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Film / Charlie Chan

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Excuse, please... When death enters window, no time for life to go by door.

Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers had been vacationing in Hawaiʻi in 1919, when he read a newspaper account of a Chinese-American detective, Chang Apana, connected with the Honolulu Police Department. Fascinated by the idea of an Oriental hero as a contrast to the ubiquitous Yellow Peril villains of the period, Biggers included an Oriental detective named Chan as a peripheral character in his novel House Without a Key (1925). In the 1926 novel The Chinese Parrot, Chan took center stage, and his successful adventures spanned four more Biggers novels: Behind the Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) and Keeper of the Keys (1932).

The character's most familiar portrayals, however, were in a series of nearly 50 films. By the time of Biggers' death in 1933, all but the last of the novels had been adapted for film (the last was adapted for the New York stage). Contrary to popular belief, Chan was portrayed by Asian actors in his earliest appearances — but not Chinese: The Japanese actors George Kuwa and Sôjin played the detective in his first two films, and E.L. Park, probably a Korean, in his third. None of these portrayals was deemed particularly successful, either by Biggers or by the public.

It was, oddly, a Swede, Warner Oland, who became in the opinion of Biggers and of most fans the ideal embodiment of the character. Oland had already played Fu Manchu and many other Asian characters in the movies, and always claimed to be of Mongolian descent himself via his Russian mothernote  ; he would continue to be in demand throughout the Thirties to play various Asian characters, such as Dr. Yogami in 1935's Werewolf of London.

Oland took Charlie Chan very seriously. He learned Cantonese (he speaks it pretty well in several Chan films) and read up on Chinese art and philosophy. He visited Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Some of the Chinese officials actually thought he was Chinese-American. He'd been a successful and popular actor before Charlie, but he enjoyed the role more than any other, to the point that he often was Charlie, as in Method Acting. Part of the appeal for him was his belief in social justice — he co-founded the Screen Actors Guild — and his sense that Charlie was not only an exemplary Asian American, but an exemplary American, period.

He played the detective in a series of 15 films for 20th Century Fox, starting with Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), though many fans believe that his characterization really hit its stride in Charlie Chan in London (1934). Here Charlie assumed his archetypical form: the unassuming, heavily accented but brilliant detective, spouting pseudo-Oriental aphorisms (a Flanderization which Biggers himself cordially disliked), kindly and devoted to his fractious and multifarious family, and often having to endure the feckless co-detecting effort of his thoroughly Americanized Number One Son, Lee (most famously played by Chinese-American actor Keye Luke), or others of the clan. Oland even started talking a bit like Chan in everyday life. Chan became a globe-trotter: He rarely remained home in Honolulu, but appeared against a number of glamorous and exotic backgrounds: at the racetrack, at the opera, on Broadway, in London, in Paris, in the Pyramids of Egypt, at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. By the time of Oland's death in 1938, Charlie Chan was one of Fox's most popular and successful film series.

So popular was he, in fact, that the studio refused to let the character die with the actor, and so the Missouri-born Sidney Toler took up the role in 1938's Charlie Chan in Honolulu. His Chan was slightly more acerbic than Oland's, and he was much given to ridiculing the efforts of his Number Two Son, Jimmy (or sometimes Tommy) Chan (Victor Sen Yung). After 11 films, Fox decided to end production of the Chan series, whereupon Toler bought the rights to the character, and proceeded to make another 11 films, with Monogram Pictures, until his death in 1947.

Bostonian Roland Winters (born Winternitz) took up the part in 1947's The Chinese Ring. By now it was apparent that Monogram was determined to milk the franchise for all it was worth, with little regard to quality. An attempt to transfer the character to television in the person of J. Carroll Naish was made in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1958), with moderate success.

Interestingly, internationally the Chan franchise received such warm and widespread welcome even amongst mainlander and other Asian-based Chinese of the era, so much so that the first portrayal of Charlie Chan by an actually-Chinese actor was pulled off not in the West, but unsurprisingly enough, in China itself: Shanghai and Hong Kong studios quickly came up with their own Chan movies, with actor Xu Xinyuan playing him in at least five films from as early as 1937 until at least 1948. Tragically the films appear to be lost, but surviving posters and plot summaries indicate that they reimagined Charlie Chan as a Private Detective running his own agency rather than as a police detective, and instead of the No. 1 or No. 2 Sons in the American Chan franchise, his primary assistant here (closer in fact to partner) was a daughter, Man-na (played by Gu Meijun in the Shanghai films, and Bai Yan in the Hong Kong ones); she was apparently a noted Master of Disguise in their line of work.

