BluRay/DVD Reviews

CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION VOLUME 1

By • Jun 20th, 2006 •

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20th Century Fox

The release of the Charlie Chan Collection Volume I (Charlie Chan in London, Charlie Chan in Paris, Charlie Chan in Egypt, Charlie Chan in Shanghai, Eran Trace) revives the legacy of one of the most interesting and controversial characters in genre fiction and genre film. Created in the mid-20’s and featured in six novels by mystery novelist Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan, an officer of the Honolulu Police Department, was said to have been inspired by a Hawaiian policeman named Chang Apana (this collection includes the back story of Apana on the “Real Charlie Chan” featurette).

The films in this collection are great examples of genre movie making in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Each is under 90 minutes and features plots and clever twists to rival any in the ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘Thin Man,’ or ‘Agatha Christie’ series. Charlie Chan in Shanghai has a particularly clever murder sequence that sets the plot in motion. Featured in CC in Paris is a spectacular ‘Apache Dance’, and in CC in Egypt, an early talking appearance by black actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, popularly known as Stepin Fetchit.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) strikes a tough guy pose (Fox Home Entertainment)

In this collection, Chan is played by the Swedish actor Warner Oland. Oland brought an unflappable elegance and great timing to the part. Indeed, unlike Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Tarzan, or any other mythic/pulp heroes, Charlie Chan seems to be a one actor role. Other performers have played Chan, but more often than not, they end up doing a heavy-handed imitation of Oland’s effortless characterization. Despite Oland’s graceful portrayal, there was (and still is) a fair amount of controversy about Chan being portrayed by a Caucasian actor, as well as about the broken English and fortune-cookie one-liners which characterize Oland’s dialog. These aspects of the Chan series created enough of a PC storm to have the Fox Movie Channel remove the films from circulation in recent years.

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in a scene from Charlie Chan in Paris (Fox Home Entertainment)

Which brings up the question of these films: Are they racist? Charlie Chan is written as a brilliant and resourceful detective with almost supernatural powers of deduction. Oland’s portrayal, as mentioned earlier, nicely combines a light touch with the character’s mental superiority. To me, Charlie Chan’s competence and surprising toughness (he is adept with firearms) make it tricky to brand these films, and certainly Orland’s portrayal, as racist. Bear in mind I realize that many readers may disagree with me.

This series include nice featurettes about the history of the character, notably “The Legacy of Charlie Chan” and “In Search of Charlie Chan.” An interesting oddity included in the set is Eran Trace (They Were Thirteen), the Spanish language version of the lost Charlie Chan Carries On, with Spanish actor Manual Arbo mimicking Oland’s mannerisms. The overall quality of the films is excellent considering their age. It is hoped that Fox’s second volume will be equally provocative and help restore the legacy of this great film character.

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