Guest Post by Philip Schweier
With Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbach both breathing new life into famed detective Sherlock Holmes, it is my hope that someone will soon do the same for one of fiction’s other renowned sleuths, Charlie Chan.
Later, in the early 1990s, I had been out of college for only a few years and had yet to achieve any significant financial comfort. As a result, I was living in what could generously be referred to as a “studio” apartment in downtown
More accurately, it was an efficiency consisting of a day bed, a table and a
kitchenette unit. The kitchen unit limited my culinary abilities, so I relied
heavily on instant coffee and microwavable food.
The only source of heat came from a single electric space heater, which was inadequate to the task. Despite what some folk may believe about coastal
it can get rather nippy. So it wasn’t uncommon in winter for me to go to bed
wearing two pairs of socks, three shirts, longjohns and sweat pants, as well as
three or four layers of blankets.
So there I would be, watching Charlie Chan movies clothed in multiple layers, eating rubbery blueberry loaf and drinking muddy coffee. Sounds pathetic, no?
Well, maybe, but I remember someone once telling me that it’s the simplest joys that are the best. Poor as I was, I enjoyed those movies and the awful breakfast that went with them. And while I enjoy the Charlie Chan movies still, watching them isn’t the same, not without breakfast on a cold Sunday morning.
In the stories, Chan was a Chinese detective in the employ of the Honolulu Police Department. Despite his tendency to speak in somewhat broken English, Chan applied Confuscius-style philosophy to the skill of crime solving, often aided by one of his many offspring.
He appeared in only six stories before
came calling and launched the character’s popularity even further. During the
silent era of movies, a handful of Chan movies were made featuring an Asian in
the title role, but his role in the stories was minimized.
Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931, Chan took center stage, portrayed by Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. The honorable Chinese detective was assisted in the crime solving by one of his “multitudinous blessings.” This usually provided a small amount of comedy relief as one child or another provided “help” whether Chan desired it or not.
Usually, this part was played by Chinese-born Keye Luke as #1 son Lee Chan. He was first featured in Charlie Chan in Paris (1935), and co-starred with
eight films, his final appearance with Oland being Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937).
Afterwards, he would go on to portray the original Kato in The Green Hornet (1940) and The
Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940). He enjoyed a successful career on film
and television, being featured as Master Po on Kung Fu (1972-75). He died only a few weeks after the release of his
final film, Woody Allen’s (1990). Alice
Actor Harold Huber was another staple of the Charlie Chan series. He most often played the senior police officer working with Chan in whatever city in which the mystery took place. In Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937), he played Chief Inspector James Nelson NYPD. Then, in its immediate follow-up, Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), he played Chief of Police Jules Etienne Joubert.
Boris Karloff, Cesar Romero and Rita Hayworth. Unfortunately, most of those films are lost, having been destroyed in a studio fire in the 1930s, or through the gradual deterioration of the film stock of the day.
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938). Two new actors were cast. Sydney Toler, 64, took over the starring role, while Victor Sen Young, who would go on to play Hop Sing on Bonanza, was given the part of #2 son Jimmy.
At Fox, the series progressed for 12 more films until 1942’s Castle in the Desert. With
having entered WWII, the series perhaps fell victim to the many sacrifices for
the war effort made throughout the country, but only temporarily.
Monogram Pictures had a reputation for churning out cheap but profitable movies, and had created a copy-cat series featuring Boris Karloff as the educated Chinese detective Mr. Wong. Between 1938 and 1940, five movies were made featuring Karloff, as well as a sixth starring Keye Luke as a younger version of the same character. With the Charlie Chan rights up for grabs, Monogram took over the series. However, the $200,000 budget was slashed by more than half.
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) and introduced Benson Fong as #3 son Tommy. Also, a second comedic foil was introduced in the form of Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). While his added comedy lightened the tone of the films considerably, some people believe his role as Chan’s chauffer only added another offensive stereotype.
Fong would fill the Tommy Chan role six times over the next 11 films. Victor Sen Young returned to play Jimmy Chan two more times. Otherwise, Charlie might be assisted by #2 daughter Fran (Fran Chan) or soley Birmingham Brown
The Chinese Ring, which was merely a rehash of 1939’s Mr. Wong in Chinatown. Its follow-up, Docks of New Orleans (1948), was also a remake of the first Mr. Wong outing, Mr. Wong, Detective (1938).
Victor Sen Young returned to the series, this time to play #3 son Tommy. Later, in the penultimate film in the series, The Feathered Serpent (1948), Keye Luke reprised his role as #1 son Lee Chan. Luke, at 44, was actually 5 months older than his on-screen father.
Of the six final Charlie Chan films from Monogram, all but two – Docks of New Orleans and The Sky Dragon – were directed by William “One-take” Beaudine. He had earned a reputation as being able to work quick and cheap. While he may not have ever produced any potential Oscar material, he got the job done on time and on budget.
Winters starred in a total of six Charlie Chan films before the series came to an end in 1949. This coincides with the rise of communism in
may have contributed to the end of the series. With the Chinese now very much
out of favor diplomatically, the interest in a low-budget film series starring
a Chinese detective had clearly run its course
However, one series that did sell was the cartoon series, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, which centered primarily on the Chan’s numerous children. In Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), Chan speaks of 11 children, but by Black Magic (1944), his “multitudinous blessings” had grown to 13. However, this number would no doubt have proven unwieldy for a cartoon series, so the family was whittled down to approximately nine children of varying ages. They traveled with their father, usually becoming involved in mysteries of their own which they solved in Scooby-Doo fashion.
Once again, former #1 son Keye Luke, returned to the character, this time providing the voice of Charlie Chan for the cartoon series. Also among the voices was a very young Jodie Foster, who played the young teenage tomboy of the family, Anne Chan.
It was around this time that Saturday morning programming became the focus of many well-intended campaigns aimed at making cartoon shows more educational and less violent. Not that the Chan Clan was violent, as the stories usually involved relatively benign crimes such as forgery or smuggling. But certainly Charlie Chan’s history of how Asians were portrayed came under scrutiny. Personally, a brilliant detective dedicated to thwarting crime is hardly something with which to be overly-concerned, I think.
Nevertheless, Charlie Chan’s clipped manner of speaking, often citing Confuscious-style proverbs, may have not sat well with some executives, especially in the days immediately following the
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. It starred Peter Ustinov as Chan – he’d made a career starring as Agatha Christie’s sleuth Hercule Poirot – and Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch as #1 grandson, Lee Chan Jr. A protest group, Coalition of Asians to Nix, protested the exclusion of Asian actors in starring roles, and the film was a dismal failure.
Since then, Charlie Chan has drifted in cinematic limbo. Some efforts have been made to produce a more forward thinking film, with Chan portrayed as younger and more hip, as well as a martial arts master. Jackie Chan might seem tailor-made for such a role, but many are still uncomfortable with the character, believing that Charlie Chan has become an inappropriate stereotype – an Asian “Uncle Tom,” if you will – that has little bearing in today’s more enlightened racial environment.
Not being Asian, I am unfit to say what may or may not be offensive in that regard. However, any ethnic character, handled with respect and concern for the audience as a whole, has the potential to be presented with dignity and appeal, regardless of its history. Hopefully, such an endeavor would help erase any negative racial overtones.