It took the West over a quarter-century later to catch up in casting an actor actually of Chinese descent themselves, and as a voice talent at that: in Hanna-Barbera's 1972 Animated Adaptation, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Mr. Chan was portrayed by Keye Luke, who had played Number One Son Lee Chan in the Oland series of films, and who was later well known as "Blind Master Po" from the popular Kung Fu (1972) series of the 1970s and as Gizmo's original owner in Gremlins. To date this remains the only instance of an actual-Chinese actor playing the legacy character in Western entertainment.

A pair of Affectionate Parodies appeared as The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness Is a Warm Clue) (1973) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), in which Chan was played by Ross Martin and Peter Ustinov, respectively. (A Chan-based character was also played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 omnibus mystery spoof, Murder by Death.)

In the 1990s, a number of Charlie Chan films were once again produced in Hong Kong by Chinese production companies, recalling the earlier 1930s-40s Chinese emulations of the franchise. An Italian Chan appeared in 1983. There was talk in the 2000s about a screen adaptation starring Lucy Liu as the granddaughter of the famous detective, but it never came to pass.

Charlie's legacy is complicated. Intended as an anti-racist character, he is often denounced as a stereotypical mockery. English professor Yunte Huang hopes to contextualize and celebrate Charlie's legacy in his new book about Charlie and Chang Apana. The real Chang was an active, athletic type who solved more illegal gambling and drug smuggling cases than murdersnote , but did have an even-paced, methodical investigative style and was amused by his cohorts nicknaming him Charlie Chan. He liked the films, too.note 

Tropes Associated With This Character Include:

