It was simple, really — the way novelist Earl Derr Biggers’ introduced Charlie Chan in “The House Without A Key.” Biggers wrote, “He was very fat indeed. Yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory-tinted, his black hair close-cropped…”
And so, Biggers gave life to the always lovable and ever clever detective from Hawaii. Because the book was an instant bestseller, Hollywood bit immediately. Yet when Fox lensed “Behind That Curtain” (1929), the film version of the story, it worried that America wasn’t ready for an Asian lead. The Chan character, played by E.L. Park, was introduced only in the film’s last five minutes.
Park — and the worries that America wouldn’t embrace an Asian actor — didn’t last. The most memorable Charlie Chan was Warner Oland, who worked on eight pictures. Oland set the stage for a dynamic action series peppered with humor that made the sleuth a household word worldwide.
Oland, an actor of Swedish/Russian descent was a 16-year veteran of the stage and of many films (including “The Jazz Singer”) before assuming the landmark role of Chan. Born in Omea, Sweden in 1880, he made lot of money on a stage production of Peer Gynt — which he promptly lost on his next production.
Brains, manners, charm — Oland brought them all to his role as Chan. Oland learned Chinese for the role, and even went to China to learn more about the culture.
Though the roles may appear stereotypical today, they were the first to portray an Asian as a fairly positive role model and not a yellow peril thug.
Sidney Toler from Warrensburg, Missouri, was next Charlie, after Oland disappeared mysteriously (Oland was having marital and drink related health problems at the time, he returned to Sweden where he died suddenly). He made the character more quick-witted, more irascible and funnier than the previous Chan.
In 1944, Toler secured the rights to Chan and brought the series to Monogram pictures. These pictures from the fledgling company were oppressively low budget entries into the film world, made for $75,000 in three weeks (less than a third of the $200,000 Fox budgets, made in eight weeks).
After Toler died, the last Charlie was Roland Winters, who brought a kind of cynical quality to Chan. The actor would almost seethe in a W.C. Fields kind of way. When he’d say to some jerk “Thank you so much” it almost seemed to mean, “Oh, go to hell.”
Even when the movies stopped, Chan would not die. He became a star in TV and on a Saturday morning Hanna Barbera cartoon. Ross Martin, the star of the odd western series “The Wild Wild West,” brought Chan to a TV movie called “The Return of Charlie Chan.”