While vacationing in Hawaii in the early 1920s, writer Earl Der Biggers, best known at this time as the author of “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” read about the amazing exploits of a local detective named Chang Apana.
A colorful member of the Honolulu police force, Apana, born in Hawaii of Chinese descent, had a preference for Panama hats and carried a horsewhip instead of a gun. Fluent in several languages, including Hawaiian, pidgin English and Chinese, Apana developed an intricate network of informants, which, along with his innate skills as a detective, helped him to solve a number of cases that would otherwise have proven impenetrable. He was highly regarded, and had great success in his battles against opium smuggling and illegal gambling on the islands.
Fascinated by Apana and his work, Biggers began to develop the idea of a Chinese-American detective to appear in his next book. Little did he know that his sleuth, who would star in a half-dozen novels between 1925’s “The House Without a Key” and Biggers’ death in 1933, would become one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time. Charlie Chan, with his numerous children and his fortune-cookie aphorisms, would give even Sherlock Holmes a run for his money, both on the bookshelves and on the silver screen.
Reportedly, even Biggers was surprised by Chan’s popularity. Indeed, a reading of the first novel shows that Biggers doesn’t even introduce Chan until relatively late in the story, and his role in events is fairly minor. Nevertheless, he proved popular enough to warrant several sequels, each one expanding on the background of the fictional detective.
When readers first are introduced to Chan, he is a sergeant in the Honolulu police department, although his outstanding work and his tireless devotion to duty eventually earn him a promotion to lieutenant and then inspector. He lives in a house on Punchbowl Hill, an extinct volcanic crater in Honolulu, where he and his wife raise 14 children, including the eldest, known colloquially as “Number One Son.”
When Biggers introduces Chan in Chapter Seven of “The House Without a Key,” he describes the detective:
“In those warm islands thin men were the rule, but here was a striking exception. He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light, dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.”
If Chan was an unusual figure physically, his speech patterns were even more so. For example, at the end of his initial investigation in “The House Without a Key,” readers are treated to the following exchange:
Miss Minerva faced Chan. “The person who did this must be apprehended,” she said firmly.
He looked at her sleepily. “What is to be, will be,” he replied in a high, sing-song voice.
“I know — that’s your Confucius,” she snapped. “But it’s a do-nothing doctrine, and I don’t approve of it.”
A faint smile flickered over Chan’s face. “Do not fear,” he said. “The fates are busy, and man may do much to assist. I promise you there will be no do-nothing here.” He came closer. “Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us.” Despite his girth, he managed a deep bow. “Wishing you good morning,” he added, and followed Hallet.
These unique speech patterns would be carried over into the movies, and would become a significant part of Chan’s persona. Although there was certainly an attitude of European Imperialism evident in “House” — Charlie is treated more as the hired help than as a valuable member of the police force throughout the novel, constantly working at the direction of Captain Hallet, even though he’s the one who comes up with the most valuable information and draws the most cogent conclusions — Chan is, in the end, afforded the respect and admiration he deserves. Although his portrayal may at times be stereotypical, he’s never played as a clown or buffoon. In an era when most Asians were seen as, at best, houseboys or manservants, Charlie Chan was an impressive example of a positive racial role model.
It didn’t take long for “The House Without a Key” to make it to the silver screen. In 1926, Pathé adapted the novel into a 10-chapter serial, now sadly lost, starring popular silent stars Allene Ray and Walter Miller and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennett, who would go on to become one of the leading serial directors of the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese-born George Kuwa played Chan, although his role was much smaller than Ray’s and Miller’s, in keeping with the plot of the book.
The following year, Universal released “The Chinese Parrot,” based on Biggers’ second Chan novel, this time starring Sojin — a former stage magician born Sojin Kamiyama — as the Chinese detective. Directed by Paul Leni, the director originally wanted his friend, Conrad Veidt, for the role of Chan, but that was not to be. This film now is considered lost.
Fox entered the fray in 1929 with “Behind That Curtain,” an adaptation of Biggers’ third novel starring the popular detective. Although ostensibly a Chan film, Charlie, played here by Korean actor E. L. Park in his only screen appearance, has little to do, making his appearance only during the latter portion of the film. Notable for a pre-Frankenstein appearance by future film icon Boris Karloff, this also marked the last time that an Asian actor played the part of Chan in the movies. More importantly, it began a long and profitable series of Chan films from Fox Studios.
The first of these films, now lost, was “Charlie Chan Carries On,” released on April 12, 1931, significant in that it introduced Warner Oland to the franchise as the first non-Asian actor to play Biggers’ celebrated detective. Born in Sweden in 1879, Oland made his first film appearance in the 1912 production of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Several years later, he returned to the screen in the Pearl White serial, “The Romance of Elaine” (1915). From then on, he worked steadily in the movies, soon developing an affinity for Asian characters such as Wu Fang in “The Lightning Raider” (1919), Fu Shing in “The Fighting American” (1924) and even the title role as Sax Rohmer’s immortal villain in “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1929). It was this role that made Oland a star and positioned him for the part of Chan that would make him a film icon. As an interesting aside, Oland also is credited as the first actor to play a werewolf onscreen. He’s the beast that bites Henry Hull in Universal’s “Werewolf of London” (1935). Oland did not use makeup for his role as Chan, claiming that his natural features were the result of Mongol blood inherited through his mother.
