Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1923. Biggers conceived of the benevolent and heroic Chan as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes, such as villains like Fu Manchu. Chan is a detective of the Honolulu police, though many stories feature Chan traveling the world as he investigates mysteries and solves crimes.
Chan first appeared in Biggers' novels, but went on to be featured in a number of media. Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan have been made, beginning in 1926. The character was at first portrayed by Asian actors, and the films were met with little success. In 1931, the Fox Film Corporation cast Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On; the film was a success, 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 more films were made, starring Roland Winters. In addition, a number of Spanish- and Chinese-language Chan films were made during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. American-made Chan films were shown in China to much success, where the character was popular and respected. More recent film adaptations in the 1990s have been unsuccessful. The character has also been featured in several radio programs, two television shows, and a number of comics.
Interpretations of Chan by critics are split, especially as relates to his ethnicity. Positive interpretations of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent, and honorable, in contrast to most depictions of Chinese at the time the character was created. Others argue that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces Chinese stereotypes such as poor English grammar, and is overly subservient in nature.
Warner Oland didn't need make-up when he played Charlie Chan; all he would do is curl down his moustache and curl up his eyebrows. In fact, the Chinese often mistook him for one of their own countrymen. He attributed this to the fact that his Russian grandmother was of Mongolian descent.
The character of Charlie Chan was created by Earl Derr Biggers. In 1919, while on vacation in Hawaii, Biggers planned a detective novel to be called The House Without a Key. He did not begin to write the 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 Chinese-American detectives on the Honolulu police force. Biggers explicitly conceived of the character as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes: "Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used.
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 dustjacket of the first edition. In the novel, Chan is described as walking with "the light dainty step of a woman" and as being "very fat indeed ... an undistinguished figure in his Western clothes." According to critic Sandra Hawley, this description of Chan allows Biggers to portray the character as non-threatening, the opposite of such evil Chinese characters as Fu Manchu, while simultaneously emphasizing supposedly Chinese characteristics such as impassivity and stoicism.
The first Charlie Chan film was The House without a Key (1926), a 10-chapter serial produced by Pathé Studios, starring George Kuwa, a Japanese actor, as Chan. A year later Universal Pictures followed the film with The Chinese Parrot, starring another Japanese actor, Kamiyama Sojin, in the starring role. In both productions, Charlie Chan's role was minimized. Because Chan, despite his minimized role, was played by Asian actors, 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 acquired the rights to Charlie Chan and produced Behind That Curtain, starring Korean actor E.L. Park. Again, Chan's role was minimized, with Chan appearing only in the last 10 minutes of the film. Not until a white actor was cast in the title role did a Chan film meet with success, beginning with 1931's Charlie Chan Carries On, starring Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chan. Oland, who claimed some Mongolian ancestry, played the character as much more gentle and self-effacing than he had been in the books, perhaps in "a deliberate attempt by the studio to downplay such an uppity attitude in a Chinese detective." Oland starred in 15 more 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 quite popular; the Oland Chan films were among Fox's most successful of the period, attracting "major audiences and box-office grosses on a par with A's" and "keeping Fox afloat" during the Great Depression.
Oland died in 1938, and the Chan film he had been working on, Charlie Chan at the Ringside, was transformed at the last minute into Mr. Moto's Gamble, an entry in the Mr. Moto series, another contemporary series featuring an Asian protagonist; Luke still 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 11 more Chan films through 1942. Toler's Chan was less mild-mannered than Oland's, a "switch in attitude that did much to add 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 not to produce any further Chan films, Sidney Toler purchased the film rights. Producers Philip N. Krasne and James S. Burkett of Monogram Pictures decided to release further Chan films, starring Toler. The budget for each film 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 his suspects and superiors." African-American actor Mantan Moreland was hired as regular character Birmingham Brown, a fact which led to criticism of the Monogram films in the forties and since; some call these 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 a final six films. Keye Luke, missing from the series after 1938's Mr.Moto rework, returned as Charlie's son in the last two entries.