Friday, May 6, 2022

The Case of Charlie Chan and The Caftan Woman


When Patricia Nolan-Hall, a.k.a. Paddy, a.k.a. The Caftan Woman left us in March, the classic film blogger world lost one of its greatest champions and one of its dearest friends.  This is my entry for The Caftan Woman Blogathon.  A delightful aspect to Paddy’s love of classic films is that she embraced a wide range of genres and wrote about them with passion and humor.  She liked the great films, but also loved series movies, especially the mystery genre, and especially Charlie Chan.

Have a look at the rest of the Blogathon participants atthis page.  Visit them all and leave a comment.  You know Paddy would.

The character of the great Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan, was created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers in the early 1920s.  Mr. Biggers was inspired by reading about two real-life Chinese-American police officers in Honolulu.  He created Chan as a protest against the “Yellow Peril” bigotry in California of the day.  He wrote six novels in the Chan series, and by the late 1920s, Hollywood tentatively expressed interested by producing a few films where Charlie Chan was only a supporting character.  But his popularity took off when Warner Oland was cast in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), and played the detective for the remainder of his life.  Upon his death, the role was taken over by Sidney Toller for another decade.

The Charlie Chan series was quite popular, but in later decades its place in film history seems tarnished – or at least challenged – by modern sensibilities which naturally recoil from ethnic or racial stereotypes, particularly when played by white actors. The critiques are fair, but only in part.  Charlie Chan spoke in broken English and spouted Confucius-like proverbs, but that was the extent of his being a Chinese stereotype.  Inspector Chan was a world-famous detective, intelligent, kindly, urbane, courageous, honorable, modest, and his kids called him “Pop.”  His fast-talking American kids, who he had to cut down sometimes to keep them from messing up his latest case.  He was an exasperated father who still managed to save the day despite bad guys, uncooperative witnesses, and sons who didn’t always listen to him. 

Keye Luke, who played his eldest son and sidekick in many movies felt strongly that the Charlie Chan character was not demeaning to Chinese.  He is reported to have replied, “Demeaning to the race? My God! You've got a Chinese hero! He noted, quite accurately, that they “were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood.”

There were something like 47 Chan movies made in the U.S. from 1926 through 1949, which made it one of the longest, if not the longest, movie series.  This is not counting the Spanish-language Chan movies, or the movies (including parodies) which featured Chan in later decades.  The honorable Inspector Chan found his way into radio shows, television, comic books, and even a 1970s cartoon series. 

Chan was something of a cultural phenomenon.  Paddy covered at length or at least mentioned something like fifteen Charlie Chan movies on her blog.  She did not approach the series with any apologetic debate about stereotypes.  She expressed wholeheartedly her delight at his personality, cleverness, the plots of the films, and her fangirl crush on Number One Son, Keye Luke.  I’m with her on that one.  In fact, I’m remiss at not having covered Chan movies before on this blog because I’m also a fan. 

Paddy covered in depth the origins of Chan in all formats, and traced the careers of the character actors who appeared in the films with her typical encyclopedic knowledge, and most of these posts were for blogathons.  Paddy loved blogathons.  There is a banner in her sidebar for every blogathon she joined.

I wanted to pay tribute to Paddy by co-hosting this blogathon and with my post, but unexpectedly, I also discovered a sense of comfort in going through her Charlie Chan posts for this entry.  Re-reading the words reflecting the vibrancy and wit of my dearly missed friend wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be and I even found myself laughing at some of her wry and always enjoyable observations. 

Here then, is The Caftan Woman facing off with Charlie Chan.  Please follow the links to read her full posts on The Caftan Woman blog.



“My tween years were devoted to sneaking up late at night and watching whatever old movie I could find. One momentous night I was introduced to Inspector Charlie Chan, 60 summers young and 60 winters old, and his number one son, Lee in Charlie Chan in Shanghai.”

“The first scene in the movie had introduced me to Inspector Chan who seemed a movie detective worth following. Lee immediately impressed me with his good looks and enthusiasm. It's even more fun to solve a fictional crime if you have a crush on one of the detectives!”

“Immediately, we can sense the bond of affection between Charlie and his firstborn. Warner Oland and Keye Luke became close, with Oland a mentor to the young man, and Luke a fond protector to his often troubled older friend.”

“My admiration and affection for the actor runs deep, but my crush, the crush of that tween girl up late when she was supposed to be sleeping on a school night, is only for Lee Chan, #1 son.”


VISITING PARIS WITH INSPECTOR CHAN: Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) and City in Darkness (1939) 

“Charlie Chan in Reno… a terrific movie that could easily be paired with The Women for a great movie night.”

