So said the New York Times on Sunday, August 7, 1938. But the public actually knew little about the man who had come to be known as “Charlie Chan” in the movies. Prior to his death, interviewers had noted how few interviews he gave and how even his studio seemed to know little about him. Oland, who adopted a Chan-like manner even when away from the cameras, had said “Words like sunbeams, when concentrated can burn.” So, who was the man behind the affable grin and soft philosophical manner?
Warner Oland was born in Sweden. His birth year is usually given as 1880, even his headstone states that, as does his ‘New York Times’ obituary and various other sources. My research indicates that it should be October 3, 1879; the 1890 Swedish census confirms that. He was born Johan Werner Olund and I’ll try here to paint a picture of that day in the Olund household when the census taker knocked on their door.
The Olunds resided, according to the records, in the parish of Bjurholm in the county of Vasterbotten, near Umea on the Gulf of Bothnia, about two-thirds of the way up the Scandinavian peninsula. (A pretty cold part of the world, so I’d guess they would have to do a census in the summer months.) The Olund household, on that day in 1890, consisted of the father, Jonas Olund, 44 years old at the time, and his occupation was listed as “skogselev” (which roughly translates to “woodsman” or “forester” of some kind). His wife, Maria Johanna Olund (nee Forsberg), was ten years younger, and they were probably married around 1877 based on the birth date of their first son, Jonas Arvid Olund, in 1878 (listed as 12 years old in the 1890 census). Number two son was our future Charlie Chan, Johan Werner Olund, who was probably a little short of his 11th birthday. Yet another son, August Albert Olund, was born in 1884, and one more boy, Carl Gunnar Olund, in 1888, and so they were six and two years old respectively on that census day. Quite a male dominated little household except for a 16-year-old girl listed as also living with them, Maria Amanda Andersdottir, whose occupation was listed as “piga” or maid.
The Olunds must have been a little more affluent than average to be able to afford even a young maid. Also, just two years after that census they emigrated to the United States. There was a lot of emigration from Sweden to the New World at that time and most seem to have headed to Minnesota. But our little band seems to have ended up in Boston because we next hear of Warner Oland graduating from high school there. Just what adventures the family had experienced in the intervening years can only be imagined, but when he stepped ashore in the U.S. our Warner was about 12 years old and unlikely to have any English language skills coming, as he was, from a small northern Swedish town.
However, Oland must have made rapid progress, because after leaving high school he enrolled in Dr.Curry’s Dramatic School with a future before him of speaking English on stage for a living. It was during a backstage tour of a production of “The Christian,” by a group of the drama school students, that Warner made contacts that led to him eventually being offered the role of Jesus in that play. The role required both singing and acting…all for $18 a week. This was the beginning of his stage career and for the next fourteen years he was on the road all over the country, and abroad, including Broadway.
It was during this stage of his career, in 1906, while touring with a Shakespearean company, that he was spotted by renowned actress Alla Nazimova, who recruited Oland for her own troupe, performing works by Henrik Ibsen. After this, he used his savings for his own production of his translation of “Peer Gynt.” This was a considerable success and Warner became, temporarily, relatively well set financially.
It was while acting in a performance of “Peer Gynt” in Boston (some sources say New York City) that Warner Oland met Edith Gardner Shearn, a member of an old upper class Boston family. Years later, in Hollywood magazine articles about their meeting, she was referred to as “a young art student, fresh from the studios and salons of Paris.” In fact, when she met Warner in 1907 she was 37 years old to Warner’s 27 years. She had just finished writing a one-act play titled “The House of a Traitor,” and was backstage arranging for its presentation, when she was introduced to Warner Oland. The two intellectuals hit it off immediately. Edith was, in addition, a portrait painter of note and offered to paint Warner’s portrait (the first of many). He also went to her studio to watch rehearsals of her playlet. Within three weeks the pair were engaged to be married. Not everything was rosy though; his next theatrical project was a failure, and his profits from “Peer Gynt” evaporated.
Warner’s first taste of the movie business came in 1910 in a one reel version of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” but the little film and all other details of its making are lost. Around the same time Warner and Edith were busy in a joint project translating some of the plays of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Edith even learned the Swedish language for the project, and the resulting body of work, “August Strindberg Plays,” was published by John Luce and Company of Boston in 1912.