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Could it have been a mere coincidence that mystery novelist Earl Derr Biggers, creator of the fictional Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan, and Chang Apana, the real life Honolulu detective who was Derr Biggers' inspiration for the character, both died within four months of one another? Probably - but those who nurse lingering doubts have no one to blame but Derr Biggers himself. The Harvard-educated author, whose 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate was one of the most often adapted whodunits of the 20th Century (even George M. Cohan took a whack at it, adapting the book as a Broadway play in 1913 and the play as a 1917 silent film costarring future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), had four published novels to his credit when he treated himself to a Hawaiian vacation in 1919. Billeted on Waikiki, he gorged on local news and lore and called upon his impressions of this visit as he set down to pen his fifth novel, the Hawaii-set The House without a Key. Supplementing his memories with research culled from The Honolulu Star Bulletin, Derr Biggers studied accounts of the maverick police work of Apana, whose success at closing cases (though not homicides) prompted the author to introduce a Chinese detective into his new novel a quarter of the way through.
A hit with mystery readers, the homily-spouting Charlie Chan ("Mind like parachute. Function only when open.") soon attracted the attention of Hollywood. In his lifetime, Derr Biggers would permit adaptations only of his published novels. The House without a Key was made in 1926 as a serial by Path Exchange, with the Japanese George Kuwa playing Chan as a secondary character. Kuwa later turned up, although not as Chan, in Paul Leni's adaptation of Derr Biggers' The Chinese Parrot (1927), having ceded the role to countryman Sjin (Billy the Butler in Roland West's The Bat, 1926). The last true Asian to stand in for Chan was Korean E. L. Park in the Fox Film Corporation's early talkie Behind That Curtain (1929), which also featured Boris Karloff as a menacing Sudanese manservant. Fox was the first studio to see a franchise in the exploits of Charlie Chan but the executives running the troubled studio had to wait until after Derr Biggers' death in April 1934 to free the character of his bookish origins. Striking a deal with Derr Biggers' widow, Eleanor, Fox pressed on with a proposed series of films in which Chan would solve murders in some of the world's most glamorous and exotic cities, in original mysteries dreamed up by Hollywood writers.
Swedish actor Warner Oland made his debut as Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On in 1931. (When Oland shot Fox's follow-up, The Black Camel, on location in Hawaii that same year, he posed for a photo op with Chang Apana.) Oland reprised the character five times before Fox obtained permission to run with the series and headlined the first original mystery, Charlie Chan in London (1934), adapted from a story by crime novelist Philip MacDonald . By Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), the franchise had settled into a comfortable rhythm. Produced cheaply, and making cost-effective use of stock footage, matte work, and contract players, the Charlie Chan films could not help but turn a profit and initially they even found favor with the critics. Scripted by the team of Robert Ellis and Helen Logan (making their series debut, at the start of a long and profitable association with the Fox Chan films), Charlie Chan in Egypt finds the methodical detective pressed into service by the French Archeological Society and tracking down errant artifacts purloined from the tomb of a seemingly vengeful high priest and solving a more pressing mystery when the opening of a mummy case reveals the corpse of a murdered archeologist.
As had Universal's The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff as the linen-wrapped and commitment-minded Im-Ho-Tep, Charlie Chan in Egypt capitalized on the 1922 opening of the tomb of Egyptian boy prince Tutankhamen and the perceived curse that befell many of those present at the excavation. Directed by Louis King and shot by Daniel B. Clark with an affinity for suggestive black shadows slashed by jagged shards of harsh white light, this early entry in the long-running film series boasts an uncharacteristic supernatural edge not fully dispelled by Charlie Chan's climactic summation of the facts of the case. Black comedian Stepin Fetchit brings a controversial but artfully calculated degree of comic relief to the otherwise poker-faced plot (though never a factor in the Chan series, Chang Apana came to police work from his humble beginnings as a Honolulu houseboy) but the film's real find, from an archeological standpoint, is the casting of fourth-billed Rita Cansino as an Egyptian servant. A discovery of Fox production boss Winfield Sheehan, the former child dancer (product of a Mexican-American marriage) made her Hollywood film debut in Under the Pampas Moon (1935) with Warner Baxter and would appear in ten films at Fox using her birth name before assuming her mother's maiden name and reinventing herself (by dint of dieting, electrolysis, and auburn hair dye) at Columbia as Rita Hayworth.
Warner Oland remains the actor most widely associated with playing Charlie Chan, despite the fact that his death at age 59 in 1938 (from bronchial pneumonia, aggravated by heavy smoking and alcoholism) necessitated the trucking in of another actor to replace him. As had Oland, Sidney Toler came to the part from a background rich in heavies yet transitioned easily into the profile of the deliberately deductive Chan. Toler continued with the series through its passage from Fox (which merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935 to form 20th Century Fox) to the down-market Monogram Pictures in 1944. Toler bettered Oland's track record of 16 films with 22 of his own before his tragic death (from cancer - albeit at the reasonably ripe old age of 73), at which time Roland Winters finished out the series for its last six chapters. Oland's unfinished Charlie Chan Ringside was repurposed as Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938), one of eight mysteries starring Peter Lorre as an indefatigable but impeccably mannered Japanese secret agent (Moto's penchant for ju-jitsu made him closer kin to Chang Apana than Charlie Chan had ever been) while Boris Karloff (Oland's costar for Charlie Chan at the Opera in 1936) paid his alimony with a six-film detective series of his own, donning prosthetic appliances to narrow his eyes to play Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) for Monogram.
Producer: Edward T. Lowe
Director: Louis King
Writers: Robert Ellis, Helen Logan, based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers
Cinematographer: Daniel B. Clark
Editor: Alfred DeGaetano
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer, William S. Darling, Walter Koessler
Cast: Warner Oland (Charlie Chan), Pat Paterson (Carol Arnold), Thomas Beck (Tom Evans), Rita Hayworth, as Rita Cansino (Nayda), Stepin Fetchit (Snowshoes), Jameson Thomas (Dr. Racine), Frank Conroy (Professor Thurston), Nigel De Brulier (Edfu Ahmad), Arthur Stone (Dragoman), Paul Porcasi (Inspector Soueida), Frank Reicher (Dr. Jaipur), James Eagles (Barry Arnold), George Irving (Professor Arnold), Anita Brown (Snowshoes' Girlfriend), John Davidson (Chemist).
by Richard Harland Smith
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism by Ken Hanke (McFarland and Company, 2004)
Rita Hayworth interview by Jess Kobal, August 1973