Of Harold Huber in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island: “Huber literally throws himself into the unaccustomed comic relief duties as a character that comes off like Inspector Clouseau's grandfather.”


Favourite movies: Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is set amidst a background of political turmoil, contentious ideology and threats of violence at a sporting event that sees itself in a bubble apart from those things surrounding it. Perhaps that is the celebration that the Games should be, but can never be. The movie is an entertaining visit to the past with an uncomfortable connection to our present.”


AT THE CIRCUS BLOGATHON: Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

“One of the outstanding features of the character of Chan, as opposed to many other fictional crime-solvers, is the fact that he is a family man. A family man in a big way with 12 offspring. During the course of the series, he even becomes a grandfather (Charlie Chan in Honolulu). We don't generally see a lot of granddads going head to head with the criminal class.”

“One of the thrilling aspects of the movie is that it was filmed on the winter location of The Barnes Circus and utilized the sights, sounds, people and animals from day-to-day circus life.”


Horseathon: Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)

“Oland found an alter ego that touched his soul.  He approached the role of Inspector Chan through diligent study of Chinese history and philosophy and so fused his personality with that of Chan's that he became the character.  Enduring international fame was Oland's reward for such fidelity of purpose, especially in China, the land of the fictional detective's ancestors.”

“Keye Luke always spoke fondly and admiringly of Warner Oland in interviews, and refused to continue in the series after the death of his friend in 1938.”

“Charlie Chan 101 for Newbies:  If there is a young romantic couple, and there always is a young romantic couple, you can erase them from your suspect list.  They are included only to be young and romantic.”

Harold Huber

“He is a welcome sight in enjoyable crime programmers and most important to this child of the late show, he is a superstar in the Charlie Chan universe.”

Of his work in City of Darkness: “To Harold Huber fell the job of comic relief. I have acquaintances who do not care for his work in this movie. I am not of their mind. Perhaps it is because I like Huber or that I have a soft spot in my heart for those who toil as comic relief…I can't help but think of him as the emotional Pere de Clouseau, and I get a kick out of the work.”


Backstage Blogathon: Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)

“Boris Karloff rightfully received top billing with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Opera…Karloff's performance is touching and assured.  It also lays the groundwork for Maurice Cass' line, as Mr. Arnold, "I'm stage manager here and this opera's going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in." 

Corny?  Perhaps, but delivered with unabashed gusto and always gets an appreciative chuckle.”


Beach Party Blogathon: The Black Camel (1931)

“When I read the Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Golden Pavilion as a young girl I longed to visit Hawaii.  Later on when I read Earl Derr Bigger's The House Without a Key my fondest wish was to visit Hawaii in the 1920s.  I imagine the closest I'll ever get to that far-fetched whim is in watching the 1931 Charlie Chan feature The Black Camel.”

“If I really could go back in time, I might have tea with Earl Derr Biggers and ask him about one of the plot points that has always bothered me concerning the clue of the ripped out newspaper photos.  If it didn't bother Biggers or his editors, it probably shouldn't bother me, but there it is.”


For Your Consideration: Sen Yung

“With only extra work in his background (Mr. Moto Takes a Chance and The Good Earth), Sen Yung was most happily cast with the new Chan, Sidney Toler. He proved adept at the comic enthusiasm which was Jimmy Chan's trademark and had a nice chemistry with star Toler. It is a pleasure watching him in the role today.”

“The Academy should have been taking note of the 24-year-old actor's work in William Wyler's adaption of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter in 1940. As Ong Chi Seng, the law clerk with an agenda, Sen Yung steals scenes and gives the audience something to think about. While the British go about pretending the world is theirs, the unctuous young man reminds them that there is another world around them, one they cannot control. There is not a trace of the ebullient would-be detective in this fine characterization. It is a highlight in a film full of wonderful atmosphere and performances.”


Decorating with Boris

In which The Caftan Woman recounts acquiring this poster for her kitchen.

“As I spent a joyful couple of hours going through the wares of a shop it occurred to me that I - one of the world's noted Charlie Chan fans - I did not have a Charlie Chan poster among my collection. I turned to the vendor's assistant and, barely able to contain the excited anticipation from my voice, asked "Do you have Charlie Chan at the Opera"? "Why?" he responded. "What's so hot about Charlie Chan at the Opera?"

Taken aback may accurately describe my reaction to his query, but it was more than that. I was shocked…

"Perhaps," I responded politely, yet coldly, "if I used the full title card you will realize the folly of your question. I am speaking of Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera." Unimpressed, the lackey pointed in a vague direction. "Yeah, that's here somewhere."


