I've been on a Charlie Chan movie kick for the last two weeks, watching literally a dozen of them in that time. I haven't seen any since I was a kid, and they were being shown every Sunday morning on WGN, in tandem with Abbott and Costello pictures and the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes pictures. And I've discovered a strong preference for the original Chan, Warner Oland, over his replacement, Sydney Toler.
As detective stories, the films are pretty standard and often predictable. But Oland is far more charming and, shall we say, joyfully devious than Toler. It's the charm that offsets how offensive the racial sterotypes are - and I'm not only speaking about Chan, because the charcter actor known as Stepinfetchit shows up in these films (in CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT he's called Snowshoes).
Part of this is my obsession with the pop culture of the 1930s and 40s, from my unhealthy addiction to Swing music to the lost WB cartoons. But part of it is also my fondness for Law and Order-type shows, which is really what these were. As there was no tv, these types of shows were the familiar touchstones, the water-cooler conversations sparks.
So, as cultural phenomena, as bizarre retro chic, as nostalgia, these films are my current joy.