  • All Asians Know Martial Arts: Averted with this franchise: none of the Chan family apparently have learned it. Even Number One Son, Lee Chan, who is an Olympic athlete, can't do much in a fight beyond amateurish fisticuffs.
    • It would have been averted if a proposed TV series in the 1960s went forward, Number One Son, considering the lead actor the producers were looking to cast would have been Bruce Lee.
  • Alliterative Name
  • Animated Adaptation: Not only the 1972 Hanna-Barbera series, but also the 1970 Filmation series (See Lawyer-Friendly Cameo, below.)
  • Artistic License – History: Dead Men Tell Has an ancestral pirate treasure map as a central plot device. Real pirates rarely actually buried their treasure, preferring to spend it immediately. Even on the rare occasion where treasure was buried, nobody ever bothered crafting a map to it.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Averted for Charlie. In the books he also uses definite articles and has a much better grasp of English syntax (although he may pretend not to) than the films would have you believe. Any Chinese in the books more elderly, however...
    • This became a clue in The House Without a Key, where Quincy thinks he's gotten a phone call from Charlie telling him to go to a certain address, then asks if he's familiar with it by saying "You savvy locality?" Too late, Quincy realizes, Charlie does not talk like that. He takes his English from poetry, and is "careful to use nothing that savors of 'pidgin'." He does escape, but not without several fights.
  • Busman's Holiday: Frequently lampshaded for The Chinese Parrot and Behind That Curtain. The latter being an Immediate Sequel for the former, Charlie's especially anxious to get home. At the end of Behind That Curtain, somebody rushes in, saying there's just been a very unusual murder. When they try to find Charlie, they find he's just gone out the fire escape.
    • A recursive Real Life example would be Chang Apana's attendance at the Chan films.
  • Catchphrase: Warner Oland's Chan often said, "Thank you so much." Sidney Toler favored, "Excuse, please," and "Contradiction, please."
  • Character Celebrity Endorsement: In 1935, Warner Oland appeared as Charlie Chan in a short subject to urge the voters of Pennsylvania to vote to allow Sunday showing of motion pictures: "Humble self very much puzzled why one man may play golf game on Sunday and other man cannot see Charlie Chan bring criminal to justice on same day."
  • Circus Episode: Charlie Chan at the Circus had the great detective and his Number One Son, Lee investigate a murder at a circus and agree to travel with it so it can keep operating while under investigation.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Several:
    • First, as a Newspaper Comic that ran from 1938-42 (it was cancelled because the white readers didn't want an Asian in the funnies... even though during World War II the Chinese were on the Allied side).
    • Then, with now-defunct Comic Book publisher Prize Comics, drawn by none other than Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, otherwise known as the creators of Captain America. When Prize lost the license, the series transferred to Charlton Comics, continuing the same numbering.
    • The numbering and the title changed when DC Comics got their hands on Chan and his Number One Son: The New Adventures of Charlie Chan lasted for six issues, the longest consecutive run for any publisher handling the license.
    • Dell Comics managed two issues; Gold Key Comics did a 4-issue tie-in to The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.
  • Cool Car/Transforming Mecha: The Hanna-Barbera cartoon featured "the Chan Van", a vehicle which could transform itself into various modes of transportation from van to station wagon to sports car, etc., at the push of a button. (It makes one mildly uncomfortable to recall that it shared this trait with Hong Kong Phooey's Phooeymobile, though the canine crime-fighter used a gong to trigger the change.)
  • Crossover: a partial example with Peter Lorre's similar character, the Japanese secret agent Mr. Moto. Mr. Moto's Gamble was originally intended to be a Charlie Chan movie, after Warner Oland died partway through filming, the script was hastily rewritten as a Moto vehicle. As a result, Chan's Number One Son appears in a supporting role as a student of Mr. Moto, desperately seeking education as a detective in order to please his father (who is never referred to by name).
  • Divorce in Reno: In Charlie Chan in Reno, Charlie's son when he hears his dad is going to Reno—actually to consult the Reno Police on a case—is asked by fellow students if his parents are getting a divorce.
    • Ellen Landini divorced all her husbands there in Keeper of the Keys.
  • Everybody Smokes: In Behind That Curtain, this is one of the factors in the murder victim's death. At a party everyone is crowded into one room to see explorer Beetham's home movies. Many of them are smoking like fiends, so several people leave the room to get some air.
  • The Exotic Detective: Biggers was first attracted to the character by the exotic quality both of his Honolulu setting and of what was then considered the paradoxical contrast of a non-"Sinister Chinaman".
  • Flanderization: Probably the best-remembered characteristic of the detective is his use of pithy "Oriental" aphorisms — a trait which comes directly from the Warner Oland Filmic Adaptations, and which were the only aspect of those adaptations that Biggers himself disliked.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Averted. Charlie's Genghis Khan moustache and (optional) beard, usually reserved for villains, are here merely signs of ethnicity.
  • Good Parents: Charlie and his wife have a strong marriage and a large family of well raised children if Number One Son is any example.
  • Grande Dame: Henrietta Lowell in Charlie Chan's Secret, and surprisingly, she's also a Cool Old Lady. Likewise Minerva Winterslip in The House Without A Key.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, the villain says this in reference to a plastic surgeon who secretly restructures mobsters faces to let them hide from the cops:
    Ya know Gronnig, the Doc is smart. He makes faces behind their backs.
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: Charlie always speaks like this in the films; in the books not, because Biggers was trying to avoid all the stereotypes.
  • Invisible Writing: One mystery (possibly Charlie Chan in the Secret Service) has some writing on a piece of linen. The glyphs appear to be Chinese, but Chan declares them as gibberish. He then points out that, despite plenty of writing paper available, the marks were made on cloth. Chan rinses the linen in a bowl of water, which washes away some of the ink, but leaves the true message in broken Roman letters intact.
    • More traditionally, on paper in Charlie Chan in Shanghai. A seemingly casual letter has the secret message on the back, revealed when the paper is warmed and disappearing again when removed from the lamp.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: Charlie Chan-type characters show up in a number of works, usually as affectionate parodies. For instance:
    • In two episodes of Get Smart, Joey Foreman played a Charlie Chan Expy, a Chinese-Hawaiian detective named Harry Hoo.
    • In 1970 Filmation's Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? featured a Jerry-ized version of Chan, Flewis Lewis (and his One-Ton Son), both ghastly Ethnic Scrappies.
