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Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers had been vacationing in Hawaii in 1919, when he read a newspaper account of a Chinese-American detective, Chang Apana, connected with the Honolulu Police Department. Fascinated by the idea of an Oriental hero as a contrast to the ubiquitous Yellow Peril villains of the period, Biggers included an Oriental detective named Chan as a peripheral character in his novel House Without a Key (1925). In the 1926 novel The Chinese Parrot, Chan took center stage, and his successful adventures spanned four more Biggers novels: Behind the Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) and Keeper of the Keys (1932).
The character's most familiar portrayals, however, were in a series of nearly 50 films. By the time of Biggers' death in 1933, all but the last of the novels had been adapted for film (the last was adapted for the New York stage). Contrary to popular belief, Chan was portrayed by Asian actors in his earliest appearances — but not Chinese: The Japanese actors George Kuwa and Sôjin played the detective in his first two films, and E.L. Park, probably a Korean, in his third. None of these portrayals was deemed particularly successful, either by Biggers or by the public.
It was, oddly, a Swede, Warner Oland, who became in the opinion of Biggers and of most fans the ideal embodiment of the character. (Oland had already played Fu Manchu in the movies, and always claimed to be of Mongolian descent himself; he would continue to be in demand throughout the Thirties to play various Asian characters, such as Dr. Yogami in 1935's Werewolf of London.) Oland played the detective in a series of 15 films for Twentieth Century Fox, starting with Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), though many fans believe that his characterization really hit its stride in Charlie Chan in London (1934). Here Charlie assumed his archetypical form: the unassuming, heavily accented but brilliant detective, spouting pseudo-Oriental aphorisms (a Flanderization which Biggers himself cordially disliked), kindly and devoted to his fractious and multifarious family, and often having to endure the feckless co-detecting effort of his thoroughly Americanized Number One Son, Lee, or others of the clan. Chan became a globe-trotter: He rarely remained home in Honolulu, but appeared against a number of glamorous and exotic backgrounds: at the racetrack, at the opera, on Broadway, in London, in Paris, in the Pyramids of Egypt, at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. By the time of Oland's death in 1938, Charlie Chan was one of Fox's most popular and successful film series.
So popular was he, in fact, that the studio refused to let the character die with the actor, and so the Missouri-born Sidney Toler took up the role in 1938's Charlie Chan in Honolulu. His Chan was slightly more acerbic than Oland's, and he was much given to ridiculing the efforts of his Number Two Son, Jimmy (or sometimes Tommy) Chan (Victor Sen Yung). After 11 films, Fox decided to end production of the Chan series, whereupon Toler bought the rights to the character, and proceeded to make another 11 films, with Monogram Pictures, until his death in 1947.
Bostonian Roland Winters (born Winternitz) took up the part in 1947's The Chinese Ring. By now it was apparent that Monogram was determined to milk the franchise for all it was worth, with little regard to quality.
An attempt to transfer the character to television in the person of J. Carroll Naish was made in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1958) with moderate success.
In Hanna-Barbera's 1972 Animated Adaptation, The Amazing Chan and The Chan Clan, Mr. Chan was portrayed for the first time by an actor actually of Chinese descent: Keye Luke, who had played Number One Son Lee Chan in the Oland series of films, and who was later well known as "Blind Master Po" from the popular Kung Fu series of the 1970s.
A pair of Affectionate Parodies appeared as The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness Is a Warm Clue) (1973) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), in which Chan was played by Ross Martin and Peter Ustinov, respectively. (A Chan-based character was also played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 omnibus mystery spoof, Murder By Death.)
In the 1990s, a number of Charlie Chan films were produced in Hong Kong by Chinese production companies. An Italian Chan appeared in 1983. There was talk in the 2000s about a screen adaptation starring Lucy Liu as the granddaughter of the famous detective, but it never came to pass.
Tropes Associated With This Character Include:
- Adaptation Distillation: Generally speaking, the best regarded films are those produced between 1934 and 1939.
- Alliterative Name
- Animated Adaptation: Not only the 1972 Hanna-Barbera series, but also the 1970 Filmation series (See Lawyer-Friendly Cameo, below.)
- Asian Speekee Engrish: Averted for Charlie. Any Chinese in the books more elderly, however...
- Busman's Holiday: Frequently Lampshaded for The Chinese Parrot and Behind That Curtain. The latter being an Immediate Sequel for the former, Charlie's especially anxious to get home. At the end of Behind That Curtain, somebody rushes in, saying there's just been a very unusual murder. When they try to find Charlie, they find he's just gone out the fire escape.
- Catch Phrase: Warner Oland's Chan often said, "Thank you so much." Sidney Toler favored, "Excuse, please," and "Correction, please."
- Character Celebrity Endorsement: In 1935, Warner Oland appeared as Charlie Chan in a short subject to urge the voters of Pennsylvania to vote to allow Sunday showing of motion pictures: "Humble self very much puzzled why one man may play golf game on Sunday and other man cannot see Charlie Chan bring criminal to justice on same day."
- Comic Book Adaptation: Several:
- First, as a Newspaper Comic that ran from 1938-42 (it was cancelled because the white readers didn't want an Asian in the funnies... even though during World War II the Chinese were on the Allied side).
- Then, with now-defunct Comic Book publisher Prize Comics, drawn by none other than Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, otherwise known as the creators of Captain America. When Prize lost the license, the series transferred to Charlton Comics, continuing the same numbering.
