Keye Luke — Son of China (1942) 🇺🇸

Keye Luke |

December 29, 2021

Keye Luke may be the screen’s foremost Chinese actor, but he considers himself 100% American. A commercial artist before he ever saw a movie set, he entered pictures via the art department. He’s in the Universal film, “Invisible Agent.”

by Frank Cunningham

Keye Luke may have been born on the good earth of Canton, China, but to movie-going millions and to himself, he’s as American as baseball, ham and eggs and the Fourth of July. In fact, he complains that being in so many Charlie Chan pictures has given him a Chinese accent.

Keye won fame and fortune as Charlie Chan’s Number One son in the endless series. After the death of Warner Oland, however, he stepped out of the Chan pictures and into the lead in a series of detective stories written by Hugh Wiley for Monogram.

The screen’s leading Chinese actor once wanted to be an architect. That was due to the influence of his father, a merchant, who brought him from China to Seattle when he was four. Keye was raised and educated in Seattle, in American high schools and a Chinese academy. He entered the University of Washington to study architecture. Then his father died, and he was forced to leave college and go to work.

Speaking of his start in the business world, Keye said. “I went back to China when I was twelve. Ever since I can remember, I have loved beautiful things. Doubtless this was because my home and my father’s shops were filled with treasures that were dreamed out of The Arabian Nights. So it is easy to understand why I became an artist. In the sometimes prosaic things I drew for newspapers and advertising agencies, I tried to catch something of the pungent odor of exotic distant lands.

“Soon my work created attention. My first exhibition was at the British Royal Museum. Then, too, years later I was hired by 20th Century-Fox to do some art work on a Mr. Moto film. Recently I did some of the backgrounds for ‘The Shanghai Gesture produced by Arnold Pressburger.

“You know, I’d like to go back to China sometime. Fukien, with its lost secrets of porcelain glazing is a real lure to me, even as an elusive clue is stimulating to the movie detective.”

It is easy to see that Keye is deeply interested in the arts that made China great. It was this artistic talent that got Keye into motion picture work.

The year 1930 found him in Los Angeles doing poster work for the Fox West Coast theaters. One of his first jobs with Fox was to do the advertising on the initial Charlie Chan film. As he touched his brush to the easel, Keye had no way of knowing that someday he would be Charlie Chan’s famous son. Keye’s excellent drawing took him inside the high walls of the picture studios when R-K-O — and later M-G-M — put him in their publicity departments as a staff artist.

Acting? At R-K-O, Keye had been cast in short subjects because of the scarcity of talent. Later at Metro, Keye’s work in an R-K-O short was reviewed by executives and won him a role as the Chinese physician in Garbo’s The Painted Veil. And with this photoplay, Keye went from an artist on canvas to an artist on the silver screen.

Following his Garbo debut, Keye went into “Charlie Chan in Paris” and then accompanied his illustrious screen father in nine pictures.

Not all of his work has been done in the Chans. Some of his films were Oil for the Lamps of ChinaThe Good Earth, “International Settlement,” “Mr. Moto’s Gamble,” “North of Shanghai,” “The Green Hornet,” “The Phantom of Chinatown.”

In discussing native Chinese drama, Keye asked, “Did you know that the theater in China had a royal birth?”

“Royal birth?”

“That was in the eighth century. Ming Huang, the emperor, pleased with the declaration of love made by his consort, Yang Kuei-fei, China’s most famous beauty, ordered a pageant in her honor which was to tell the story of the nation’s great history.

“Following the performance, the emperor established a college for the training of both boys and girls in music and dramatics. Although some types of mimicry and acting go back almost to earliest recorded history, the actual birth of the Chinese theater was because of young Kuei-fei’s love for the emperor.”

Keye Luke, like most of his race is comparatively short, five feet six. He is somewhat slightly built, weighing some 140 pounds. In spite of his slight build, when chided by a director for pulling his punches in a fight scene, he let fly a sock which knocked out an actor who was 60 pounds heavier than himself.

Another time he spent four months training to be a good swimmer for “Charlie Chan at the Olympics,” but when time came to shoot the script, the director decided to eliminate the swimming sequences.

For “Charlie Chan at the Opera,” he studied voice and actually warbled a bit in the picture. He took his music seriously, studying for a year with Alexander Mirsky, former Metropolitan Opera singer.

For one of the Chan series Keye had to kiss his leading lady, and had a terrible time overcoming the instinctive Chinese aversion to kissing. He was very shy about the whole thing, but the director was firm, so Keye had to go through with it, tradition or no tradition.

But even his screen career hasn’t been able to tempt the Honorable Luke away from his art work. He goes around the film mecca making pen and ink sketches of the great and near-great.

Along with his painting, and he has been called “The Chinese Beardsley,” Keye is somewhat a master of a language or two. His English is perfect as is his Cantonese and Chinese. Oddly enough, he reads French and speaks Spanish, but can not speak French or read Spanish.

Keye doesn’t have much preference as to Chinese or American dishes. He enjoys a hamburger smothered in onions as much as almond duck smothered in apricot sauce.

Keye is one of the most popular young actors in Hollywood, a combination of the best in old China and new America — a great tradition with a new perspective.

Collection: Hollywood MagazineSeptember 1942