Study: Charlie Chan (CC007)

Honolulu Star-Bulletin: Hawaiian Life Weekend Magazine,  March 19, 1955 (originally published in the January 1955 issue of Films in Review)

Charlie Chan in Hollywood

By Edward Connor

WHILE VACATIONING in Honolulu in 1919 Earl Derr Biggers read in a newspaper about the exploits of a Chinese detective named Chang Apana.

Biggers had never heard of an Oriental detective and was intrigued by the idea – so much so that a character for a book began to take shape in his mind.

In 1925, with the publication of House Without a Key, “Charlie Chan of Honolulu police” made his first appearance and was an instant success.  Biggers thereafter wrote a series of books about him.

In 1926, Pathe was looking for suitable material for their top serial team, Allene and Ray Miller, who purchased House Without a Key.

They turned it over to Frank Leon Smith for adaptation, and since Miss Ray and Mr. Miller were to occupy most of the footage, the role of Charlie Chan was cut down to relative unimportance.  Veteran Japanese actor George Kuwa was given the part and his name appeared twelfth in the cast.IN 1928, Universal purchased the screen rights to the second Chan book, The Chinese Parrot, and gave it to the great German director, Paul Leni, for his second Hollywood assignment.

Scenarist J. Grubb Alexander let Chan remain a minor character in his screenplay, and the part was played by another Japanese, Kamiyama Sojin, theretofore best known for his role as the villianous Mongol emperor in the silent Thief of Bagdad.

Sojin’s performance was warmly acclaimed by the critics, but Universal showed no interest in continuing the series.

The next year Fox bought the third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, as a vehicle for Warner Baxter and Lois Moran, and the screen adaptation by Sonya Levein and Clarke Silvernail, all but eliminated Charlie Chan (they made a Scotland Yard Inspector – played by Gilbert Emery – the central character).

What was left of Chan was played by an English actor, E.L. Park, whose name appeared last in the cast.

IN 1931 Fox bought Charlie Chan Carries On and gave the title role to Swedish-born Warner Oland, who was already well known to the movie public for his portrayal of Oriental roles, but of the villianous kind, such as Fu Manchu and the evil mandarins who caused Pearl White so much trouble in silent serials.

Oland captivated all kinds of audiences with his portrayal of Biggers’s courteous, acute and philosophical Chinese detective.

He was able to make so speciously Oriental an aphorism as “only a very brave mouse will make its nest in cat’s ear” sound portentious.

He could also deliver comedy lines, as when, after the wedding of the hero and heroine, he turned to the audience and said: “Pamela and Mark now one.  More later.”

AS SOON AS Fox realized they had a gold mine, they rushed Oland into The Black Camel – the only one of the 16 Chan pictures starring Oland that did not have the name of the detective in the title.

The Black Camel contained many elements that later became identified with the series: references to Chan’s large family; catching the murderer through the setting of a trap – with Chan himself as the bait; the introduction of a screen “bogey-man” for a red herring (Bela Lugosi in this case – later Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and George Zucco).

After The Black Camel, Oland appeared in Charlie Chan’s Chance, in which much was made of the birth of his eleventh child, a son; Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case, a re-make of House Without a Key; and Charlie Chan’s Courage, a re-make of The Chinese Parrot and the last of the Chan films based on books by Biggers (at least one of Biggers’s Chan books, Keeper of the Keys, was never filmed).

All subsequent Chan pictures were based on original screenplays written in Hollywood.

IN THE NEXT Chan film Charlie began his famous trip around the world, stopping first in England for Charlie Chan in London, in which Ray Milland played the male lead.  (George Brent was in Charlie Chan Carries On and Robert Young played in The Black Camel.)

Keyes [sic: Keye] Luke, as Charlie Chan’s Number One son, Lee, first appeared in Charlie Chan in Paris.  More Chan sons appeared before the series ended but none of them seemed to have inherited their father’s talent for deduction.  Their role was to run down false clues and provide comedy relief.  Once in a while, however, they did rescue “Pop” from a tight spot.

