Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)
Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Loosely basing his character on Honolulu detective Chang Apana, Biggers conceived of the benevolent and heroic Chan as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes, such as villains like Fu Manchu. Chan is a detective for the Honolulu police, though many stories feature Chan traveling the world as he investigates mysteries and solves crimes. Chan first appeared in Biggers’ novels, but went on to be featured in a number of media. Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan have been made, beginning in 1926. The character was at first portrayed by Asian actors, and the films met with little success. In 1931, the Fox Film Corporation cast Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On; the film was a success, and Fox went on to produce 15 more Chan films with Oland in the title role. After Oland’s death, American actor Sidney Toler was cast as Chan; Toler made 22 Chan films, first for Fox and then for Monogram Studios.
After Toler’s death, six more films were made, starring Roland Winters. In addition, a number of Spanish- and Chinese-language Chan films were made during the 1930s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. American-made Chan films were shown in China to much success, where the character was popular and respected. More recent film adaptations in the 1990’s have been unsuccessful. The character has also been featured in several radio programs, two television shows, and a number of comics. Interpretations of Chan by critics are split, especially as relates to his ethnicity. Positive assessors of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent and honorable — in contrast to the adverse depictions of evil or conniving Chinese then current on page and screen. Others state that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces certain Asian stereotypes, such as an alleged incapacity to speak fluent English and the possession of an overly tradition-bound and subservient nature.
“It overwhelms me with sadness to admit it … for he is of my own origin, my own race, as you know. But when I look into his eyes I discover that a gulf like the heaving Pacific lies between us. Why? Because he, though among Caucasians many more years than I, still remains Chinese. As Chinese to-day as in the first moon of his existence. While I – I bear the brand – the label – Americanized…. I traveled with the current…. I was ambitious. I sought success. For what I have won, I paid the price. Am I an American? No. Am I, then, a Chinese? Not in the eyes of Ah Sing.” – Charlie Chan, speaking of a criminal, in Keeper of the Keys, by Earl Derr Biggers
The character of Charlie Chan was created by Earl Derr Biggers. In 1919, while on vacation in Hawaii, Biggers planned a detective novel to be called The House Without a Key. He did not begin to write the novel until four years later, however, when he was inspired to add a Chinese American police officer to the plot after reading in a newspaper of Chang Apana (鄭阿平) and Lee Fook, two Chinese-American detectives on the Honolulu police force. Biggers, who disliked the Yellow Peril stereotypes he found when he came to California, explicitly conceived of the character as an alternative to them: “Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used.” The “amiable Chinese” made his first appearance in The House Without a Key (1925).
The character was not central to the novel and was not mentioned by name on the dustjacket of the first edition. In the novel, Chan is described as walking with “the light dainty step of a woman” and as being “very fat indeed … an undistinguished figure in his Western clothes.” According to critic Sandra Hawley, this description of Chan allows Biggers to portray the character as non-threatening, the opposite of such evil Chinese characters as Fu Manchu, while simultaneously emphasizing supposedly Chinese characteristics such as impassivity and stoicism.
Film, radio, and television adaptations – Films
The first Charlie Chan film was The House without a Key (1926), a 10-chapter serial produced by Pathé Studios, starring George Kuwa, a Japanese actor, as Chan. A year later Universal Pictures followed the film with The Chinese Parrot, starring another Japanese actor, Kamiyama Sojin, in the starring role. In both productions, Charlie Chan’s role was minimized. Contemporary reviews were unfavorable; in the words of one reviewer, speaking of The Chinese Parrot, Sojin plays “the Chink sleuth as a Lon Chaney cook-waiter … because Chaney can’t stoop that low.”
Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s son in a number of Chan films
In 1929, the Fox Film Corporation acquired the rights to Charlie Chan and producedBehind That Curtain, starring Korean actor E.L. Park. Again, Chan’s role was minimized, with Chan appearing only in the last 10 minutes of the film. Not until a white actor was cast in the title role did a Chan film meet with success, beginning with 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On, starring Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan. Oland, who claimed some Mongolian ancestry, played the character as much more gentle and self-effacing than he had been in the books, perhaps in “a deliberate attempt by the studio to downplay such an uppity attitude in a Chinese detective.” Oland starred in 15 more Chan films for Fox, often with Keye Luke, who played Chan’s “Number One Son”, Lee Chan. Oland’s “warmth and gentle humor” helped make the character and films quite popular; the Oland Chan films were among Fox’s most successful of the period, attracting “major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A’s” and “[keeping] Fox afloat” during the Great Depression.
Oland died in 1938, and the Chan film he had been working on, Charlie Chan at the Ringside, was transformed at the last minute into Mr. Moto’s Gamble, an entry in the Mr. Moto series, another contemporary series featuring an Asian protagonist; Luke still appeared as Lee Chan, not only in already shot footage but also in scenes with Moto actor Peter Lorre. Fox hired another white actor, Sidney Toler, to play Charlie Chan, and produced 11 more Chan films through 1942. Toler’s Chan was less mild-mannered than Oland’s, a “switch in attitude that did much to add some of the vigor of the original books to the films.” He is frequently accompanied, and irritated, by his Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan, played by Sen Yung.
