have pumped a lot of money into the production. The movie was mainly filmed at original locations in San Francisco except the Chinatown sequences, which used an existing outdoor set on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, perfect for an elaborate slapstick sequence in the style of Blake Edwards, whose movies seem to have inspired the filmmakers very much. The british director Clive Donner had mostly alternated between television and cinema, but was known for his very competent work even in chaotic circumstances. Together with cameraman Paul Lohmann and a hand-picked crew he had mostly worked with before, he directed Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen simultaneously as a big-budget production and as a small dialogue-driven film, handling several big, but not too expansive action sequences as good as the many quieter and comedic parts.
Even musically, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen proved to be innovative and playful. Composer Patrick Williams does not limit himself to typical oriental sounds, although these are, of course, not completely absent. The score, sometimes even making deviations into pop and jazz, follows one of the best principles of comedic filmmaking and is entirely serious and earnest itself, except the title piece: Williams had written a mini-operetta for Peter Ustinov, who sings his nonsense lyrics he had invented on the spot in a wonderfully fake oriental-italian accent fully in character. But the most recognizable piece of the score was not a new composition, but something entirely else: the Overture from Louis Hérolds 1831 opera Zampa was used for the big chase scene and also the closing credits in a most effective choice, even bringing out Peter Ustinovs love for classical music.
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen was released in spring 1981 all over the world, but despite riding on the shoulders of Peter Ustinov's previous appearance as Hercule Poirot, failed to become a success and quickly vanished into oblivion. It may not be as lavish or big-budget as Death on the Nile, but the real problems seems to have been that the unique mix between comedy and drama scared off the audiences, who expected either one, but not together. Critics were likewise unimpressed, but actually very unfair with a movie amounting to an affectionate homage to the Charlie Chan franchise. It's only a film made by enthusiasts for the enthusiasts, so the appeal was not very broad, but Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen still is a little jewel of a movie, often overlooked and forgotten.
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen was only shown twice on German television for the last 20-odd years and has otherwise been completely unavailable in any format - there had been no VHS, Laserdisc or DVD releases anywhere. This changed finally in 2004, when a small, obscure Canadian studio had finally released the movie on DVD, although only with a disappointing image and sound quality, but surprisingly with a few extras.
The Canadian release of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen from 2450 Visual Entertainment reviewed in this article sports a nice cover and disc art that promises a lot, but apart from the very welcome extras and the fact that the movie is now finally available, the technical quality is disappointing even if the studio seems to have tried to make the best out of the available material. The DVD is still worth its low price despite the inadequate presentation simply because it's the only version out there except another low-budget british release from 2006, which I cannot recommend because the quality could be even worse and the worthwhile extras could be missing.