Making a case for Charlie Chan Happy, hokey stories in nice DVD sets

Posted: February 16, 2008

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who think Warner Oland made the best Charlie Chan, and those who think Sidney Toler was better.

"Contradiction, please: Opinion like tea leaf in hot water. Need time to brew. Most sprouts know nothing of humble self."

"Golly, Pop, you've got it right again. Gee, you're swell."

"Uncle Chuckie," as we have called him in our house since watching the ancient films beamed from Boston to the Vermont hills in the early '70s on some low-rent, late-night movie show, kept Fox in business in the '30s. The B movies, churned out as many as five times a year, consistently filled Depression-era theaters.

Oland, the original, more mystical Chan, died in 1938, and the studio has released most of his movies (some are lost) on DVD. The first four Toler films (one from 1938, the rest from '39) hit the stores last Tuesday in a boxed set, Charlie Chan Vol. 4 ($49.98).

In the first, Charlie stays home in Honolulu. Then he goes to Reno, Treasure Island (which was the San Francisco World's Fair) and finally to a City in Darkness, a Paris that had changed since Oland went there in 1935.

The movies are illogical, happy hokum with ultra-suspicious characters who are never the killers, lights going black at the most inopportune times, a climactic gathering of the suspects, and Chan - wry, wise, laconic, unflappable, humorous, and one of the kindliest police lieutenants ever to grace a murder mystery - uncovering the unlikely culprit.

Some complain about the movies because white people always played the Chinese detective (Roland Winters - nobody thinks he was the best Chan - followed Toler in half-a-dozen films), but no matter who played Chan, the character himself was a paragon. As No. 1 Son Keye Luke, who was born in China, and others have argued, Charlie Chan was a popular hero at a time when Asian Americans barely registered on the nation's culture meter.

More problematic are the later movies featuring Mantan Moreland as Chan's driver, Birmingham Brown, a bug-eyed, superstitious black man who would skedaddle shamelessly from the vicinity of one of the series' ubiquitous strange noises or shadowy figures. Critics would do well to remember that Brown was a major attraction for black audiences in a long-ago time when Reno was Nevada's biggest attraction, more for quickie marriages and divorces than gambling, and Las Vegas was a dusty crossroads with a population of 8,000.

All the Chan films are a lens into Depression and wartime cultural history, with Charlie Chan in Reno (check out those duds!) a particularly fine example.

The DVD set's many extras (including an extraordinary audio-and-still resurrection of the lost Charlie Chan's Courage) add value, distinguishing it from non-studio releases. There's plenty of analysis into the series itself and the Oland-Toler transition, as well how-they-were-made material and reminiscences from people who lived in the times and places portrayed.

Only Charlie himself could provide better insight, but, excuse, please, he'd probably keep it to himself.

To comment on this article, go to: http://go.philly.com/askstorm. Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathan storm.

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