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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
Remind Me

Charlie Chan in Honolulu

In many ways, detective Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is an ordinary American father whose dinner table is packed with children who call him "Pops" and who lives in a comfortable middle-class home that conjures up a Norman Rockwell illustration. The Chan residence also boasts Chinese ceramics, bamboo room dividers, Asian art and other indications that despite the middle-American trappings depict the Chan family as a unique Hollywood phenomenon.

When Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) opens, Detective Chan has rushed to the hospital bedside of his daughter as she prepares to give birth to his first grandchild. While Charlie Chan waits at the hospital, his "number two" son James (Victor Sen Yung) intercepts a message intended for Charlie about a murder on board the freighter Susan B. Jennings. The freighter is on its way from Shanghai to Honolulu under the leadership of Captain Johnson (Robert Barrat). James wants to prove his investigative skills to his father and so boards the Jennings pretending to be Charlie Chan, with his younger brother Tommy (Layne Tom Jr.) in tow. The ruse doesn't last long and soon the real Chan arrives on board, interrogating a motley assortment of crooks, heiresses and crew as he works to solve a crime whose only witness is secretary Judy Haynes (Phyllis Brooks).

Chan is unlike other movie detectives because of his tendency to whisper cryptic, fortune cookie pronouncements like "opinion: like tea leaf in hot water. Both need time for brewing."

Charlie Chan in Honolulu was actor Sidney Toler's first performance as the Asian detective. He was selected by producer Darryl F. Zanuck to follow in the footsteps of the late Warner Oland who played Chan from 1931 until his death in 1938. Toler was spotted by Chan associate producer John Stone playing a Chinese character in the film King of Chinatown (1939). Toler was no shoo-in for the role, however, but was the thirty-fifth actor tested for the role along with Leo Carillo and Cy Kendal, who had played Charlie Chan on the radio. Once Twentieth Century-Fox settled on Toler shooting on the film began less than a week later. Toler ended up playing Chan until his death in 1947, first for Twentieth Century-Fox and then, when World War II impacted Fox's profitable overseas market, Toler took the series to the low-budget Monogram Pictures. Toler starred in eleven Monogram Charlie Chan pictures.

A native of Warrensburg, Missouri, Toler took an early interest in acting, appearing in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at seven. Toler worked on the stage alongside such greats as Edward G. Robinson and Katherine Hepburn and eventually made his film debut playing an Englishman in Madame X in 1929.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu was also the debut of Victor Sen Yung as "number two" brother James Chan. Critics singled out Toler and Yung for praise, and saw them as worthy additions to the Chan oeuvre. The New York Times called Charlie Chan in Honolulu a "passably diverting mystery film."

Charlie Chan was the creation of Harvard grad turned drama critic turned novelist Earl Derr Biggers who created the Asian detective in 1925. While vacationing in Hawaii, Biggers came across a Honolulu newspaper article about two Chinese detectives who inspired him to create a virtuous Chinese hero. Biggers saw Chan as an alternative to the predominant view of villainous Asians, "I had seen movies depicting and read stories about Chinatown and wicked Chinese villains, and it struck me that a Chinese hero, trustworthy, benevolent, and philosophical, would come nearer to presenting a correct portrayal of the race," he told Harvard Magazine in 2000. Charlie first appeared in The House Without a Key as installments in The Saturday Evening Post. The popularity of the Chan detective stories led to other Chan novels and The Saturday Evening Post eventually paid $25,000 to serialize the third Chan story Behind That Curtain (1929). The Fox Film Corporation also purchased the rights to that novel. At times Biggers feared he would be typecast as the writer who created the Charlie Chan detective industry, but the stock market crash of 1929 convinced him to stick with a sure thing.

Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Screenplay: Charles Belden; Chandler Sprague (contributing writer)
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction: Richard Day, Haldane Douglas
Film Editing: Nick DeMaggio
Cast: Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Phyllis Brooks (Judy Hayes), Victor Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan), Eddie Collins (Al Hogan), John 'Dusty' King (George Randolph), Claire Dodd (Elise Hillman/Carol Wayne), George Zucco (Dr. Cardigan), Robert Barrat (Capt. Johnson).

by Felicia Feaster



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