- The numbering and the title changed when DC Comics got their hands on Chan and his Number One Son: The New Adventures of Charlie Chan lasted for six issues, the longest consecutive run for any publisher handling the license.
- Dell Comics managed two issues; Gold Key Comics did a 4-issue tie-in to The Amazing Chan and The Chan Clan.
- Cool Car/Transforming Mecha: The Hanna-Barbera cartoon featured "the Chan Van", a vehicle which could transform itself into various modes of transportation from van to station wagon to sports car, etc., at the push of a button. (It makes one mildly uncomfortable to recall that it shared this trait with Hong Kong Phooey's Phooeymobile, though the canine crime-fighter used a gong to trigger the change.)
- Drink Order: Charlie likes his sarsaparilla (a nonalcoholic root beer-like drink).
- Enforced Method Acting: Warner Oland was an alcoholic; his director, "Lucky" Humberton, at times encouraged his drinking, because he found the actor's slightly slurry speech better conveyed the sense of one struggling with a foreign language.
- Which is ironic considering that Charlie Chan himself is a confirmed teetotaler.
- The Exotic Detective: Biggers was first attracted to the character by the exotic quality both of his Honolulu setting and of what was then considered the paradoxical contrast of a non-"Sinister Chinaman".
- Fake Nationality: While remaining Chinese, the character has only once in the Western media been portrayed by a Chinese actor. The animated version was voiced by Keye Luke. Live action versions have been played by Japanese, Korean, and (for the most notable versions) white actors.
- Flanderization: Probably the best-remembered characteristic of the detective is his use of pithy "Oriental" aphorisms — a trait which comes directly from the Warner Oland Filmic Adaptations, and which were the only aspect of those adaptations that Biggers himself disliked.
- Good Hair, Evil Hair: Averted. Charlie's Genghis Khan moustache and (optional) beard, usually reserved for villains, are here merely signs of ethnicity.
- Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: Charlie Chan-type characters show up in a number of works, usually as Affectionate Parodies. For instance:
- In two episodes of Get Smart, Joey Foreman played a Charlie Chan Expy, a Chinese-Hawaiian detective named Harry Hoo.
- In 1970 Filmation's Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? featured a Jerry-ized version of Chan, Flewis Lewis (and his One-Ton Son), both ghastly Ethnic Scrappies.
- In the 1979 film Murder By Death, Peter Sellers plays a Chan-type sleuth named Sydney Wang.
- The Lestrade: Charlie usually has to deal with one of these, especially when he's working on a case outside of Honolulu. However, as a fellow lawman, he understands what they're going through, and always defers to their judgment, such as in Keeper of the Keys. On the other, he's not too unwilling to point out that the Noble Bigot with a Badge isn't quite so noble after all...
- Man in White: Charlie often, though by no means always, dresses in a white linen suit with his iconic Panama hat.
- Missing Episode: Four of the Chan movies from the 1930s, Charlie Chan Carries On, Charlie Chan's Chance, Charlie Chan's Greatest Case, and Charlie Chan's Courage, are lost (though Charlie Chan Carries On survives in a Spanish-language version, Eran Trece).
- Nephewism: Averted. When sidekicks were added to the movies, they were his sons.
- Nepotism: Charlie's sons work with him.
- Nice Hat: Chan invariably wears a Panama hat with a broad brim and rounded crown.
- No Swastikas: An early example of this appeared in 1936's Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which were, of course, held in Berlin that year; all the numerous swastikas that appear (including on the Hindenburg) are carefully blotted out.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Charlie Chan is a master of this trope, often playing up his "foreignness" so people underestimate him.
- The Other Darrin: After three films in which Chan was played by George Kuwa, Sôjin, and E.L. Park, Chan was played in a series of 15 films by Warner Oland until his death in 1938. The series continued with Sidney Toler playing Chan in 22 films, and when he died in 1947, Roland Winters took over the role for 6 films.
- Public Domain: All six books, the comics, the radio plays and most of the movies; check The Other Wiki for more details.
- Shout-Out: In Charlie Chan in Shanghai, Oland sings a song making reference to "the Emperor Fu Manchu", a part he had played himself in previous films. In the same film he asks son Lee Chan (Keye Luke) whether he is selling "Oil for the Lamps of China" — the title of a popular Twentieth Century Fox film in which Luke had just appeared.
- Start to Corpse: Generally pretty short.
- The Teetotaler: Charlie Chan is a teetotaler, but in a bit of double irony he is no fan of a Spot of Tea; he prefers sarsaparilla (a nonalcoholic root beer-like drink).
- Title Drop: Happened in most of the books:
A bird of that sort will repeat anything it hears. So Tony rattles along in two languages. A regular linguist. The ranchers round here call him the Chinese parrot.
- The Watson: Several of these have popped up; his sons took up the role in The Movies, and there was one in almost all of the books.
- Yellowface: Almost all the adaptions of the books to film, TV, etc.
- Yellow Peril: Designed specifically as an aversion.
- You No Take Candle: Excuse, please...humble Chan rarely observe strict English syntax.
- He's more careful with English in the books. Biggers describes him as drawing his English from poetry.
- Interestingly, in both the books and the movies his children are far more adept with the English language... which Charlie sees a rejection of the Good Old Ways. This is touched on very strongly in chapter 13 of The Black Camel titled, appropriately enough, "Breakfast With The Chans."