Watching 1939: Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

Release date: 
May 31, 1939

Sidney Toler, Ricardo Cortez, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, Kane Richmond, Pauline Moore, Kay Linaker, Louise Henry, Victor Sen Yung (billed as Sen Yung), Charles D. Brown, Iris Wong, Robert Lowery, Virginia Sale (uncredited)

20th Century Fox

Norman Foster

Mary Whitman (Moore) heads to Reno for a divorce and stays in a hotel for women waiting on their divorce run by Vivian Wells (Brooks) and Dr. Ainsley (Cortez). Upon arrival, Mary encounters Jeanne Bently (Henry), who has broken up Mary’s marriage and will be marrying her ex-husband. That night, Jeanne is found dead, and Mary is accused. Mary’s soon-to-be ex-husband Curtis (Richmond) calls their friend detective Charlie Chan (Toler) to help investigate the case.

1939 Notes:
• The last film of actress Louise Henry.
• One of three Charlie Chan films released in 1939. “Charlie Chan in Reno” was the 21st film in the Charlie Chan series, which had a total of 47 films.
• Sidney Toler was in eight films released in 1939. This was the second film Sidney Toler played Charlie Chan.
• Victor Sen Yung is billed as Sen Yung
• Ricardo Cortez was in two films released in 1939 and directed four films.

Other trivia: 
• The working title was Death Makes a Decree.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:

“Charlie Chan in Reno” (1939) was my first Charlie Chan film, and I realized after researching the Chan film series that it shouldn’t have been.

When I discussed how I didn’t really like Charlie Chan, they all expressed that they loved the series … but with Warner Oland. Oland, who took over the Charlie Chan series in 1931, died in 1938, forcing 20th Century Fox to find a new lead actor for the series. “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (1938) was already in production when Oland died, and Sidney Toler was brought as a replacement for the lead role.

Sidney Toler continued to play Charlie Chan in a total of 21 films until 1946.

A white actor playing “yellowface” is cringeworthy anyways, but Sidney Toler is plain bad. I liked everything else in the film except for the character of Charlie Chan.

I had to wonder how Victor Sen Yung, billed here as Sen Yung, felt about playing alongside a white actor in yellowface. Yung was a Chinese American and played Chan’s son, Jimmy Chan. In the film, Jimmy is on Easter vacation and comes to help his father solve the crime. He meets Choy Wong, played by Chinese American actress Iris Wong, who helps him investigate, and the two begin a romance.

While I didn’t like Toler, I liked all of the other actors and the storyline surrounding him.

Victor Sen Yung and Iris Wong played young and energetic young people, who were refreshing and adorable.

Ricardo Cortez, who was most famous in the 1930s, doesn’t disappoint with his standard cad character. By 1939, Cortez’s acting career was slowing, and he was trying to transition into directing. In 1939, Cortez balanced his acting carer and directed four films this year.

Phyllis Brooks is the most well-known actress in this film but also has the smallest role. Kay Linaker also is in the movie, and this is one of five Charlie Chan films that she co-starred in.

Slim Summerville plays the comedic role of the sheriff, who doubts Charlie Chan’s investigation.

The film was directed by Norman Foster, another actor turned director, who was still early in his acting career. In 1939, Foster directed two Charlie Chan films and two Mr. Moto films.

While I like every aspect of the film except for Charlie Chan, this is an engaging mystery with several twists and turns that keep you guessing.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)

  1. Was looking for some reviews on the Chan films and stumbled upon this. Wanted to point out that both Victor Sen Yung and Keye Luke expressed dismay at the later dislike for the Chan films. To them casting a white male lead was just what was done in the era, but more importantly, the character was one of the first to have an “asian” in a non-villain role. It also was a rare chance for actual Asian actors (Sen and Luke) to star. Chan was the smartest in the room. The character (and films) were enormously popular in China and did much good for how Americans perceived the Chinese. A few great books on the subject matter.

    Responding to those who find the Charlie Chan image stereotypical, Luke retorted, “It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous! When we made those pictures back in the ‘30s, we thought we were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood. We were so proud of them and that’s all they were–pure entertainment.

    “How can it be demeaning to the Chinese,” he asked, “when the Oriental character was the hero? People respected him, police departments consulted with him and called him in to help them.”


  2. Agree with you 100%’. My favorite Charlie Chan was Tolar’. To this day and I am 70 I still say “Thank you, so much.”. He and Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone are my favorite detectives. I watch both over and over and never tire of Chan or Holmes. Thanks for your comments and a great day.


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