Warner Oland the Swede — A Chinaman Who Isn’t (1936) 🇬🇧
Every kind of synthetic foreigner is to be met within the film world, but very few as convincing as the one here described.
by E. G. Cousins
I was born in the Orient, and for years I mixed with Chinese; I do not, therefore, subscribe to the general belief that
- all Chinese look alike;
- a Chinaman is merely a European with his eyebrows turned up at the corners like Mephistopheles and obscure villainy in his heart.
The latter theory has always been particularly repugnant to me. I can no more accept a European made up to resemble a Chinaman on the stage or the screen than I can take a “blacked-up” white man seriously as a negro.
And, like all rules, this has an exception — Oland the Swede.
I’ve known a mandarin who looked like Warner Oland and had exactly his deliberate courtesy of manner; I’ve also known a Chinese professor of philosophy who spoke very much as Oland speaks — not with quite the same ornate phraseology, but slowly, sententiously, with an abundance of imagery, and an underlying appreciation of the absurdity of life.
So strong is the resemblance that I have to remind myself (when remembrance is desirable) that he is a European.
And yet he came into movies as an opera-singer! Precious little chance he has had to sing, it’s true, but it was opera that tempted him.
He had been touring in stock companies through America (whither he had gone with bis father, mother, sister, and brothers as a boy of fourteen), but opera was his first love.
And when he was first offered film work in 1914 — at a time when to suggest motion pictures to an actor was tantamount to saying he was a failure on the stage — he only accepted because the company was proposing to film grand opera!
Once in, however, the actor found that the new medium had a fascination of its own; and, although the opera did not materialise, he stayed.
For years we knew him as a black-hearted villain.
In Old San Francisco, Chinatown Nights, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, Shanghai Express, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu — through all these pictures his ominous figure, ponderous, malignant, moved and struck terror to our hearts.
Then, suddenly, came the detective Charlie Chan, and we had a glimpse of a different Warner Oland — a man who could be as debonair as John Barrymore, as whimsical as George Arliss, as pleasantly impressive as Jean Hersholt.
And yet when Fox were searching everywhere for someone to fill the role of Chan, they tested twenty players before anyone ever thought of trying Oland.
And what a success he has been in the part!
Charlie Chan may now be reckoned among the best assets of Twentieth Century-Fox; he goes on year after year at the rate of three or four films a year, gradually circling the entire globe, and running uncannily true to form.
Mr. Chan’s sponsors take him very seriously — so seriously that they have actually drawn up a list of rules to be applied to his pictures.
This is a wise move, for many a well-known screen character has faded out because he or she has done something inconsistent with the public’s idea of the probabilities.
Mr. and Mrs. Oland had a great time on the ship returning to U.S.A., playing with the souvenirs they had picked up in China.
Here is the “Charlie Chan Code of Fair Play,” which is said to be the first formula for murder ever compiled:
- The audience must have opportunities equal to those of Charlie Chan in solving the mystery. No special knowledge or clues shall be given to him and withheld from the spectator.
- The murderer must not be an obscure character who is seen but briefly in the picture.
- The murderer must not be a crazed person, nor one mentally incompetent.
- The murderer must not be a servant.
- It shall not develop that any detective is the murderer.
- The murder must not turn out to be a suicide.
- Physical clues must lead to the murderer. (None of your “I saw it in a dream” stuff for Charlie!)
- The murderer must not be made to reveal himself by means of any form of hypnotism.
- The murderer must have a fifty-fifty chance to outwit Charlie Chan and escape undetected.
- Police officials and detectives must not be made to appear stupid.
- Charlie Chan must always solve his problems by mental agility, by outwitting his foes; never by physical force.
- In dialogue he must never be sarcastic; he must never ridicule.
- He is an ideal family man and deeply attached to Mrs. Chan and the innumerable Chan children.
- Charlie Chan must always be a regular fellow.
Imagine a British studio trying to produce a picture under such limitations! If it didn’t come to grief on Rules 1 to 9 (which is extremely unlikely), it would certainly be ship-wrecked on Rule 10.
To the British producer the British policeman is almost invariably a blundering, incompetent dimwit.
Anyway, this set of rules provides a good part of the reason why Charlie Chan is one of the most popular detectives in the world — not only in America and Europe, but even in the land of his screen adoption.
Warner Oland hasn’t yet tackled the task of translating his Chinese fan mail, but he was delighted when Keye Luke, who played his son in Charlie Chan in Shanghai, deciphered an epistle from an admirer of Charlie Chan — in Shanghai.
It was in beautifully inscribed Chinese characters, and read:
“Dear Chan Charlie” (as you may know, in Chinese the surname comes first), — “Although 6,000 miles apart, your voice is among us. Our minds are conscious of you. The pictures you play make us admire you. I am one of those many admirers.
“Although you are not of the Chinese race, you have expressed in your acting the ancient Chinese civilisation. We are deeply appreciative of a man of your race to do anything like that for us.
“Hoping that you will make more pictures of that calibre, not only that it brightens our silver screen, but also a duty to educate the rest of the world.
“Wishing great success, — (Miss) Wang Pi Dack.”
That’s a pretty high tribute to a man who had never even been to China, and met few, if any, of the class of Chinese whom he represents — for, as a rule, the cultured Chinese do not settle in America — except the diplomats at Washington.
But Warner Oland — or Charlie Chan; they are practically one and indivisible — has remedied that omission.
He and his wife have just been, via Japan, to Hong Kong, and thence to China, where they visited Shanghai and Peking; whether he hopes to become even more Chinese in his next film, I don’t know, but I don’t see how he can.
And now that he is back he will make three more Chan pictures under his newly signed contract with Twentieth Century-Fox.
These will be the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth of the series — and he has already beaten all records for any motion-picture series. His twelfth is “Charlie Chan at the Race Track”, which has been temporarily held up by a poisoned foot.
Provided his sponsors keep to the rules they have laid down for themselves and keep faith with the audience, I don’t see why Charlie Chan shouldn’t go on solving mysteries in picture after picture for years to come.
And I hope I shall see them all.
Collection: Picturegoer Magazine, July 1936
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