Archive for September 21, 2008

That Man Chan

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2008 by dcairns

This can only be a preliminary report, as I’ve just watched three of the approximately nine billion CHARLIE CHAN movies produced by 2oth Century Fox, and none of the eighty trillion made by Monogram. Fox churned out their Chans until star Warner Oland (the Swedish Chinaman) had a nervous breakdown and then died and was replaced by Sidney Toler (the Scots-American Chinaman) who followed the series over to Poverty Row studio Monogram, continuing to work on it until he too died.

Those things’ll kill you!

The films I watched were CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON, CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS. They all had variations in their treatment of the series concept, as well as both similarities with and differences from the MR MOTO films produced concurrently at Fox.

Similarities, apart from the basic concept of an oriental detective played by a white European in yellowface — both ‘tecs spend a lot of time on ocean liners. I know it was a major way a lot of folks got around, and both investigators are globe-trotting kinds of guys, but this got kind of ridiculous. Chan was on ocean liners in two films, and delayed a trip in order to be in LONDON, whereas in one MOTO (I think it was THANK YOU) the little guy barely seemed to get ashore.

Also, the characters are essentially polite. This seems to be a stereotypical reading of the Eastern character, but it’s not necessarily an inaccurate one. It only applies to certain situations, though — one can’t really describe a lot of Japanese military behaviour in WWII as “polite”. But the characters, though stereotyped, are utterly positive. No messing about with tragic flaws here, the guys are super-smart, nice, always on the side of right, and unfailingly gracious. Admittedly, Moto does tend to kick the crap out of people, but only in self-defense and the pursuit of justice.

As I said before, Chan’s stories tend towards the whodunnit, and Moto’s are more like capers, with all kinds of crimes going on. This means they don’t need to spend time setting up complex crimes to be solved, but can begin with Moto already running about in disguise and getting up to all kinds of hi-jinks. The Chan films, as befits their portly, middle-aged hero, are more sedentary and sequential. Also, Chan isn’t such a loner — he’s a family man with twelve kids, various of whom appear to assist or interfere with Chan’s investigations.

The key son is KeyeLuke, as Number One Son. Luke is a real Chinese-American, somehow spring from the yellowface loins of the Nordic Oland, which is kind of weird. It could be argued that this casting is somewhat racist in itself, since the genius Oland is white and the blundering Luke is oriental. But he only blunders because he’s young, there’s no suggestion that he’s inherently dim. Teenagers were always a bit dopey in classic-era Hollywood films, since the films were made for everybody, not just teenagers like today, so they didn’t have to flatter adolescents. Anyhow, Luke is certainly more dignified than the characters played by the likes of Pat Wayne in John Ford films. He’s also allowed to have a normal teenage sex drive, spending most of SHANGHAI on the phone to his girlfriend. This struck me as fairly progressive for a minority character in a film of this era.

As an actor, Luke isn’t at this point as relaxed and solid as he became in later performances, but he’s great fun. It’s a performance of wide-eyed enthusiasm comparable to Burt Ward’s Robin in the Batman TV show. Play-acting and make-believe rather than realism.

I was quite touched by the little moments of sentiment the filmmakers’ always take care to insert — while Chan is gently scornful of most of No. 1 Son’s efforts at detection, there’s an underlying affection and unforced sweetness. I don’t find this kind of thing in most contemporary popular culture products. The old NANCY DREW movies have it too.

The most striking of the three films I saw was CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES, mainly because it turned out to be the Berlin Olympics. You know, in Nazi Germany. So that explains why a Chinese detective can be seen mooching around the background of Leni Riefenstahl’s OLYMPIA. I always wondered.

(Adding to the historic nature of the story, Charlie travels to Germany on the Hindenburg.)

Of course, the film eschews all politics. Charlie clashes gently with the local police detective, who’s a bit dumb and arrogant, but has a good heart. In general, he’s treated far better by the Nazis than he was in London in CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON (Brit attitudes to Chan include superstitious fear among the lower orders, and supercilious disdain among the toffs). The movie is a great example of Hollywood’s appeasement of the Reich. At one point the characters drive under a banner, which has clearly had a giant swastika optically removed — but it’s uncertain if this was done for the original release, or to protect modern sensibilities. If the latter, it’s kind of a disgrace.

I enjoyed the three films and look forward to seeing more. They may just be escapist time-wasters, but there’s plenty of entertainment and historic interest to be had from them, and Oland and Luke are both very charming. I’m assuming, as the series progresses, Mr. Chan will find himself up against Nazi agents at some point, and he can make up for his strangely amicable attitude to those guys earlier on.

What’s going on here?