Charlie Chan in Egypt was notable for the presence of Rita Hayworth.  She was listed in the cast under her real name, Rita Cansino.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai featured Charles Locher as the romantic lead.  Mr. Locher later donned a sarong and was formally “introduced” to the movie public as Jon Hall.

After Charlie Chan’s Secret, the Chan travels were resumed, but domestically.  Chan took his family of twelve children with him in Charlie Chan at the Circus.  It was followed by Charlie Chan at the Race Track and Charlie Chan at the Opera.

A subtle shift now occurred in the climax of each picture.  Instead of capturing the killer through a trap involving physical action, Chan began to surround himself with suspects and to reconstruct the crime until the murderer made a giveaway remark at which Chan would turn to him and say: “You are the murderer.”

FEW OF the denouncements surprised alert fans, for the scriptwriters never tired of that most hoary of all mystery gambits: making the most innocent seeming party the killer.

In Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Layne Tom Jr. was introduced as “Number Two Son, Charlie Chan, Jr.”  Of that more later.

After Charlie Chan on Broadway, and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, Warner Oland died.

His death occurred on August 6, 1938, two days after that of Pearl White, and on the same day as that of John G. Blystone, who had directed Charlie Chan’s Chance.

Because of the popularity of the series, 20th Century-Fox tested Noah Beery, Leo Carillo and many others for the role, which finally went to Sidney Toler, a veteran character actor best known for comic roles.  Toler’s Scotch descent was very fitting: Charlier Chan has never been played on the screen by a Chinese!

TOLER FIRST played Chan in Charlie Chan in Honolulu.  Also appearing for the first time in that film was Victor Sen Yung as “Number Two son, Jimmy.”  The Number Two Son  of Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Layne Tom, Jr., was also in Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but his name was now given as “Tommy.”

After Charlie Chan in Reno, Toler moved on to Charlie Chan on [sic: at] Treasure Island, which, in my opinion, and that of others, was the best of the Chan series.  The gambits disguising the murderer’s identity were most ingenious and led to a smashing surprise climax.

NO SUCH ingenuity was apparent in the next one, Charlie Chan in City of [sic: in] Darkness, the slowest and most pedestrian of all the Chan movies.  Matters were not helped by Harold Huber, who overacted most painfully as a French official.  Toler made seven more Chan pictures for 20th Century-Fox.  One Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, was a re-make of Charlie Chan Carries On.  The last, Castle in the Desert, was distinguished by some unusual “trickery” intended to fool even the most observant fan.  With this film 20th Century-Fox allowed the series to lapse.  No Chan picture appeared in 1943.

Then Monogram took up the series, continuing with Toler, but introducing Benson Fong as “Number Three son, Tommy.”  The first and third of the Monogram series, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service and Black Magic, introduced two Chan daughters, Iris and Frances, played by Marianne Quon and Frances Chan.

The scriptwriters were now hopelessly confused over the names of the Chan children.  Edwin Luke was introduced in The Jade Mask as “Number Four son” but his name was Tommy, the same as Number Three son [NOTE: Actually, Charlie Chan’s number four son in The Jade Mask was named Edward (Eddie) Chan, not Tommy.]  Victor Sen Yung came back into the series, not as Jimmy but as Tommy [NOTE: Upon his return to the series Victor Sen Yung’s character was referred to as Jimmy, however, with The Chinese Ring, he was, indeed, called Tommy.]!

When Sidney Toler died, after appearing in twenty-two Chan pictures, half of them for Monogram, Roland Winters, a character acter of screen and TV, well known as the boss in the program Meet Millie, took on the Chan role.

It was soon evident that Monogram was losing interest in the series.

THE FIRST two pictures with Winters, The Chinese Ring and Docks of New Orleans, were re-makes from another series, Mr. Wong in Chinatown and Mr. Wong, Detective.

After four more pictures of less-than-modest budget, the series lapsed permanently – in 1949.

An interesting cyclic note was the re-appearance in the last two (The Feathered Serpent and Sky Dragon) of Keye Luke, the Number One Son, bearing his correct screen name “Lee.”

Charlie Chan starred or was featured in one serial and 48 pictures, a greater number than any other screen detective.  Who knows, someday there may be more Chan films.

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