Study: Warner Oland (WO022)

New York Times, August 7, 1938


‘Charlie Chan’ of Films Victim
of Pneumonia on Visit to
Sweden, His Homeland

(STOCKHOLM, Aug. 6 UP) – Warner Oland, famous as an actor in Hollywood Oriental roles, died today at 3 P.M. (9 A.M., E.S.T.), at the age of 57. Death came at a Stockholm hospital where he had been ill of pneumonia.

The veteran character actor died in his homeland – he was Swedish by birth despite his Oriental features. He was stricken while on a holiday visit here.

In “The Perils of Pauline”

(HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 6 UP). Twenty years ago movie fans sat breathless as Warner Oland tried with diabolic cunning, week after week, to kill Pearl White.

Both died in Europe, far from the scenes of the old silent movie serial thrillers in which they played – Oland near Stockholm today and Miss White in Paris two days before him. They were the villain and heroine in the famous old serial “The Perils of Pauline.”

 A Native of Sweden

Warner Oland died in the land of his birth, although probably not one motion picture fan out of a hundred knew he was a native of Sweden. For so many years he had been identified with the Orient through his often sinister roles that Scandinavia, which produced Garbo, was rarely if ever credited with being the homeland of the man best known for his impersonation of Charlie Chan.

Nevertheless, Oland was a Swede

He was born in the tiny village of Umea, Vesterbotten, near the Gulf of Bothnia on Oct. 3, 1880. He was named Johan Warner Oland, and accompanied his family to America when he was 13.

A recent studio biography credited the young Oland with a desire to be a judge. But on graduating from a Boston high school he apparently forgot it and enrolled in Curry’s Dramatic School, where he sought to perfect his voice.

His first part, oddly enough was that of Jesus. A group of Curry students were visiting backstage one day during a performance of “The Christian.”  The contact led to an offer to Oland to play the Saviour. He accepted, acted and sang the role successfully and subsequently made his road debut with it at $18 a week.

For fourteen years he was a trouper-in-stock, in the “sticks,” on Broadway. He specialized in Ibsen and Shakespeare, toured the forty-eight states and went abroad. He was still utterly unassociated with malevolent dope rings or fantastic Far Eastern detective stories, but soon, in the public mind he was to emerge as a sort of Villain No. 1 in such tales.

Hollywood did that for him. His first screen engagement was with Theda Bara in “Jewels of the Madonna.” Then came a serial called ‘Patria,” filmed at Ithaca, N.Y., with a “Chinese general” called for. An unremembered Oriental performer was chosen, but was found too short. Oland, taller and bulkier, got the job. That was the beginning of a career of assumed villainies which thrilled countless audiences and gave the native of a tiny Scandinavian town a chance to kill and die regularly by knife, gun, poison or mysterious trapdoor. His films, which included some of Pearl White’s invariably pictured grotesque alleged Chinese statuary piled into unspeakable vice palaces; beaded curtains through which lethal darts flew; all manner of curved swords, venomous incense, drooping mustaches. And, of course, true to the movie code which still prevails to a certain extent, the villain had to get killed at the end. Oland got himself killed superbly in dozens of ways.

Thus it was the most dramatic paradox of his career that he should ultimately be remembered as a lovable, though improbable, detective than as a high priest of the make-believe forces outside the law. He had played Dr. Fu Manchu, a type of Oriental more in line with his previous experience, in a brief series of features prior to 1931. In March of that year he appeared as the lead in a routine film called “Charlie Chan Carries On.”

Charlie Chan Carried On

He continued to play “heavies” in occasional non-Chan stories, but to a growing number of enthusiasts, he became closely identified with Earl Derr Biggers’s philosophical super-sleuth. The hisses and grimaces of his long-nailed villainy were swiftly forgotten as Chan’s traditional “So sor-ry” and related politenesses, through Oland’s reformed lips, became now box-office magic. Producers saw the handwriting; the villain Oland became increasingly a thing of the film museums.  Charlie Chan carried on, even when Biggers, his creator, died on April 5, 1933.

Once in 1934, a Ronald Colman picture with Oland in an evil Oriental prince, and the gentle and righteous Chan in another adventure, reached Broadway simultaneously. But aside from such a brief session of incongruous competition with himself, Oland’s Chan continued to make remarks like, “Perfect case, like perfect doughnut, has hole,” while nobody even bothered to remember what he said as one of the wickeder Chinese.

Charlie Chan not only routed the former stock conception of an Oland role, but virtually caused the actor to lose his own identity.

When late in his career he visited China, the ancient people whom he had imitated so successfully greeted him as Chan and apparently regarded him as a native – or at least so he reported on his return.

Last January he was suspended by Twentieth Century-Fox for having walked off the set. A few days later indications were that worry over a separate maintenance suit brought by his wife after thirty years of married life had led to a nervous breakdown.  The “run away'” was found at his home in Hollywood – where he lived only while making a picture. He had a Connecticut farm and a Southwestern island estate.  Mrs. Oland, who was about to go to his Stockholm bedside when the news of his death came, was the former Edith Shearn, painter and actress.

Some of his pictures included “Don Q,” ‘The Jazz Singer,” “Old San Francisco,” “Chinatown Nights,’ “Wheels of Chance,” “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu,” “The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu,” “So This Is Marriage,” “Riders of the Purple Sage,” “Flower of the Night,” “Don Juan” (pioneer Vitaphone film), “The Marriage Clause,” ‘Tell It to the Marines,” “Twinkle Toes.”

Also “Infatuation,” “When a Man Loves,” “Stand and Deliver,” “A Million Bid,” “Good Time Charley,” “The Scarlet Lady,” “Dream of Love,” “The Studio Murder Mystery,” “The Mighty,” “Dangerous Paradise,” “The Vagabond King,” “The Black Camel,” “Daughter of the Dragon,” “The Big Gamble,” “Charlie Chan’s Chance,” “Shanghai Express,” “A Passport to Hell.”

Also “The Son-Daughter,” “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case,” “Before Dawn,” “As Husbands Go,” “Mandalay,” “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back,” “Charlie Chan’s Courage,” “Charlie Chan in London,” Charlie Chan in Paris,” “The Werewolf of London,” “Charlie Chan in Egypt,” “Shanghai,” “Charlie Charlie Chan in Shanghai” (an entirely different picture), “Charlie Chan’s Secret,” “Charlie Chan at the Circus,” “Charlie Chan at the Opera,” “Charlie Chan at the Racetrack,” “Charlie Chan at the Olympics,” “Charlie Chan on Broadway” and “Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo.”

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