Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One Long Chan: Memories of a Great Movie Detective

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.

I have fond memories of Charlie Chan, beginning with The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, a Saturday morning cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera Studios. It ran for 16 episodes during the 1972-73 season, when I was still wearing footy pajamas.

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 Savannah. 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 Georgia, 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.

Around this time, USA network was showing old Charlie Chan movies at 5 a.m. Sunday mornings. I would set my VCR and watch them over breakfast, which consisted of a microwavable blueberry muffin mix I’d stumbled across. It was hardly a perfect recipe, using cheap blueberry “pellets” for flavoring. But rather than muffins, I made a loaf, and it had a rubbery texture. The instant coffee was cheap and thick.

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.

Chan was created by author Earl Derr Biggers, debuting in the 1925 novel, The House Without a Key. According to Wikipedia, Biggers objected to “yellow peril” stereotypes, and after reading of a couple of Chinese-born detectives on the Honolulu police force, he believed a respectable, law-abiding Chinese character to be an original approach.

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 Hollywood 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.

Beginning with 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 Oland in 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 Alice (1990).

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.

Many of these early Chan movies featured future stars, such as Bela Lugosi, Ray Milland, 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.

Oland starred in a total of 16 Charlie Chan films produced by Fox until 1938. The next installment was intended to be Charlie Chan at the Ringside, but star Warner Oland was suffering from exhaustion, and locked horns with those running the production. This resulted in the film being hurriedly rewritten as Mr. Moto's Gamble starring Peter Lorre. Shortly after the movie’s release, Oland’s failing health caught up with him and he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The next film in the series was 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 America 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.

Monogram’s first production was 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

After 23 Charlie Chan movies, Toler passed away in 1947 at the age of 73. Roland Winters took over. His first Chan film was 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 China, which 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

Chan languished in cinematic obscurity for the next couple of decades.  J. Carrol Naish was the next actor to play the character, in a syndicated television series produced in England. It lasted only 39 episodes, from 1956-1957. A second TV series was planned in 1971 starring Ross Martin, who had played Artemis Gordon on the television series The Wild, Wild West but the pilot failed to sell.

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 Vietnam conflict.

Charlie Chan would fail to see the light of day until 1981, with the production of 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.


Scott said...

I'm going to read the whole piece, because long experience of TDOY has taught me that no matter the subject -- Old Time Radio, antediluvian television, Golden Age cinema, or obscure regional snack foods -- it will prove both informative and entertaining.

However...I'm having a little trouble getting past this sentence:

I have fond memories of Charlie Chan, beginning with The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, a Saturday morning cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera Studios.

I really thought I was tougher than this. Maybe it's just low blood sugar...I'll go make lunch and try again.

Rich said...

While I don't disagree that Charlie Chan would be a tough sell today, the time would seem to be right for a revival, since the Chinese market has become so heavily courted by Hollywood.

Caftan Woman said...

My Chan movies memories are all of post-Midnight television. Sneaking up and keeping the volume low so I don't disturb the rest of the family. Snacking on crackers and peanut butter with chocolate milk. I can't do with Chan. He's my household god.

Brent McKee said...

One of the Honolulu police officers that Derr Biggers used as an inspiration for Charlie Chan was a man named Chang Apana. Apana spoke fluent Chinese and Hawaiian as well as Hawaiian Pidgin, but only limited English. He never learned to read. His weapon of choice was a black snake whip. Derr Biggers acknowledged him as the inspiration for the Chan charactter and he met Warner Oland on the set of "The Black Camel" when it was shooting in Hawaii.

I wonder how people would feel about a film about the real man? Would it be embraced or protested because it portrayed Apana as illiterate and speaking Pidgin Hawaiian?

Mike Doran said...

The problem so many have with Charlie Chan today is that his whole approach is taken at face value.
The "obsequeiousness" is simply good manners taken to a far degree.
The "pidgin English" is actually English-as-a-second-language, again given high emphasis.
These qualities are shown as Chan's effort to get his adversaries to underestimate him - to assume that he isn't as smart as they are, which makes their comeuppance more satisfying for the reader/watcher.
If a more modern audience recognizes this as the Columbo playbook - that's exactly what it is, but many of fiction's great detectives have used variations of it over the years.

