“Death is a black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate. Tonight black camel has knelt here.”
Shelah Fayne (Dorothy Revier) is in Honolulu making a picture. On the boat coming over from the mainland she met and fell in love with Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.) Alan wants to marry her, but Shelah doesn’t do anything without first consulting her spiritualist Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi). She asks him to come from Hollywood to Honolulu. Shelah’s assistant Julie O’Neil (Sally Eilers) isn’t crazy about Tarneverro and believes he has too much influence with her boss.
Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) shows up with some questions about the murder of a man named Denny Mayo that happened three years ago. Tarneverro has a crystal ball reading with Shelah where she admits that she had been in love with Denny. She also tells Tarneverro a dark secret. Afterwards Shelah tells Alan that she can’t marry him.
Later that night Shelah is found dead by Jimmy Bradshaw (Robert Young). Jimmy is a publicity director working for the film company in Honolulu. Julie is with him when they find Shelah’s body. Jimmy and Julie are also in love. Julie is compelled to protect Shelah’s reputation and ends up being looked at as a suspect. Jimmy wants her to tell Chan whatever she knows.
Another person with secrets is a beachcomber named Archie Smith (Murray Kinnell) who believes he knows why Shelah was killed and who did it and is not above a little blackmail. It gets him a bullet in the back. Adding to the mix is Shelah’s ex-husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi), who happens to be in Honolulu acting in a play. He shows up when Shelah calls him to come see her.
Tarneverro pretends to help Chan with his investigation, but he has a few secrets of his own. Charlie has to sort out the truth from the lies to discover who killed not only Shelah Fane but Denny Mayo and Archie Smith as well. Three deaths and more than one killer.
“The Black Camel” was released in 1931 and was directed by Hamilton MacFadden. It is a crime mystery starring Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. The film is based on the 1929 novel by Earl Der Biggers. This is Oland’s second film as Chan.
The English version of his first film “Charlie Chan Carries On” 1931 is believed to be lost. The Spanish version “Eran Trece” starring Manuel Arbo as Chan survives. Warner Oland did sixteen Charlie Chan films. There are forty-four films in the standard Charlie Chan cannon. Sidney Toler did twenty-two and Roland Winters did six more. There are other Charlie Chan films but not in the standard Twentieth Century Fox/Monogram cannon.
Comic relief is in the form of a squirrely hyperactive assistant to Charlie Chan called Kashimo (Otto Yamaoka). He rushes in, says and/or does something stupid and rushes out. Dwight Frye has a small part as Jessop, the butler. This is also Robert Young’s first credited theatrical appearance. Both Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye were in “Dracula” 1931 which was released four months prior to this film.
The appearance of both Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi adds a nice dimension to the movie. They actually play off each other nicely. The story is also interesting in that it is believed to have been based on the actual murder of William Desmond Taylor that took place in 1922. As an extra surprise is Mary Gordon who plays Mrs. MacMasters. Mary also played Mrs. Hudson in the Sherlock Holmes movies that featured Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.