The Return of Charlie Chan on DVD

This week, TCM and Warner Home Video released a four-disc, four-film set containing some of the remaining film in the classic Charlie Chan series. The Chinese, American-based detective was created by American writer Earl Derr Biggers in 1923, and the stories eventually went from print to radio and the silver screen, where the first two film efforts, performed by Asian actors, didn’t fare too well with reviewers and audiences, prompting film producers to attempt a reboot.

Giving a potential franchise a rethink (and ignoring prior efforts) is hardly new; Sony pretended Ang Lee’s Hulk never existed (except on home video), and Martin Clunes shuttered the first two efforts to bring Doc Martin to life by making the first two TV movies from 2003 disappear into the ether of out-of-print-dom.

The early Chans – the serial The House Without a Key (1926) and The Chinese Parrot (1927) - are unavailable on home video (and believed to be lost), but as for the rest of the series, that’s a different story.

Charlie Chan really began as a series when Fox took over the property and cast Swedish actor Warner Oland as the brilliant criminologist. The idea of using a white boy as an Asian isn’t kosher (and ridiculous), but in 1929, a white actor donning makeup and chopping up English in an affected manner was standard practice for the times.

Blacks, for example were relegated to big-eyed, inarticulate servants afraid of their own reflections (case in point: Charlie Chan’s chauffeur/servant, Birmingham Brown), and stories involving characters from others ethnic backgrounds were usually headed by white actors.

It makes some classic films and beloved characters tough to assess. I can take the Chan character as being above the servile stereotypes in other period films, and see him as a detective with smarts and a sharp sense of humour, as well as a creaky stereotype. The stories are standard B-movie mysteries, and pretty enjoyable since they use the same framework of other B-whodunnits.

On the other hand, being half-South Asian, I find it awkward watching Gunga Din (1939), because the titular character is a horrible stereotype of the good little Indian who rises above his class because he helps reckless British soldiers out of a jam, and eventually sacrifices himself by emulating his colonial oppressors for the good of the British Empire rather than saving his native community from Thuggees.

Sam Jaffe’s a good character actor, but he ain’t no Indian. The film is an excellent example of the exotic buddy action film in genesis, but once you’ve seen Peter Sellers (a provocative white comedian bent on playing with all kinds of stereotypes) spoof the clich├ęs of the colonial action genre (the finale of Gunga Din, specifically) in the opening of Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968), the absurdity of casting non-ethnic actors in parts like Gunga Din deserves a good satirical jab to remind viewers why there’s something not quite right with a particular portrayal.

(And then there’s Marlon Brando playing a Japanese character in 1956’s Teahouse of the August Moon. Mickey Rooney still gets raked over the coals for his hideous, screeching Asian thing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Brando putty-jammed eyes and ‘infectious grim’ is another kind of horror.)

Should the character of Charlie Chan be grouped with some of the most misanthropic, ill-conceived ethnic stereotypes out there? No, but the films do necessitate some contextual explanation: the western film market in the thirties and forties wasn’t so tolerant of so-called minority actors in major roles.

The B-realm – and this observation is pure speculation based on IMDB stats – seems to have offered ethnic actors more film employment than major studios productions. Two points: If one examines the C.V.s of the Asian actors in the Chan films, they did make other films, but with very few exceptions, most were within the B-realm before it evaporated by the end of the forties.

And Chan’s son(s) may have bumbled under the impressive professional shadow of their father, but as characters, they were ordinary sons (and played by real Asian actors), and their comfort in being American-Chinese indirectly showed the American melting pot in action. Their culture wasn’t diluted by a western upbringing, and their exposure to both worlds, so to speak, made them an asset to local detectives, lawyers, and highway cops struggling with banal and complicated crimes.

Derr Biggers’ character is said to have been an attempt at breaking the celluloid image of ‘villainous Asians’, which helps, but like colonial actioners, the Chan films are products of a different time; I can watch little Gunga Din, but he’s bloody annoying.

TCM’s Spotlight collection features four films that represent a larger group of Chan films produced by poverty row outfit Monogram, after Fox decided the series had run its course in 1942, going from original star Warner Oland to American actor Sidney Toler.

Starting in 1944, Toler and Monogram continued to crank out further adventures at a fraction of the original Fox budgets, and when Toler passed away in 1947, the series was given one last breath of life with American actor Roland Winters, after which the character disappeared in 1949, until resurgence on TV during the fifties.

The TCM set picks up where MGM’s 6-disc Chantology box from 2004 left off, but is missing two Chan adventures – The Red Dragon (1945), and Shadows Over Chinatown (1946).

Included in the new set are Dark Alibi (1946), Dangerous Money (1946), The Trap (1946), and the first Winters Chan, The Chinese Ring (1947).

The inclusion of Winters’ debut as Chan is probably a test to see how well Chan fans respond to the actor, and the success of this set will also auger the decision as to whether the rest of the Winters' films will make it to DVD, or become an on-demand exclusivity.

That said, TCM’s prints are in good shape, the digital compression isn’t as heavy as the older MGM transfers, and while the DVDs don’t sport any chapter menus, the films do have chapter stops. More could’ve been added to place the characters in context – within the franchise, as well as cinematically – but it seems the best way to handle specialty titles with controversial aspects is just to release them, so the fans get first crack at seeing these long unavailable films.

Unlike the prior Chantology reviews which were restricted to hard word limits (they were originally written for another review site), I’ve blathered more on the new four, addressing their highpoints, and moments of mediocrity.

One parting thought: like a TV series, the Chan films under Monogram’s grip built up a substantial stock music library, with compose Edward J. Kay credited as series music director. Sometimes the way the music was slapped over scenes or looped just didn’t work, and the impression is Kay (or some underlings) wrote a number of cues with passages and lengths that could be faded in/out, extended, or played whole.

Whereas the jokey cues for the bumbling son + chauffeur are too mickey-mouse, the eerie suspense tracks really shine, and contain some fine writing and solo sections. If someone has more info or links on the scores, commercial releases, notes on Kay, or thoughts on Monogram’s music department, do post a comment.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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