Study: Charlie Chan (CC020)

NARA News, Volume 8, Number 2, c. 1997

Charlie Chan

By Jack French

The portly, impassive oriental sleuth, Charlie Chan, has cast an impressive shadow in the world of fictional mystery since 1925.  He was the product of a middle-aged Caucasian journalist, whose knowledge of the Eastern Hemisphere, and China in particular, was limited to casual impressions.  However, the author quickly captured the imagination of most of North America with his deliberative Chinese detective in magazines, books, films, and to a lesser extent, radio and the stage.

Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie’s creator, was born on August 24, 1884 in Warren, Ohio.  His mother bestowed upon him her maiden name for his middle one, and he always used all three names in combination, never any initials.  After an unremarkable 18 years in the midwest, he went to Harvard where his Ivy League peers adjusted him to be a typical rustic.  After Biggers graduated in 1907 he was promptly hired as a reporter for The Boston Traveler.  He wrote humorous pieces and got to be the drama critic.

When Biggers left Boston in 1911, he had a wife, an unpublished novel, and a thirst for literary success.  He settled in New York City where he spent the next eight years.  George M. Cohan bought the stage rights for his novel, “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and it was a solid Broadway success.  He continued to write plays, magazine articles, and novels.

Citing poor health as his reason (partly true) Biggers moved to the West Coast in 1919 and quickly found work in Hollywood, writing scripts and national magazine articles.  In 1925 he was writing a serial for the Saturday Evening Post, “House Without a Key” and in it he invented a minor character, Charlie Chan.  Biggers based the creation on a Chinese policeman, Chang Apana, that he had read about on a trip to Hawaii.

In the mid-1920s an Oriental was an unlikely hero since most of the U.S. public regarded them as lazy, illiterate, opium-selling cutthroats.  But the author believed that a trustworthy, benevolent philosopher would be closer to the truth about that race.  Biggers’ insight was uncanny; the audience response to Chan was overwhelming and the Post quickly had Biggers write out another serial. Biggers would write this one with Chan in the lead.  Thereafter Biggers would write one Chan novel a year for the next five years, and all but one were made into major motion pictures.

In 1929 Fox Studios bought the rights to this Oriental detective and produced 28 Charlie Chan motion pictures between 1930 and 1942.  Not one of these movies used a Chinese actor to play Chan.  The two most common leads were Warner Oland (Swedish) and Sidney Toler (Scottish).

The first radio featuring Charlie was sponsored by Esso and debuted on December 2, 1932.  It had Walter Connolly in the title role, a Caucasian who had played him before on the stage.  It was not very successful and went off the air in May 1933.

Biggers died of heart disease on April 4, 1933 in Pasadena; he was only 48.  Perhaps more than any other American author, he had helped to destroy the stereotyped image of the Chinese as shifty and shiftless.  A good example of his view is expressed in the words of a character from his novel “Charlie Chan Carries On”: “The Chinese are the aristocrats of the East… clever, competent and honest.”Chan returned to network radio in 1937 but the revival did little better than the first; it went off the air in 1938.  But the Chinese crime-solver was still popular on the silver screen.  Fox and Monogram Pictures produced 37 between 1935 and 1947 [sic: 1949] and nearly all made impressive profits.

Charlie returned to the airwaves in June 1944 on ABC with Ed Begley in the lead.  Leon Janney portrayed his No. 1 son in this 15-minute series.  Like the other versions, the writers peppered the script with pithy epigrams such as: “Only a very brave mouse makes his nest in a cat’s ear.”In August 1947 this series moved to Mutual where Santos Ortega took Begley’s place, though Janney retained his role.  This version was on network radio until June 1948, the last time Charlie Chan was on the air.

Today, more than 70 years after his initial appearance, Charlie Chan is still quite popular.  The original Biggers novels, never out of print, still sell briskly.  Over 40 of his movies are regularly re-run on cable television.

It is evident that this soft-spoken and sagacious Oriental detective will be with us as long as people love a mystery.  Or as Charlie Chan might have said: “One adventurous companion will banish boredom of a thousand nights.”

Copyright (c) Jack French

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