Charlie Chan is a fictional Honolulu police detective created by author Earl Derr Biggers for a series of mystery novels. Biggers loosely based Chan on Hawaiian detective Chang Apana. The benevolent and heroic Chan was conceived as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes and villains like Fu Manchu. Many stories feature Chan traveling the world beyond Hawaii as he investigates mysteries and solves crimes.
Chan first appeared in Biggers' novels and then was featured in a number of media. Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan were made, beginning in 1926. The character, featured only as a supporting character, was first portrayed by East Asian actors, and the films met with little success. In 1931, for the first film centering on Chan, Charlie Chan Carries On, the Fox Film Corporation cast Swedish actor Warner Oland; the film became popular, and Fox went on to produce 15 more Chan films with Oland in the title role. After Oland's death, American actor Sidney Toler was cast as Chan; Toler made 22 Chan films, first for Fox and then for Monogram Studios. After Toler's death, six films were made, starring Roland Winters.
Readers and moviegoers of America greeted Chan warmly. Chan was seen as an attractive character, portrayed as intelligent, heroic, benevolent, and honorable; this contrasted the common depiction of Asians as evil or conniving which dominated Hollywood and national media in the early 20th century. However, in later decades critics increasingly took a more ambivalent view of the character. Despite his good qualities, Chan was also perceived as reinforcing condescending Asian stereotypes such as an alleged incapacity to speak idiomatic English and a tradition-bound and subservient nature. Many observers also now find it objectionable that the role was played on screen by European-American actors in yellowface, although the supporting characters of his family were cast with actual Asian-American actors, such as Keye Luke. No Charlie Chan film has been produced since 1981.
The character has also been featured in several radio programs, two television shows, and comics.
The character of Charlie Chan was created by Earl Derr Biggers. In 1919, while visiting Hawaii, Biggers planned a detective novel to be called The House Without a Key. He did not begin to write that novel until four years later, however, when he was inspired to add a Chinese-American police officer to the plot after reading in a newspaper of Chang Apana and Lee Fook, two detectives on the Honolulu police force. Biggers, who disliked the Yellow Peril stereotypes he found when he came to California, explicitly conceived of the character as an alternative: "Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used."
It overwhelms me with sadness to admit it … for he is of my own origin, my own race, as you know. But when I look into his eyes I discover that a gulf like the heaving Pacific lies between us. Why? Because he, though among Caucasians many more years than I, still remains Chinese. As Chinese to-day as in the first moon of his existence. While I – I bear the brand – the label – Americanized.... I traveled with the current.... I was ambitious. I sought success. For what I have won, I paid the price. Am I an American? No. Am I, then, a Chinese? Not in the eyes of Ah Sing.
— Charlie Chan, speaking of a murderer's accomplice, in Keeper of the Keys, by Earl Derr Biggers.
The "amiable Chinese" made his first appearance in The House Without a Key (1925). The character was not central to the novel and was not mentioned by name on the dust jacket of the first edition. In the novel, Chan is described as "very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman" and in The Chinese Parrot as being " … an undistinguished figure in his Western clothes. According to critic Sandra Hawley, this description of Chan allows Biggers to portray the character as nonthreatening, the opposite of evil Chinese characters, such as Fu Manchu, while simultaneously emphasizing supposedly Chinese characteristics such as impassivity and stoicism.
Biggers wrote six novels in which Charlie Chan appears:
The House Without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1926)
Behind That Curtain (1928)
The Black Camel (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
Keeper of the Keys (1932)
The first film featuring Charlie Chan, as a supporting character, was The House Without a Key (1926), a ten-chapter serial produced by Pathé Studios, starring George Kuwa, a Japanese actor, as Chan. A year later Universal Pictures followed with The Chinese Parrot, starring Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin as Chan, again as a supporting character. In both productions, Charlie Chan's role was minimized. Contemporary reviews were unfavorable; in the words of one reviewer, speaking of The Chinese Parrot, Sojin plays "the Chink sleuth as a Lon Chaney cook-waiter … because Chaney can't stoop that low."
In 1929, the Fox Film Corporation optioned Charlie Chan properties and produced Behind That Curtain, starring Korean actor E.L. Park. Again, Chan's role was minimal, with Chan appearing only in the last ten minutes of the film.
For the first film to center mainly on the character of Chan, Warner Oland, a white actor, was cast in the title role in 1931's Charlie Chan Carries On, and it was this film that gained popular success. Oland, a Swedish actor, had also played Fu Manchu in an earlier film. Oland, who claimed some Mongolian ancestry, played the character as more gentle and self-effacing than he had been in the books, perhaps in "a deliberate attempt by the studio to downplay an uppity attitude in a Chinese detective." Oland starred in sixteen Chan films for Fox, often with Keye Luke, who played Chan's "Number One Son", Lee Chan. Oland's "warmth and gentle humor" helped make the character and films popular; the Oland Chan films were among Fox's most successful. By attracting "major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A's" they "kept Fox afloat" during the Great Depression.
Oland died in 1938, and the Chan film Charlie Chan at the Ringside was rewritten with additional footage as Mr. Moto's Gamble, an entry in the Mr. Moto series, another contemporary series featuring an East Asian protagonist; Luke appeared as Lee Chan, not only in already shot footage but also in scenes with Moto actor Peter Lorre. Fox hired another white actor, Sidney Toler, to play Charlie Chan, and produced eleven Chan films through 1942. Toler's Chan was less mild-mannered than Oland's, a "switch in attitude that added some of the vigor of the original books to the films." He is frequently accompanied, and irritated, by his Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan, played by Sen Yung.