Over the next six years, Oland made a total of 16 Chan films, including “The Black Camel” (1931), the only surviving Oland Chan film based on one of Biggers’ novels; “Charlie Chan’s Chance” (1932), the only film in the series that had the involvement of Biggers himself; “Charlie Chan in Paris” (1935), the first appearance of Chan’s eldest son, Lee Chan, played by Keye Luke; “Charlie Chan in Egypt” (1935), featuring a young Rita Hayworth (then Rita Cansino) in her third film appearance; “Charlie Chan at the Opera” (1936), with co-star Boris Karloff in a rare singing role; and “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937), which includes actual footage of the German airship Hindenburg (with the Nazi swastika on its tail fin painstakingly removed, frame by frame).
Shortly after completing “Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo” (1937), Oland began work on “Charlie Chan at the Fights,” but health problems, reportedly brought on by a long-standing problem with alcoholism, hospitalized Oland for several weeks. In early 1938, Oland returned to Sweden to recuperate. It was there, on Aug. 6, 1938, after contracting bronchial pneumonia exacerbated by the onset of emphysema brought on by years of heavy smoking, that Oland passed away. The scenes that Oland had shot for “Charlie Chan at the Fights” were reshot with Peter Lorre, and the movie was released as “Mr. Moto’s Gamble” (1938).
With Oland’s death, Fox — now part of 20th Century Fox — had to find a new Charlie Chan to continue their lucrative franchise, and find him they did, after testing nearly three dozen actors, in Sidney Toler, who took up the mantle beginning with “Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (1938). A Missouri native, Toler’s show business career began on the stage in the 1890s. In 1929, the actor relocated to Hollywood and began a life on the silver screen in such pictures as “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Call of the Wild” (1935) and “Three Godfathers” (1936). The change from Oland to Chan also saw a change from Luke’s “Number One Son” to “Number Two Son,” Jimmy, played by Asian character actor Victor Sen Yung. Toler brought his own sensibility to the character, emerging as a more aggressive and disgruntled Chan than Oland’s quieter portrayal. All in all, the character was good for an additional 11 films over the following four years.
In 1942, after the release of “Castle in the Desert,” Fox decided to bring an end to the once-popular franchise. It was wartime, which meant a cut in foreign markets and tighter budgets, and Fox curtailed many of its B-picture units. Toler, however, still believed there was life in the character, and he successfully negotiated to obtain the rights from Eleanor Biggers Cole, Earl’s widow. When it became apparent that Fox had no interest in distributing the pictures, Toler turned to Monogram, a Poverty Row studio that jumped at the chance to add such a high-profile star and character to its lineup. Monogram had already scored successes with its Mr. Wong films, starring Boris Karloff, beginning in 1938, so the decision to partner with Toler on the Chan films must have been an easy one.
Toler’s Monogram run began with “Charlie Chan in the Secret Service” (1944), an entertaining picture, even if the budget was far less than that assigned to the previous Fox pictures. This was also the picture that introduced Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, Chan’s chauffeur, who would appear in all the Monogram Chan films as comic relief. Moreland, a talented performer, actually got a chance to showcase his nightclub routine with real-life performing partner Ben Carter in “The Scarlet Clue” (1945), one of the highlights of the series.
Throughout the last few Chan films — “Dangerous Money” (1946), “Shadows Over Chinatown” (1946) and particularly “The Trap” (1946) — it was apparent that all was not well with Sidney Toler. Barely able to walk, much of the action in these films was split between Moreland and Sen Yung as Toler’s health steadily declined. The popular actor finally lost his battle with intestinal cancer on Feb. 12, 1947. He had appeared in 22 Chan films, 11 for Fox and 11 for Monogram.
As should come as no surprise, the loss of Toler did not mean an end to the Chan series, which was turning a profit for Monogram. Taking up the role was Roland Winters, who had purchased the rights to the character. At 44, he was the youngest of the three actors to star as Chan, actually several years younger than Keye Luke, who returned to the role of “Number One Son.” The son of a classical violinist, Winters got his start in show business in a 1924 stage production of “The Firebrand.” Later, he worked as an announcer for Braves and Red Sox games — he was a native of Boston — before making his screen debut as an uncredited newspaperman in “Citizen Kane” (1941). “The Chinese Ring,” Winters’ first Chan film, was his third picture and the first for which he actually received billing. He made six Chan films for Monogram, all with Moreland on board as co-star, until Monogram pulled the plug on the series in 1949 after “The Sky Dragon.”
Charlie Chan made one more screen appearance, in 1981’s “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” with Peter Ustinov in the lead role, supported by such well-known actors as Lee Grant, Angie Dickinson, Richard Hatch, Brian Keith, Roddy McDowall and, in a very early appearance, Michelle Pfeiffer. Intended as a spoof of the older films, the result was a decidedly forgettable comedy/mystery.
Since then, Chan has been conspicuously absent from the big screen. Not surprising, as the character has generated significant controversy throughout the years, particularly for the practice of white actors in “yellowface” playing the lead role. Some groups, such as the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, have argued that the character of Chan was “demeaning to the race,” to which Keye Luke, an actor born in China who had a significant career in motion pictures and was the most prominent performer to play “Number One Son,” replied, “‘Demeaning to the race?’ My God! You’ve got a Chinese hero!” Others argue that Chan was an intelligent, capable hero in a day when Asian characters were largely relegated to roles as servants, villains, or laundrymen. The debate rages on to this day.
In spite of his recent absence from the pop culture scene, Charlie Chan is still a well-known character, who has taken his rightful place in the pantheon of great fictional detectives alongside Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Nero Wolf and Bulldog Drummond.
There’s little doubt that Charlie Chan will, at some point, make a comeback and keep the world safe from evildoers once more.
Grey Smith studied film and received a degree in Communications from the University of Texas at Austin, after which he pursued a career in the motion picture industry, working as a set decorator and prop master from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. As an art director, he worked on more than 35 feature films. He has also been an avid collector of movie posters. In 2001, he became Heritage Auction Galleries first movie poster expert.