Doing Charlie Chan today poses another problem: the desire of "creative" types to "modernize/update" the character.
"Charlie Chan" only really works as an older character, a settled, traditional family man with official standing. This makes the villain's dismissal of him more binding than would be the case with a private eye, young or old. Chan must represent not only the law but tradition - right over wrong.
A "young, hip" Chan won't work.
So - are than any older Asian actors (mid-50s or thereabouts) who might fit the bill today?

dfordoom said...

I really hope Charlie Chan doesn't suffer the same fate as Sherlock Holmes has suffered in the recent TV and movie travesties.

Chris Vosburg said...

Charlie Chan was made to suffer from the asian stereotypes which Hollywood shamelessly plundered for comedy relief-- among other things-- for so long into the last century.

Finally, it was left to Neil Simon to skewer the hell out of it in "Murder by Death" with his "Sidney Wang" character who had the usual afflictions: an affinity for aphorism:

Sidney Wang: Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary.

Until finally "Milo Perrier" had had enough:

Sidney Wang: Calm yourself. Man who argue with cow on wall is like train without wheels: very soon get nowhere.
Milo Perrier: Oh be quiet! I'm sick of your fortune cookies!
Sidney Wang [undaunted]: Man who is sick of fortune cookies...[argument ensues]

And the "asian shorthand" style of speaking:

Sidney Wang: What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?
Lionel Twain: I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if YOU can tell ME why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can't say his *prepositions* or *articles!* "What IS THE," Mr. Wang! "What IS THE meaning of this?"
Sidney Wang: That what I said! "What meaning of this?"


Sidney Wang: Is confusing.
Lionel Twain: IT! IT is confusing! Say your goddamn pronouns!

I imagine if resurrected, the character would probably not be as steeped in these hoary and outdated trappings, and for that, I'd be appreciative.

dfordoom, I wasn't all that offended by Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey's rock'em sock'em Sherlock. He was, after all, "brown as a nut and fit as a lath."

I'd pay good money not to see Matt Frewer's Sherlock characterization ever again, which I saw a few minutes of recently in a Hallmark channel movie. Just awful.

Mike Doran said...

This is for Brent McKee, with respect and affection:

Earl Derr Biggers

Derr was Mr. Biggers's middle name (it was his mother's maiden name).

Actually, I've always found it kind of charming when people, upon seeing a triple-barreled name, assume a hyphen between #2 and #3 (even when there isn't one).

Quite a few respectable bookstores alphabetize Alexander McCall Smith under M rather than S, even with no hyphen in sight.

There's a respected film reference on character actors that lists Michael Clarke Duncan under C, although you don't usually find hyphenated names on Chicago's South Side.

I haven't yet seen David Ogden Stiers under O, or Mary Tyler Moore under T, but then I haven't seen all the reference books (especially the British ones, where this seems to happen most often).

I hope I've made it clear that this isn't a gripe of any sort, but merely an observation of a possibly amusing situation ...
..."Isn't it funny that ...", that sort of thing.

Chris Vosburg said...

To add to Mike's amusement, it's traditional to shorthand "Arthur Conan Doyle" as "Conan Doyle," as in, say, "The interesting thing about Conan Doyle's stories is that etc blah blah".

It is not a "compound surname" like the double-barreling of the names of married landed english gentry ("Lord and Lady Copperbottom-Smythe"), and it's a mystery to me why we do this.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I would love to see a revival of Charlie Chan myself. While there are those who think him a stereotype, I think the only real thing that was stereotypical about him was the broken English and perhaps constantly quoting Confucius. While he may be overly apologetic and polite (as a Southern gentleman I can be as well), Charlie Chan was not submissive. Not only in the films does Mr. Chan take charge of crime scenes, but it is not unusual for him to bark orders to individuals of Northern European descent. Similarly, I think to describe Charlie Chan as non-aggressive is missing the mark. It is true Mr. Chan was not a violent man, but he was among the most dogged of detective in pursuing criminals--nothing could deter him. Over all I would say he was a very positive character and far from any of the stereotypes of the 20's, 30's, and 40's!

