Study: Warner Oland (WO015)

Modern Screen, July 1937

Charlie Chan at the Interviewer’s

By Faith Service

I WENT to interview Warner Oland about Charlie Chan. I remained to interview Charlie Chan about Warner Oland. For, actually, the two men are one.

Mr. Oland admitted, with his shy, Chan-ish smile that playing the one part in so many pictures, for so many years, has so steeped him in the character that “not even my wife,” smiled Mr. Oland, “can tell now whether she is married to Warner Oland, Dane, or Charlie Chan, Oriental.”

When I arrived at the studio commissary to lunch with Mr. Oland, we ordered, with some sense of the fitness of things, Chicken Chow Mein, Mandarin and yellow tomato juice. And when I remarked, with an attempt at Oriental courtesy, that it was interesting to be talking to the creator of Charlie Chan, lo, it was Mr. Chan, himself, who rose from the table, made that well-known little bow from the waist, said sibilantly, “Thank you so much.”

Mr. Oland is painfully shy about interviews. He says, “Don’t talk too much. Words like sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” Mr. Oland actually speaks in Chan-o-grams.

The result of this reticence is that no one knows about Warner Oland. It has been said that the Chan pictures make more money over a period of time than his studio’s much touted super-super productions. But so deep-rooted is Mr. Oland’s conviction that people are not interested in him, personally, that it would be painful for him to talk glibly about himself.

There sat Charlie Chan, the ends of his eyebrows brushed up, the ends of his mustache brushed down – his only makeup for the role of Chan. For the eyes, the voice, the build, and the gentle courtesy of Warner Oland are the eyes, the voice, the build, and the soft impersonal courtesy of Charlie Chan. Knowing that Oriental courtesy cannot refuse a gift, even the gift of words, I induced Charlie Chan to talk about Warner Oland.

MR. AND MRS. OLAND live very quietly on their ranch in the Carpenteria Valley near Santa Barbara, in a Cape Cod farmhouse type abode, facing the sea on one side, the Santa Barbara hills on the other. The furnishings are a fascinating and discriminating conglomeration of treasures from the travels of the Olands. The antique English oak table was purchased in London. There are candlesticks from Italy, rare porcelains, some Early American pieces, an English Sheraton desk – Mr. Oland’s favorite chair – and an Early American needlepoint. Occasional touches of Chinese red flame in the English oak living-room.

One room, which started out to be a library, now houses Mr. Oland’s ever-increasing collection of Chinese prints and art objects. Mr. Oland does not go in for collecting. The two bedrooms are done very simply, one in green and lemon-yellow, and the other in red and white. The servants’ quarters are as cheerful as the rest of the house. And there are several portraits of Mr. Oland about the rooms, done by his artist wife.

There is a lovely rose garden. There are lemon groves, and avocados, limes and oranges growing in abundance. Oland has an arrangement with one of the big fruit packing houses to tend his lemon groves and market the crops. He makes from sixty to eighty dollars a month on his lemons, believe it or not.

Mr. And Mrs. Oland seldom go out socially, and they entertain very little. On Sundays when they are at home on the ranch, they have a few close friends in to spend the day with them. These often include Louise Dresser and her husband, Jack Gardener, the Jean Hersholts, the Frank Lloyds, the Richard Arlens. Mr. Oland is a most casual host. He supplies his guests with bathing suits for a before-luncheon swim and after luncheon they will often play pinochle, poker or dominoes – never bridge.

But let Mr. Chan tell you about the Olands, in his own words. “Now and then he does some gardening himself. But he is an indolent fellow, this Oland,” smiled Charlie. “He spends much time walking by the sea and in the hills. He calls this ‘refreshing his soul.’ He also sits before the fire meditating and reading Chinese philosophies. As the years go by, he is becoming more and more steeped in Oriental literature and the ancient wisdoms. But he says sadly, that not all his reading will ‘capture the sea of literature in the thimble of man’s brief span of time.’

“The marriage of the Olands is completely happy. The seed of their romance which was planted in the sound soil of mutual interests,” said Charlie Chan, “has developed into the full flower of their marriage.” Then he told the story of that romance from its beginning. They met in New York when Mr. Oland was playing “Peer Gynt” at the old Keith and Proctor Theatre on 28th Street. Mrs. Oland, then Edith Gardener Shearn, well-known portrait painter, had written a one-act play, “The house of a Traitor,” and was backstage arranging for its presentation.

The press agent of the theatre asked if she would like to meet Warner Oland whose performance was just over. Miss Shearn was shown his photograph, expressed interest, but did not have to wait for an introduction. Just then Mr. Oland came in. He was presented to Miss Shearn. They talked, and it was as if they had known each other all their lives.

Someone who had joined in the conversation commented on Mr. Oland’s “Peer Gynt” and that of Richard Mansfield. Mr. Oland’s performance, she said, was old wine, Mr. Mansfield’s, beer. Oland quietly replied, “I think it was wonderful of him to produce ‘Peer Gynt’ at all.” Miss Shearn, impressed with the modesty of the man, wondered if she had met, at last, a man humble and sincere, who thought only in terms of art. She forgot her other appointments and remained to talk. She made arrangements to paint his portrait, the first of many. He went to her studio to watch rehearsals of her playlet. Within three weeks they were engaged to be married.

“It is a marriage,” said Charlie Chan, “which is enduring because it is joined by the treasures of the mind which neither rust nor corrupt. They are as much married in their tastes and interests as in their affections.”

THEY do everything together. Mrs. Oland started to paint when she was twelve. She studied at the Smith College Art School, at the Art Students League in New York and later in Paris. She studied under such artists as William Chase and Robert Henri.