When Fox decided not to produce any further Chan films, Sidney Toler purchased the film rights. Producers Philip N. Krasne and James S. Burkett of Monogram Pictures decided to release further Chan films, starring Toler. The budget for each film was reduced from Fox’s average of $200,000 to $75,000. For the first time, Chan was portrayed on occasion as “openly contemptuous of his suspects and superiors.”
African-American actor Mantan Moreland was hired as regular character Birmingham Brown, a fact which led to criticism of the Monogram films in the forties and since; some call these performances “brilliant comic turns,” while others describe Moreland’s roles as an offensive and embarrassing stereotype. Toler died in 1947 and was succeeded byRoland Winters for a final six films. Keye Luke, missing from the series after 1938’s Mr. Moto rework, returned as Charlie’s son in the last two entries.
Three Spanish-language Charlie Chan films were made in the 1930’s and 1950’s. The first of these, Eran Trece (There Were Thirteen) (1931), is a Spanish-language version of Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). The two films were made concurrently and followed the same production schedule, with each scene being filmed twice the same day, once in English and once in Spanish. The film followed essentially the same script as the English-language version, with minor additions such as short songs and skits and some changes to characters’ names (for example, the character Elmer Benbow was renamed Frank Benbow). A Cuban production, La Serpiente Roja, followed in 1937. In 1955, Producciones Cub-Mex produced a Mexican version of Charlie Chan called El Monstruo en la Sombra (Monster in the Shadow), starring Orlando Rodriguez as “Chan Li Po” (Charlie Chan in the original script). The film was inspired by La Serpiente Roja (The red serpent) as well as the American Warner Oland films.
During the 1930s and 1940s, at least five Chan films were produced in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In these films, Chan owns his own detective agency and is aided, not by a son, but by a daughter, Manna, played first by Gu Meijun (顾梅君) in the Shanghai productions and then by Bai Yan (白燕) in post-war Hong Kong. Chinese audiences also watched the original American Charlie Chan films. They were by far the most popular American films in 1930s China and among overseas Chinese; “one of the reasons for this acceptance was this was the first time Chinese audiences saw a positive Chinese character in an American film, a sharp departure from the sinister Oriental stereotypes in earlier movies like Thief of Baghdad and Welcome Danger, which incited riots that shut down the Shanghai theater showing it.” Oland’s visit to China was reported extensively in Chinese newspapers, and the actor was respectfully called “Mr. Chan.”
In 1980, Jerry Shylock began production on comedy film to be called Charlie Chan and the Dragon Lady. A group calling itself C.A.N. (Coalition of Asians to Nix) was formed, protesting the fact that non-Chinese actors, Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson, had been cast in the primary roles. Others protested that the film itself contained a number of stereotypes; Shylock responded that the film was not a documentary. The film was released the following year as Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and was an “abysmal failure.” An updated film version of the character was planned in the 1990s by Miramax; this new Charlie Chan was to be “hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and… a martial-arts master,” but the film did not come to fruition. Actress Lucy Liuis slated to star in and executive-produce a new Charlie Chan film for Fox. The film has been in preproduction since 2000; as of 2009 it is still slated to be produced.
On radio, Charlie Chan was heard in different series on four networks (Blue, NBC, ABC, MBS) between 1932 and 1948. Walter Connolly initially portrayed Chan as part of Esso Oil’s Five Star Theater, which serialized adaptations of Biggers novels. Ed Begley, Sr. had the title role in NBC’s The Adventures of Charlie Chan (1944–45), followed by Santos Ortega (1947–48). Leon Janney and Rodney Jacobs were heard as Lee Chan, Number One Son, and Dorian St. George was the program’s announcer. Radio Life magazine described Begley’s Chan as “a good radio match for Sidney Toler’s beloved film enactment.”
From 1956-57, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, starring J. Carrol Naish in the title role, were made independently for TV syndication in a series of 39 episodes, by Television Programs of America. The series was filmed in England. In this series, Chan is based in London rather than the United States. Ratings were poor, and the series was quickly canceled. In the 1960s, Joey Forman played an obvious parody of Chan named “Harry Hoo” in two episodes of Get Smart. In the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera produced an animated series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Keye Luke, who had played Chan’s son in many Chan films of the 1930s and ’40s, lent his voice to Charlie, who had a much-expanded vocabulary this time around. The series focused, however, on Chan’s children, played mostly by Asian-American child actors. Jodie Foster alternated with Leslie Kumamota in voicing Chan’s daughter Anne. The Return of Charlie Chan, a television film starring Ross Martin as Chan, was made in 1971 but was not aired until 1979.
Comics and games
A Charlie Chan comic strip, drawn by Alfred Andriola, was distributed by the McNaught Syndicate beginning October 24, 1938. Andriola was chosen by Biggers to draw the character. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the strip was dropped at the end of May 1942. Over decades, several other Charlie Chan comic books have been published: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Prize Comics‘ Charlie Chan (1948) which ran for five issues. It was followed by a Charlton Comics title (four issues, 1955). DC Comics published The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, a 1958 tie-in with the TV series; the DC series lasted for six issues. Dell Comics did the title for two issues in 1965. In the 1970s, Gold Key Comics published a short-lived series of Chan comics based directly on the Hanna-Barbera animated series. In addition, a board game, The Great Charlie Chan Detective Mystery Game (1937), and a Charlie Chan Card Game (1939), have been released.