    • In the 1979 film Murder by Death, Peter Sellers plays a Chan-type sleuth named Sydney Wang.
  • The Lestrade: Charlie usually has to deal with one of these, especially when he's working on a case outside of Honolulu. However, as a fellow lawman, he understands what they're going through, and always defers to their judgment, such as in Keeper of the Keys. On the other, he's not too unwilling to point out that the Noble Bigot with a Badge isn't quite so noble after all...
  • Magician Detective: Charlie Chan has to combine his detective skills with a magician friend's talents in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Fans are familiar with "Number One Son" (Lee, played by Keye Luke)note  and "Number Two Son" (Jimmy, played by Victor Sen Yung). In the books, Charlie and Mrs. Chan have seven sons note  and three daughters note . Here's an in-depth explanation of who's who, and points out a few inconsistencies. Chang Apana really did have many children. In the films, there are eleven kids until a twelfth child is born in 1936 (Charlie Chan at the Circus) and Ling is mentioned having her own baby in 1938 (Charlie Chan in Honolulu). Despite Hollywood's practice of casting Anglo characters as Asians, all the children were played by Asians. Mrs. Chan shows up in several pictures advising or fussing over Charlie.
  • Nephewism: Averted. When sidekicks were added to the movies, they were his sons.
  • Nepotism: Charlie's sons work with him.
  • Noble Bigot: The high-class Boston Brahmin characters in The House Without A Key tend to be this; both Minerva and later Quincy are astounded to see Charlie as one of the investigators of Dan's death. Dan's brother knows Charlie is the best detective on the police force and is relieved to see him. Charlie frankly calls Minerva on her hostility, reminding her that "friendly cooperation are essential between us", and Quincy becomes an ally.
  • No Swastikas: An early example of this appeared in 1936's Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which were, of course, held in Berlin that year; all the numerous swastikas that appear (including on the Hindenburg) are carefully blotted out.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Charlie Chan is a master of this trope, often playing up his "foreignness" so people underestimate him.
  • Orgy of Evidence: In Charlie Chan in London the eponymous detective, who already has suspicions about the supposed guilt of the convicted murderer, is rebuffed by another character pointing out how much evidence exists establishing his guilt. Chan's knowing reply is that there is "too much evidence."
  • Police Are Useless: Averted in novels. Charlie Chan himself is a policeman, and in most novels, his colleagues prove quite useful.
  • Private Detective: Averted in the West as Chan is a detective with the Honolulu police, but in the first actual-Chinese films, he is made into a private investigator running his own detective agency with the help of Man-na, his Master of Disguise daughter.
  • Proverbial Wisdom: Chan is a smart detective with a definite aura of "oriental wisdom" around him (including, most notably, speaking in Eastern proverbs and aphorisms in the films).
  • Public Domain: All six books, the comics, the radio plays and most of the movies; check The Other Wiki for more details.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Averted in Charlie Chan in Rio where Jimmy asks his dad a couple of questions in Cantonese, so Anglo listeners won't catch on. Charlie responds likewise and it's all subtitled in a "Chinese"-looking font. In the Oland films, Charlie and Lee speak unsubtitled Cantonese in various situations, often when Lee is startled awake. In Charlie Chan in Shanghai several children also have unsubtitled Cantonese lines. Also no subtitles for Wong the cook (James Wang) in The Black Camel who speaks to Charlie during the investigation.
  • Recursive Canon: The climax of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen takes place in an old movie theatre holding a Charlie Chan movie festival. When the Chase Scene between the heroes and the killer leads onto the stage, the audience assumes it's All Part of the Show.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Chan was loosely based on real-life Honolulu police detective Chang Apana.
  • The Shelf of Movie Languishment: The Made-for-TV Movie Happiness Is A Warm Clue was shot in 1970, but had its premiere on British television in 1973... and didn't get shown on American TV until 1979.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In Charlie Chan in Shanghai, Oland sings a song making reference to "the Emperor Fu Manchu", a part he had played himself in previous films. In the same film he asks son Lee Chan (Keye Luke) whether he is selling "Oil for the Lamps of China" — the title of a popular 20th Century Fox film in which Luke had just appeared.
    • A Captain Ersatz version of Chan twice appeared in the form of "Harry Hoo" (Joey Forman) on Get Smart.
  • Signature Headgear: Chan invariably wears a Panama hat with a broad brim and rounded crown.
  • Spooky Séance: In Charlie Chan's Secret Henrietta believes in modern spiritualism. She uses a ouija board and occasionally brings in a medium and her assistant, Carlotta and Arthur Bowan. Arthur turns out to be faking everyone out, along with his own wife (who is sincere). Carlotta assists Charlie with a fake-out of his own to catch the killer.
  • Start to Corpse: Generally pretty short.
  • The Teetotaler: Charlie Chan is a teetotaler, but in a bit of double irony he is no fan of tea; he prefers sarsaparilla (a nonalcoholic root beer-like drink). In the books, Charlie does like tea with meals.
  • Title Drop: Happened in most of the books:
    A bird of that sort will repeat anything it hears. So Tony rattles along in two languages. A regular linguist. The ranchers round here call him the Chinese parrot.
    Chan gravely regarded the man from Scotland Yard. "It is not to be amazed at," he said, "that you have felt such deep interest. Speaking humbly for myself, I desire with unlimited yearning to look behind that curtain of which you speak."
    Charlie shrugged. "Time to be philosophical," he suggested. "You have perhaps heard old Eastern saying. 'Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate.' Sooner or later—does it matter which?"
    "He was your loyal servant. You knew that he would protect you as he had protected you from your childhood. He was your keeper of the keys."
  • The Watson: Several of these have popped up; his sons took up the role in the movies, and there was one in almost all of the books.
  • Yellowface: Almost all the adaptions of the books to film, TV, etc. However, the actors playing his family such as Number One Son are usually actually Asian themselves. Also, in a bit of a Zig Zag, Swedish-born Warner Oland did not use yellowface makeup for the role of Chan, as it was felt his natural features sufficiently passed for Asian (Oland claimed some Mongolian ancestry on his Russian mother's side).
  • Yellow Peril: Designed specifically as an aversion.
  • You No Take Candle: Excuse, please...humble Chan rarely observe strict English syntax.
    • He's more careful with English in the books. Biggers describes him as drawing his English from poetry.
    • Interestingly, in both the books and the movies his children are far more adept with the English language... which Charlie sees a rejection of the Good Old Ways. This is touched on very strongly in chapter 13 of The Black Camel titled, appropriately enough, Breakfast With The Chans.