When Fox decided to produce no further Chan films, Sidney Toler purchased the film rights. Producers Philip N. Krasne and James S. Burkett of Monogram Pictures produced and released further Chan films starring Toler. The budget for these films was reduced from Fox's average of $200,000 to $75,000. For the first time, Chan was portrayed on occasion as "openly contemptuous of suspects and superiors." African-American comedic actor Mantan Moreland played chauffeur Birmingham Brown in 13 films (1944–1949) which led to criticism of the Monogram films in the forties and since; some call his performances "brilliant comic turns", while others describe Moreland's roles as an offensive and embarrassing stereotype. Toler died in 1947 and was succeeded by Roland Winters for six films. Keye Luke, missing from the series after 1938's Mr. Moto rework, returned as Charlie's son in the last two entries.
Three Spanish-language Charlie Chan films were made in the 1930s and 1950s. The first, Eran Trece (There Were Thirteen, 1931), is a multiple-language version of Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). The two films were made concurrently and followed the same production schedule, with each scene filmed twice the same day, once in English and then in Spanish. The film followed essentially the same script as the Anglophonic version, with minor additions such as brief songs and skits and some changes to characters' names (for example, the character Elmer Benbow was renamed Frank Benbow). A Cuban production, La Serpiente Roja (The Red Snake), followed in 1937. In 1955, Producciones Cub-Mex produced a Mexican version of Charlie Chan called El Monstruo en la Sombra (Monster in the Shadow), starring Orlando Rodriguez as "Chan Li Po" (Charlie Chan in the original script). The film was inspired by La Serpiente Roja as well as the American Warner Oland films.
During the 1930s and 1940s, five Chan films were produced in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In these films, Chan, played by Xu Xinyuan (徐莘园), owns his detective agency and is aided not by a son but by a daughter, Manna, played first by Gu Meijun (顾梅君) in the Shanghai productions and then by Bai Yan (白燕) in postwar Hong Kong.
Chinese audiences also saw the original American Charlie Chan films. They were by far the most popular American films in 1930s China and among Chinese expatriates; "one of the reasons for this acceptance was that this was the first time Chinese audiences saw a positive Chinese character in an American film, a departure from the sinister East Asian stereotypes in earlier movies like Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger (1929), which incited riots that shut down the Shanghai theater showing it." Oland's visit to China was reported extensively in Chinese newspapers, and the actor was respectfully called "Mr. Chan".
In Neil Simon's Murder By Death, Peter Sellers plays a Chinese detective called Sidney Wang, a parody of Chan.
In 1980, Jerry Sherlock began production on a comedy film to be called Charlie Chan and the Dragon Lady. A group calling itself C.A.N. (Coalition of Asians to Nix) was formed, protesting the fact that non-Chinese actors, Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson, had been cast in the primary roles. Others protested that the film script contained a number of stereotypes; Sherlock responded that the film was not a documentary. The film was released the following year as Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and was an "abysmal failure." An updated film version of the character was planned in the 1990s by Miramax. While this Charlie Chan was to be "hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and... a martial-arts master," and portrayed by actor Russell Wong, nonetheless the film did not come to fruition. Actress Lucy Liu was slated to star in and executive-produce a new Charlie Chan film for Fox. The film was in preproduction since 2000. As of 2009 it was slated to be produced, but as of 2022 it has not been made.
On radio, Charlie Chan was heard in several different series on three networks (the NBC Blue Network, Mutual, and ABC) between 1932 and 1948 for the 20th Century Fox Radio Service. Walter Connolly initially portrayed Chan on Esso Oil's Five Star Theater, which serialized adaptations of Biggers novels. Ed Begley, Sr. had the title role in N.B.C.'s The Adventures of Charlie Chan (1944–45), followed by Santos Ortega (1947–48). Leon Janney and Rodney Jacobs were heard as Lee Chan, Number One Son, and Dorian St. George was the announcer. Radio Life magazine described Begley's Chan as "a good radio match for Sidney Toler's beloved film enactment."
Valentine Davies wrote a stage adaptation of novel Keeper of the Keys for Broadway in 1933, with William Harrigan as the lead. The production ran for 25 performances.
In 1956–57, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, starring J. Carrol Naish in the title role, were made independently for TV syndication in 39 episodes, by Television Programs of America. The series was filmed in England. In this series, Chan is based in London rather than the United States. Ratings were poor, and the series was canceled.
In the 1960s, Joey Forman played an obvious parody of Chan named "Harry Hoo" in two episodes of Get Smart.
In the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera produced an animated series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Keye Luke, who had played Chan's son in many Chan films of the 1930s and '40s, lent his voice to Charlie, employing a much-expanded vocabulary; Luke thus became the first actual Chinese person to portray Chan on screen. (The title character bears some resemblance to the Warner Oland depiction of Charlie Chan.) The series focused on Chan's children, played initially by East Asian-American child actors before being recast, due to concerns that younger viewers would not understand the accented voices. Leslie Kumamota voiced Chan's daughter Anne, before being replaced by Jodie Foster.
The Return of Charlie Chan, a television film starring Ross Martin as Chan, was made in 1971 but did not air until 1979.