Mike Doran said...

I guess that fairness requires I mention this:

I only recently saw The Black Camel (1931), the oldest surviving Chan film, for the first time.

It's a direct adaptation of a Biggers novel, set (and actually filmed) in Honolulu, and it depicts not only Charlie's home life (with wife and all 10 children) but also his work situation with a Japanese partner named 'Kashimo' - who is an idiot; he makes the future-depicted Chan offspring seems like "little Einsteins".
Kashimo appears in the original novel, and is as stoopid there as he is portrayed in the movie. This bit of dialogue will serve as an example of how Warner Oland as Chan dealt with Kashimo, played by Otto Yamoaka:

(After Kashimo causes some key evidence to get blown all over a room by a sudden gust of wind:)

Chan:'Kashimo, you are zebra!'

Kashimo:'Zebra? What that?'

Chan: 'Sport-model jackass!'

You can see this and other examples of Kashimo's ineptitude on The Black Camel DVD, in the third Warner Oland set from Fox

As I mentioned above, this comes from Earl Derr Biggers's books, and it does depict, somewhat exaggeratedly, attitudes between Chinese and Japanese that existed at that time - which doesn't really excuse them, but you ought to know.
Anyway, the later depiction of the Chan sons was ... well, not as bad as this.

Scott said...

I always hated Sidney Toler and much preferred Warner Oland, although in retrospect perhaps what I was reacting to was the stylish look and glossy professionalism of the Fox-made Chans versus the Poverty Row pictures. Or maybe it's because my first introduction to the character was an Oland film. (Nah, I just hate Sidney Toler).

Even as a kid, Chan's broken English rankled me (partly a hangover from the horrible pigeon spoken by most Hollywood Indians) and made the movies difficult to watch. It wasn't until I moved to New York, and lived wedged in among Chinese and Russian immigrants (both pronoun-dropping languages) that I realized it wasn't entirely a stereotype. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that it would prove even more problematic today than in the past.

But he's a classic American creation -- not just a pillar of a distinctly American genre, the detective story, but an immigrant who rises to a position of authority, and walks humbly, yet without fear amongst the rich and powerful. I agree with Mike that a Columbo style approach (which Chan pioneered anyway) might work best for a revival -- certainly better than recasting the character as a hip young single guy. (And I second any call for a movie on Chang Apana -- he was an amazing bundle of contradictions. There's a famous story of him using his whip to drive an escaped leper out from beneath a terrified family's front porch that's about as far from Chan's laconic, cerebral technique as you can get).

Last, off topic point: Mary and I went to House Without a Key when we were honeymooning in Waikiki (and in case you were wondering, it doesn't require a key because it doesn't have a door). It was pricy, but I couldn't resist the Chan Connection (as distinct from the Chinese Connection, starring Bruce Lee, which I also like, but which probably wouldn't inspire me to pay $24 for a Mai Tai).

Brent McKee said...

To Mike Tolan with equal respect and affection:

In truth when I wrote my initial comment I did refer to Biggers rather than Derr Biggers, but on reading the Wikipedia article on Chang Apana for some of the details of his career, I found that the writer of that article referred to "Derr Biggers" and it is just odd enough as a name that I was able to convince myself that it was some version of a compounded name.

It is not an uncommon assumption. Max Allan Collins, whose Nathan Heller novel "Damned In Paradise" was how I discovered the Apana-Chan connection, refers to Derr Biggers in the acknowledgements for the book. Interestingly, Collins opted to write Apana speak as he did in real life, in "broken Pidgin English" because it would "get in the way of the characterization."

Mike DORAN said...

To Brent McKee, still respectful:

It's DORAN, with accent on the second syllable, as in George "Bugs" Moran, another Chicago Irishman of note*.

*who was actually a French-Canadian named Adelard Cunin, so there too.