Saturday, January 2, 2010

Great Moments in Race Relations: Charlie Chan

The name Charlie Chan should be familiar to anyone who likes old mysteries or movie serials. If you don't know it, here's a quick overview...

Charlie Chan is a Chinese detective.

With that out of the way, I have to mention the history of people portraying him. In a rare thing for this series, he actually started out being played by Asian actors...although they were JAPANESE. Because this was the 1920s though, the part was minimized. Um, why do it then? Anyhow, these failed to do well, so the studio went to an old trick- they hired a Swede.

Warner Oland played the character in 16 films- not to mention playing Fu Manchu in two films as well. I should also mention that a Chinese actor (Keye Luke) played his 'number one son.' Fate works in funny ways though, as Oland died during production of a Chan film, while Luke went on to play Master Po in Kung-Fu!

In the wake of this, a Chinese man named Sydney Toler bought the rights and made as many films as he could between 1938 and his death in 1946. These movies are bad for your health! The role then went to Roland Winters, a Boston native who got about eight years out of the role.

The roles waned in the following years, although we did get a movie serial with J. Carrol Naish playing the lead and a cartoon show that featured the voice of a young Jody Foster! There was a revival attempt in 1973 with Ross Martin playing the lead, although protests put a stop to a series. Lastly, a big-budget film was produced in 1980 starring Peter Ustinov as the lead. In one of history's greatest ironies, the director of the film- and it's big defender- was a man named Jerry Shylock!

Up next, a more recent moment from a horror remake. This one is just so sudden and random that it is hard to explain. Stay tuned...


  1. Ill always remember Karloff for his portrayals as the character as well, god damned if that wasnt the most ridiculous character choice. Why not just hire a Chinese man?? Whyyy..

  2. Wow, I missed Karloff in the mix.

    To answer your question, they did that and nobody liked them in the 1920s. That's why they switched to white or very white (read: Swedish) people in the lead.