Humble Chinese Detective Teaches Lessons in Life
Hieronimus & Co., Inc. is unique to the radio industry in many ways. One of these distinctions is our celebration of cultural icons specifically selected for their talents at up-lifting the human spirit. Many of us remember these heroes as adding meaning and depth to our lives. Charlie Chan is a hero to us for his ability to remain unflappably calm in times of crisis, his witty and sometimes sharp tongue, and his hidden power always underestimated by his foes. When we discovered a McFarland reference book called Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography and Criticism, we were determined to contact the author for an interview.

Author Ken Hanke is a Florida based writer, film maker, photographer and a frequent contributor to Films in Review and Film Facts. His other books include Ken Russell's Films, Scarecrow Press and A Critical Guide to Horror Films Series, Garland Publishers.

When Ken joined 21st Century Radio® on January 5, 1997 we learned that the creator of Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Big-gers, did not start out to create a character that would become a serial favorite. In fact, said Hanke, "the Charlie Chan thing came about more or less by accident just with that first book." [Biggers] was essentially a professional writer and had had one tremendous hit prior to Charlie Chan, The Seven Keys To Baldpate, which was more of a hit because it was turned into a stage play with George M. Cohan."

The exotic locale of Honolulu combined with a Chinese detective, however, made the Charlie Chan series a natural combination for early novelization by the film industry. The films took many liberties with Biggers’ original tales, and three different actors portrayed the humble Chinese detective -- each to varying degrees of success -- but Charlie Chan in the movies had enough appeal to last over 18 years. Warner Oland was the first serial Charlie Chan, and Roland Winters the last. In the middle was Sidney Toler, the one most people remember and love from late night television movies, yet Toler is actually rated third of the three in his success at playing Chan.

Warner Oland is considered the quintessential Charlie Chan after playing him in 16 films from 1931-1938. Oland was trained as a Shakespearean actor and he was an extremely cultured man, and unlike the two actors who followed him in the role, he also made other films at the same time he was doing the Charlie Chan series. Even though he was Swedish, Oland claimed to have Oriental blood in him, according to Key Luke who played "Number One Son" in many of the films. He had worked it out in some way that the Mongols had gotten up that far north, and he specialized in playing Oriental parts, in fact he was almost typecast as an Oriental as soon as he broke into the movies. He had just finished playing the evil Fu Manchu in three pictures when he began Charlie Chan.

Sydney Toler was a very different type of Charlie Chan in a series produced by Monogram from 1938-1947. These films have been around more than some of the others, so Toler is the Charlie many people remember from their childhood on television in movies like "The Jade Mask" and "The Scarlet Clue". Although Hanke considers Toler a fine character actor and many of his Charlie Chan films to be quite good, he says Toler seems to have made the character more like himself than it was written, or than it had been played by Oland. "He's certainly less lovable than Warner Oland, yet he's not quite as assertive as Roland Winters." In some of the films, especially in the later ones, he is almost bad tempered. Yet, "his films are faster, they have a better sense of movement to them as a rule, they are a little more active than the Oland films were, and they managed to be nicely topical without being overly so."

It could be said that Roland Winters, the third actor to portray Charlie Chan, was more accurate to Biggers' original conception of the role, but the real reason for that is his films were scripted by Scott Darling who did the almost unthinkable in Hollywood -- he read the books. "Having read the books he actually included what Biggers included--[some characteristics] that had been taken out in the earlier ones," said Hanke. "Biggers' Charlie is not nearly as subservient as the one portrayed by Oland." Charlie Chan number three, Roland Winters, who had the role from 1947-1949, is often under-rated according to Ken Hanke. "There's a tendency to extremely down play [this series]. The films of course are very cheap, I mean they're the ultimate in programmers... The way they're laid out it's obvious that they're selling Charlie Chan completely as a character and there's no push for Roland Winters himself. He doesn't look Oriental, I mean there's no way you can make that man look Oriental, he's got almost a Jimmy Durante-size nose. But I think he has a great deal of charm and... he says a lot of the things that Biggers had Charlie Chan say; things that had been excised from the earlier films because they were afraid he might give offense."

Although Hanke says there is probably no single GREAT film among the Charlie Chan movies, and the films really lend themselves to a series format, he believes "The Black Camel" is probably one of the best. Interestingly "Charlie Chan In Rio" is almost an exact re-make of The Black Camel but is not credited as such. "Charlie Chan's Secret" is also "a beautifully made film", but unfortunately it was somewhat defaced by Twentieth-Century Fox's attempt at comic relief. The worst film in the entire series, says Hanke, was "Dangerous Money", and another loser was Sydney Toler's portrayal of "Charlie Chan In The City Of Darkness", which was an old script that had been written for Warner Oland and Toler just did not fit into it.

Charlie Chan at the Movies is an outstanding piece of research, wittily written and a lot of fun to read -- and Hanke never gives away "who dunnit." To order it contact McFarland Press by phone: 910-246-4460 or by mail: Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640.