Charlie Chan Carries On…
Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio made their decision to choose Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century Fox announced their choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less than a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu a film that had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke.
Sidney Toler was born in Warrensburg, Missouri on April 28, 1874. He showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Toler, following his graduation from college, became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katherine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the ’20s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930).
In 1929, Sidney Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with Claudette Colbert, and Trigger (1934), featuring Clark Gable.
Taking on the role of Charlie Chan following Warner Oland’s death in 1938, Sidney Toler’s portrayal of the Chinese detective in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke.
Toler’s Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Warner Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural, that were on the horizon. Charlie Chan now directed well-intentioned sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy, when needed. However, there was never any doubt of the love that existed between father and son. Although Mr. Chan might hurl a stinging barb, moments later he could often be seen offering loving comfort.
Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, the series was terminated. With war raging throughout the world, the overseas market that had made Charlie Chan films profitable for Fox was now unavailable.
Toler immediately worked to gain the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan’s creator. He had hoped that Twentieth Century-Fox would distribute new Charlie Chan films if he could find someone willing to finance the new movies. However, this did not happen. Instead, Monogram, a Poverty Row film studio, picked up the series.
With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a diminished budget became readily apparent. The quality of both writing and production were no match for those of Fox. However, even with their shortcomings, Charlie Chan films were profitable for Monogram. Once again, changes were made. Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief – and black audiences – to the series.
Sidney Toler starred in eleven Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures. Although many viewers would generally rate these films as poor when compared to their Fox counterparts, they often contain memorable moments, such as the introduction of a number of Chan offspring, and even a good picture or two such as The Shanghai Cobra (1945) and Dark Alibi (1946). Sadly, by the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting Toler. He was very ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Dark Alibi, and it was through a heroic effort worthy of Charlie Chan himself that he was able to complete his last film, The Trap in August of 1946.
Sidney Toler died on February 12, 1947, but once again, Charlie Chan would live on.