Mr. Oland also paints, though he speaks of his wife’s painting, not of his own. He would, he confesses, rather have been a painter than anything else in the world, but he never had enough confidence in his ability. He never had lessons. He watches his wife paint, and does landscapes himself. He says that his wife’s work is “virile,” while his is merely “lyrical.” His favorite among his own paintings is one he did of Benedict Canyon, near Beverly Hills. He called it “Spring” and stood knee-deep in mud during a rain to get a certain landscape mood.

The Olands, jointly, translated the first eleven Strindberg plays ever translated and published in English.

The household of Mr. And Mrs. Oland consists of Preyedes Venedetti, the cook, and Preyedes’ husband who is the gardener. He did not know a weed from a geranium when he started, for his trade in Italy was that of a stone worker. There is also Milton Thorpe, the chauffeur, who not only drives the Oland cars, but also answers all of Mr. Oland’s correspondence, fan and personal mail.

“Perhaps the most important member of the Oland household,” resumed Charlie Chan affectionately, “is Mrs. Oland’s mother. Mrs. Shern is over ninety and has the verve, the gaity, and the vigor of a woman of forty. Mrs. Shern maintains her own bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, visiting the Olands only upon occasion. She believes that mothers-in-law should not live ‘with the young folks’ – unlike the custom in my country,” added Charlie Chan.

“There are no children in the Oland family. But there is Shaggedy Ann, a German Schnauzer given to the Olands by Richard Arlen. And there are Shaggedy’s children, Countess Julie, Mr. Chan, Princess Ming Lo Fun [sic? (Princess Ming Lo Fu – after the song sung by Charlie Chan to children in the film “Charlie Chan in Shanghai”?)] and Till Eulenspiegel, named for one of Mr. Oland’s favorite Strauss tone-poems.

“A whimsical fellow, I am afraid, this Warner Oland,” said Charlie Chan, “for he threatened, at first, to give all the puppies away. Then he changed his mind as his were assailed and now, not only keeps all puppies but takes them with him on his travels and also to his various places of residence. They go along to their farmhouse in Southboro, Massachusetts, an old house built in the days of the Revolution, and their 7000-acre ranch on the wild Mexican island of Palmeto de la Virgin.

“Mr. Oland has some distressing little habits,” Mr. Chan pursued, something like a gleam of satisfaction in his slightly slanted eyes. “He has a habit, for instance, of putting his lighted cigarettes – at all times he resembles a lighted chimney rather than a portly gentleman of some 200 pounds – on desks, tables, ancient books, choice prints. Accidents occur. I would like to tell him that he should pay attention to detail. Insignificant molehill sometimes more worthy of notice than conspicuous mountain. He does the same with wet fountain pen. Mrs. Oland does not believe in Occidental habit of wifely nagging. As Oriental wife she bears and forbears; she permits him to blot and burn. One time he ruined his wife’s costly white opera cloak. Several of their prized Sheraton chairs have been marred by such burns. On the other hand, he keeps very fine care of his clothes. He has neither a valet at home nor a dresser at the studio.

Mr. Oland habitually brings his lunches to the studio – sandwiches and coffee, principally coffee, to which he is an addict. He brings his lunches in humble fashion, in a workman’s metal container. And he brings them not because he cannot stand cafe cooking, but because he must concentrate, while working, on character of Chan. The only intrusion into his concentration is Shaggedy Ann.

“One afternoon Mr. Oland disappeared from the set. Great disturbance resulted. Scouts were dispatched. It was found that Mr. Oland had rushed Shaggedy from his dressing room to the dog hospital, having found that a medicated flea bath was indicated.

“MR. OLAND has a bland, calm manner. He moves slowly and with deliberation. His voice is pitched so low as to be, at times, inaudible. Inwardly he is very nervous and tires easily. The only time he ever shows signs of nervousness is when someone stands in his line of vision off-stage while he is playing a scene. He takes his work very seriously. He takes Charlie Chan very, very seriously. One of his greatest regrets is that he never met Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan.

“He has played many Oriental characters prior to Chan. His first screen appearance was in support of Theda Bara in ‘Jewels of the Madonna.’ He played in ‘Old San Francisco,’ ‘Chinatown Nights,’ ‘Heels of Chance,’ ‘The Mysterious Fu Manchu,’ ‘The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu’ and many others. Then he began the Charlie Chan pictures and will make no others.

“Mr. Oland cannot live in Hollywood. He says that the vibrations would destroy him. When Mr. Oland is in Hollywood, he has rules for working there and for working in pictures. They are:

Don’t alibi. Old excuse like ancient goat, has whiskers.

Face the facts. Dreams, like good liars, distort facts.

Be punctual. Cold omelette, like fish out of sea, does not improve with age.

Think things out. Hasty conclusions, like hind leg of mule, kick backward.

Don’t hog the picture. One man cannot move mountain.

Lead the right sort of life. Talent without virtue like silver without a master.

Be determined. Oak tree will not fall with first stroke.

Invest wisely. Much wealth will not come is little does not go.”

Mr. Oland is not, Mr. Chan said, greedy for money. He believes that much money, like much property, is much responsibility. He receives many offers to play other Oriental characters and invariably refuses. He was offered a fabulous sum for playing the general in “The General Died at Dawn” and declined the part. He makes his three Charlie Chans a year and will make no others.

“This is a saying of Mr. Oland,” Charlie Chan added. “When he is told that he should make more money, work more often, strive for greater gains he always says, ‘Naked I came into the world and naked I shall go out of it.'”

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