During the 1920s and 30s, one of the most famous screen detectives, featured in numerous serials and feature films, was Charlie Chan.
He was created by writer Earl Derr Biggers as an Asian detective based in Honolulu in an attempt to throw a more positive Asian antithesis to the Fu Manchu stereotype and Yellow Peril hysteria that was plaguing the US in the early 20th century.
With the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst trumpeting the brigade, and numerous politicians and “concerned citizens” leading the cavalry, the Yellow Peril was a hatred and fear of the mass of Chinese immigrants (and Korean and even Japanese, although really, all Asians were basically lumped into Chinese so the finer details or nationality and ethnicity were mute points). They were taking over jobs, threatening white wages and standards of living, “incapable of and/or unwilling to assimilate,” etc.
The sinister Fu Manchu archetype had arisen and with all this anti Asian sentiment flying about, Biggers, after reading the exploits of a real life Chinese-Hawaiin detective name Change Apana, decided an Oriental detective might be an interesting and positive antidote.
The books did decently and the film industry attempted to make some films with the character. A serial was produced based on the first novel starring a Japanese actor George Kuwa. It didn’t do as well as hoped and a year later, the next film based off the second book starring another Japanese actor also failed to lvie up to expectations. Interestingly, in both these the actual screen time of detective Charlie Chan is strangely minimal. In the 3rd attempt, this time with a Korean lead, Chan only appears in the last 10 minutes. Don’t ask me wtf. I have no idea.
Finally, Fox Films tried again, this time with a white guy in the role, Warner Oland (a Swedish dude who had some Monoglian ancestry) and the film took off. 15 more films were made with Oland, another pile after his death although Oland’s take on the character is the one remembered today, beloved by old fans of the series but also criticized.
Oland played the character as very gentle and self effacing (as opposed to the direct and slightly more macho character of the books) which is part of the film character’s charm, but some say it was a deliberate attempt to keep the Asian lead from seeming to uppity or in any way threatening. This is very typical of attempts by marginalized non white minorities in the early 20th century to break into mainstream media. Louis Armstrong, the great and brilliant trumpet player opened the door for black musicians in America and helped spread jazz across the nation and the world, but he could never, ever appear in anything but a smile. He could never be serious, stern, or really anything but so very warm and jovial. It worked, and his success opened the doors for the many black entertainers who came after him, but his career and persona had to navigated with a very exact and narrow persona.
In this vein, Charlie Chaplin is oh so very meek and humble. But it does make the character lovable.
The early 20th century was a time of great racism and attempts by many people on all side of ethnicity to move things along. One thing that stands out today is that characters who were deliberate attempts to be NON racist are now seen as racist caricatures. The steps to changing racial attitudes, even personal, internal ones is a process.
For instance, Charlie Chan is, as you imagine, simply not capable of ever speaking proper English grammar. He is of course a genius detective, but in 15 (and there were more made after that, after Oland had died) movies you ca be sure his Engrish would never improve. Gestures, mannerisms are all over the top… but of course in all films of the day, EVERY aspect of acting is over the top. It’s what old films to cheesy. There is no subtlety in the acting of ANYone. Afters centuries of live theater tradition, the move to the more under stated clsoe up art of film acting had yet to really happen. It took time, just like changing racial attitudes does. So you can be sure ethnic character are always REALLY ethnic.
From Maureen Corrigan:
“But, before we condemn Oland’s “Yellowface” incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film. (After all, compared with the venal Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero.) The nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland’s Chinese screen mannerisms and speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing — or dismaying.”
Charlie Chan’s most clear trait, the apsect of him that is what is truly remembered, is his pseudo-Confucian wisdom, mixed with a smart, sharp humor. Chan is wise, calm, responsible, and commonsensical man who also happens to be a hilarious wisecracker. Beneath the “Yellowface” is a great and endearing larger than life character.
In any case, the Charlie Chan character was featured in over 40 movies and back in the Dieselpunk era was one of the most recognized detectives outside of Sherlock Holmes.
Here is one of the best of the Charlie Chan movies, Charlie Chan at the Opera. Most of these old films are on YouTube in their entirety. (Bloody amazing this day and age we live in). Naturally, i don’t expect many of you to actually watch this entire thing, but i would re remiss to not post it for your perusing pleasure: