Impossible? Or perhaps inevitable we will see the return of Charlie Chan on film? If you think no one’s thought about it here are two attempts (though they never came about) to feature Russell Wong (1997) and Lucy Liu (2006) as additions to the Chan Family.
But I’ll be candid! I’m not speaking of the more comedic Charlie Chan of the 1930s-’40s films. The guy who let loose with fortune-cookie wisecracks like, “He who feeds the chicken, deserves the egg.” I’m referring to the serious character inside the novels–the original detective Author Earl Derr Biggers first penned. The Chinese-Hawaiian detective discriminated against even by the very suspects he investigated! Who was not shy at verbal-sparing, though he struggled with English, and could quote from ancient philosophers, such as Confucius, Socrates and Buddha, “A golden bed cannot cure the sick, and good manners cannot produce a good man.” And definitely not a Fu Manchu-mustached version of film with taped eyelids. No, I’m speaking of the literary Chan:
As they went out, the third man stepped farther into the room, and Miss Minerva gave a little gasp of astonishment as she looked at him. In those warm islands thin men were the rule, but here was a striking exception. He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting. As he passed Miss Minerva he bowed with a courtesy encountered all too rarely in a work-a-day world, then moved on after Hallet.The House Without a Key, Chapter VII
Today, January 1st, 2021, after 95 years the first Charlie Chan novel The House Without a Key (1925) crosses over to the public domain (Happy New Year!) The remaining five stories will follow suit one-by-one through 2027. And to my understanding, inside the movie industry that isn’t too far off to start planning! So, the field will be wide open for Guy Richie, The Russo Brothers, or current copyright holders 20th Century Studios (previously 20th Century-Fox Film) to capitalize on a phenomenon that was the longest running Hollywood film epic to feature a classic American detective at the box-office! Think not? Read on.
From 1926 to 1949, Charlie Chan solved 47 cases around the world on the Silver Screen! (one serial and 46 feature films.) Adventures in Paris, Egypt, London, China, at the circus, at the race track, in the wax museum, at Coney Island and many more locations brought pleasure and entertainment to millions around the globe. However, with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) in force, then the onslaught of WWII, he eventually faded into obscurity…“Sorry Charlie!” And although not very often, those films still make their way onto TCM, Movies TV and locally syndicated stations.
But perhaps the biggest reason for never seeing a revival for this one-time hero of American literature and film, has been the recoil of the character’s portrayal by Caucasians in “yellow face.” Many actors have played the part of Asians, including: Mary Pickford, Mickey Rooney, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Leonard Nimoy, David Suchet, Eddy Murphy, David Carradine, Sean Connery, Colin Firth; and the most appalling portrayal (for the detective) Peter Ustinov in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. And while there may be other reasons for discontent with Chan, the whitewashing inside the film industry stands out!
So I ask you…is it time? Would it not be scant reparation to finally see a Charlie Chan movie with one of today’s exceptional Asian actors in the role of Detective Chan? There was an actual detective you know! And he faced similar challenges as the first Chinese to serve on a primarily Caucasian and Hawaiian police force in the Kingdom of Hawaii (see my April 2020 blog.) Could this be the leveling field, serving to illustrate how it should have played out with an Asian actor successfully portraying this real-life detective (probably not possible at the time?) And could such a revival again–as the originals novels and films did–serve as a form of détente between our two cultures? Like it or not, Detective Charlie Chan remains one of the most prominent emerging characters in American mystery fiction history, sealed forever in the archive of this literary genre. Case in point, this month (almost a century later) Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press will re-issue Biggers’ first Chan Novel The House Without a Key (1925) as an ebook under their “Traditional American” page-link!
My choice to portray Charlie Chan? A Chan without the Fu Manchu mustache. Without an African-American Chauffeur or Sons No. 1, 2, or 3 providing silly comic relief. The wise intelligent version from the novels, who spoke the wisdom of philosophers like Buddha, Confucius and the I Ching and not the wisecracks of Hollywood writers. The man who helped battled xenophobia and racism during a time it was at it’s worst in America (OK, that’s debatable…) For me, one particular gentleman comes to mind. A man who has achieved fame in a variety of film genres, and who I envision as more closely aligned to the seriously crafted novels; British Actor Benedict Wong!
Do you have a particular Asian Actor you think would best portray the detective, today? Or perhaps you feel Detective Chan has outlived his cinematic career and should stay buried in the past? If you need a refresh check out Ranker.com’s list of Biggest Asian Actors in Hollywood. See you back at the movies (perhaps someday?)
“The Fates are busy, and man may do much to assist”
Charlie Chan, The House Without a Key, 1925, Chapter 5