The iconic character of Charlie Chan has been around for nearly eight decades. Created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1925, the character made his first appearance in the detective novel, The House Without a Key. Biggers wanted to create an Asian-American character that wasn’t an evil Chinese stereotype; instead he opted to make Chan a heroic detective who solved mysteries wherever he goes. Biggers would end up writing six Charlie Chan-based novels over his career.
But Chan in print was only the beginning. The clever detective soon was adapted to the silver screen starting in 1926 with a serialized adaptation of the first novel, starring Japanese actor George Kuwa. No surprise given the time period, critics were displeased with an Asian-American playing the famed detective. In 1929, Chan was played by a Korean actor, but the character was only in the final act of the film. Again, reception was negative.
Then, it happened. Hollywood cast a white actor to play the Asian-American Charlie Chan in 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On and a successful franchise was born. Over the course of a couple decades, Chan would be played by a number of white actors including Sidney Toler and Roland Winters.
In the films of the 1940s, Chan was normally accompanied by two sidekicks: Number Two Son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and African-American driver, Birmingham (Mantan Moreland). Both characters bring a lightheartedness to the films that is a nice balance with Chan’s serious demeanor.
Adaptations of the character have been done in many different languages. Radio series have been produced, as well as TV versions of Chan’s cases. The character was spoofed on the popular 60s series Get Smart as the character of Harry Hoo (Joey Forman). Chan was also brought to life as a Saturday Morning Cartoon with Hanna-Barbera’s The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.
This four-film collection is a real treat and from doing my research I can tell that this is just the tip of the Charlie Chan iceberg. The Charlie Chan Collection delivers four of his most popular stories, which include: Shadows Over Chinatown; Docks of New Orleans; Shanghai Chest; and The Golden Eye.
Each film is a little over an hour long, and each one presents a pretty compelling mystery that gets wrapped up by the famous detective at the end of each movie like all classic mystery stories do. Both Toler and Winters deliver understated performances as Chan, while Yung and Moreland add a little comic mayhem to the mix.
I like classic movies like this, and I think there’s something culturally significant about films from the 1940s that include and Asian-American actor (like Yung) and African-American actor (like Moreland) as more than just stereotypical characters based on their race. Both factor significantly into stories and even are lauded as heroic in several instances.
My only criticism of this Charlie Chan Collection is that there aren’t more films in the collection. From my research I noticed that there were about ten films produced and released under Monogram. I wonder if these are the only four that were preserved.
Other than my wish for a more extensive Chan collection, these four movies are a real treat and very enjoyable. I highly recommend them!
Wouldn’t it be cool to see Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes work together on a case? I agree, that would be awesome! Get on that BBC.
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What is your favorite detective series? Leave a comment and let us know!