THE HOLLYWOOD GANGSTERS BLOGTHON: Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)

The movie world of Charlie Chan finds him often dealing with cunning murderers and spies, but Charlie Chan on Broadway is the only time in his 20th Century Fox period where he dealt with bona fide gangsters.”


And she ends with her 2011 second-place winning Haiku, a sublime piece:


The gathered suspects

Tremble 'neath Inspector's glare

You are murderer


Sailing Away on Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, 1940

Published on her blog only weeks before she passed. 

“Charles Middleton and Claire Du Brey play the Watsons. Jimmy rightly calls them "bluenosers." They are killjoys and she claims to be psychic. Just the sort you want along on a cruise…

“It's all fun and games until there is another murder or two.”


Paddy Nolan-Hall touched so many bloggers and readers in the past 14 years of writing her blog.  I will continue to visit The Caftan Woman from time to time, the way we continue to rewatch favorite movies to visit our old friends on film.

Have a look at the other bloggers’ entries to this blogathon hereat this page.

Thank you for reading.


Citizen Screen said...

Jacqueline, this is a superb way to honor Paddy. I think I learned of Charlie Chan from her. I'd seen a few of the Chan films through the years but became enamored of them thanks to her dedicated posts. I must take the time to visit as many of these movies as I can.

Lovely tribute. Thank you again.


FlickChick said...

Boy did Paddy love Charlie Chan! And I just loved that she loved those films. There is nothing that fills my heart more than a classic film fan who is not afraid to gush profusely. Her enthusiasm, her amazing spirit and undying support will be so missed. It was always a thrill to open the computer and see that there was a comment from Caftan Woman. Thank you so much for hosting this event.

The Lady Eve said...

You've chosen such a special way to honor Paddy - through her love of the Charlie Chan series. I know she'd be thrilled - and probably chuckling. It pleased me no end that she was a Chan fan (the movies were shown on TV on weekends where I grew up) and that she - and you - refuted latter-day claims of racism against the franchise. It was especially nice - and gratifying - that you included excerpts and links to Paddy's posts.

And thank you for joining me hosting this celebration of Paddy.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Paddy certainly loved Charlie Chan and his Number One Son Lee. While I acknowledge there are stereotypical aspects to the character (the broken English and aphorisms), Inspector Chan is one of my favourite detectives. Anyway, this post did make me tear up a bit. I truly miss Paddy and keep looking for another post or comment from her. I will have to go through and re-read her many posts on Charlie Chan.

Marianne said...

Paddy Lee certainly had a wonderful sense of humor. I love the story about finding the Charlie Chan poster.

Thanks so much for co-hosting this blogathon in tribute to her. It's been so much fun reading.

Karen said...

I have never seen a Charlie Chan movie -- only clips -- but I'd like to check them out now. I like that Keye Luke viewed the character as a hero. (I also like that Paddy was crushing on Keye!) Thank you for including the excerpts from Paddy's writing on the series -- I'll use them to guide me to seeing them. I was especially tickled by her description of the exchange when she purchased the poster.

Thank you to you and Patty for hosting this blogathon, and for this lovely tribute to Paddy.

Jocelyn said...

Wonderful post! A great idea to excerpt from Paddy’s blog, and I’m blown away all over again with her breadth of knowledge. I’m not sure I I’ve ever seen a Charlie Chan movie, and this post has convinced me I need to change that!

Thanks for hosting the blogathon!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you all so much for stopping by, for your kind comments, and most especially, for joining this celebration of Paddy's classic film fandom and camaraderie.

The Classic Movie Muse said...

Lovely post, Jacqueline! I loved reading those excerpts and that poster story is just wonderful. It's hard to believe I've never seen a Charlie Chan movie since he is a favorite of my mom's and Paddy, but after reading your post I know I will have to remedy that soon.

Thank you for hosting this special event!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, and thank you for participating in the blogathon. Paddy was, indeed, a super fan, not just of Charlie Chan but of so much more.

Silver Screenings said...

Paddy taught me to appreciate the Charlie Chan movies. I wasn't a fan at first, but she showed me why they were worth a second (and third and fourth) glance. I loved the excerpts you posted from her site.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Ruth. Yes, Paddy had a good eye and a terrific ability to find pleasure and amusement in these movies, and so many movies, and in life, that a lot of us miss.

Lea S. said...

Paddy had the right approach to a series like this. Nowadays it's became far too common to dismiss films outright without taking a deeper look at them, but as we film fans know, the parts that aged poorly aren't always the sum of the whole.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well said, Lea.

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