The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past entries, visit the home site.
seen online via YouTube
Recently at the TCM blog, Movie Morlocks, there was a piece that discussed casting against race, gender or sexual orientation. This is an issue that has come up recently in relation to the Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club, specifically Jared Leto's portrayal of a trans woman, which has come under heavy criticism from various sources (though he has his defenders too). There was one incident in which Leto was openly challenged by a woman at a screening for taking such a part. Leto, to his credit, engaged her in conversation, but the resentment over his casting still lingers among some.
It's really difficult to judge when this sort of thing is appropriate and when it isn't, or if it ever is. I tend to think in some cases, I would rather see more movies that are rooted in the direct experiences of the "other," whether that other is black, Korean, disabled, lesbian, or what have you, as opposed to, for instance, substituting a minority character for a traditionally white character (why cast a black actor as the Human Torch in a Fantastic Four movie out of a misguided sense of political correctness when you can put that same actor in a Black Panther movie instead?).
At the same time, however, I can't deny that I have enjoyed certain movies with actors cast against race, gender or sexual orientation. Shakespeare, for example, has provided a number of opportunities for casting of this type, on the stage as well as in film, and no one complains. So like I said, this is not a situation with an easy solution. I honestly don't think there is one.
That said, what about those times when racial prejudice was a factor? We know that the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood did not embrace actors of color - at least, not in large numbers, and certainly not in a wide variety of roles. Therefore, you had things like Amos and Andy played by white guys imitating black guys. You had actors like Myrna Loy and Marlon Brando playing minorities. Meanwhile, actual actors of color were placed into a small box and told not to stray from that box (though many of them, to their credit, still managed to thrive, even while within that box).
It's a fact one learns to live with while appreciating classic Hollywood as a whole, but for a time, I set boundaries for myself in terms of what I would and would not watch. The Charlie Chan movies were one such boundary. I had no interest in seeing a white guy play an Asian, and I figured that was the end of it. However, over the past few years of writing this blog, as I got to know more and more classic film bloggers, I saw that there was genuine appreciation for these movies among people I like and respect, and I realized that there may come a day when I'd have to reevaluate my opinion.
Paddy's recent piece on a CC movie kinda sealed the deal for me, and when I saw this blogathon announced, I chose to use the opportunity to finally sit down with one. At first I figured it didn't matter which one I watched, but since Paddy said that the ones with Warner Olund were the best, that's what I went with. I picked Charlie Chan in Paris because this is the first one with Keye Luke, an actual Asian, in the role of Lee, CC's "number one son," and I wanted to see how the two played off each other.
To the best of my memory, the first time I can recall seeing the Charlie Chan character was as a Peter Sellers' parody in the movie Murder By Death. At the time, I was vaguely aware of the fact that he was doing a riff on CC, but I don't think I realized how close to the real thing it was. CC doesn't really speak in broken English with fortune cookie-style aphorisms, does he?
He does. When I look at Oland's CC, I don't see a Pacific Islander of Chinese descent; I see a white guy's version of same. Still, I did my best to examine the movie and the character on its own merits and ignore the casting. I'm aware that CC is based on a series of books. I'm sure the author believed he was making a heroic minority character, and indeed, CC is intelligent, polite to a fault, a caring father, and brave - all admirable qualities in any character.
But that's also part of the problem. Watching Charlie Chan in Paris, I was reminded of the 60s roles of Sidney Poitier, in which he had to be so much more intelligent and flawless and good than anyone else because in a real sense, he was representing Black People in General and therefore he had to be a Positive Role Model, as opposed to a three-dimensional character.
I got a similar impression with CC - to an extent. There's a scene early on in which he meets a friend of a friend (both white, of course). This guy's drunk, and upon meeting CC, he thinks it's a real laugh to speak in Engrish, and is taken aback at seeing that CC's English, while far from perfect, is better than he thought. No one calls the drunk on his racism, of course; everybody treats it as a big laugh, including CC.
I'm willing to bet that CC had to respond that way. I imagine that he had probably encountered plenty of people just like this racist drunk throughout his life, but that he had to hold his tongue, not only for the sake of his career as a detective, but because he was an Asian moving within white society, which meant that he thrived at their sufferance - as long as he remained clever and gentlemanly and "that Chinese friend" that white people could point to and say with pride that they're not prejudiced. (We see in this movie that CC has friends in high places.)
This would make for very poignant and rich subtext, except for one thing: CC is played by a white guy in yellow-face, and as a result, I can only take this character so seriously. Whenever I tried to examine the character in some depth, I kept coming up against this basic fact and he became less real to me. Plus, when one compares him to similar cinematic detectives of the period - Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, even Nick Charles - CC comes across as fairly two-dimensional... but that's what happens when you have a paragon instead of a character.
And then there's Keye Luke. As Lee Chan, he speaks perfect English, unlike his father, and there is a definite rapport between Luke and Oland that's nice to see. I imagine that Lee probably had better educational opportunities than his father (is CC an immigrant? The movie says he's from Honolulu, but Hawaii wasn't a state yet). Could Lee be considered an example of assimilation into white culture? Does Lee consider himself more American than Chinese? Are there ever moments when he's embarrassed of his father for not being "American enough?" Maybe I'm reading way too much into the character, but I think they're aspects worth exploring - with actual Asian characters playing the parts.
Overall, I'd have to say that Charlie Chan isn't as outright terrible as I thought he might be (though if I were Chinese I might feel differently), but at the same time, it's difficult for me to fully invest in him as a character because of the casting.
This is supposed to be set in Paris, but you'd never know it; almost no familiar Paris landmarks are seen, and no one even tries to speak with a French accent. Hardly unusual for the time, but they could've gone a little further in selling the illusion. Plus, this movie has the wackiest dance sequence I think I've ever seen in a classic movie. A man and woman perform a dance in a cafe that's a bizarre combination of sex and violence; the woman gets twirled around and thrown across the floor, there's hints of S&M involved, and in the end she gets literally thrown out a window! It would come across as parody anywhere else but I think it was meant to be played straight. This might have been the best part of the whole movie.