Monday, March 17, 2014

Charlie Chan in Paris

The Sleuthathon is an event dedicated to the great cinematic detectives of the past, hosted by Movies Silently. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.


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.

Charlie Chan in Paris
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.


  1. What a grat post! Your focus and analysis are perfect. At first, it's hard to say th actor playing Charlie Chan was a white man with make-up. It's good that the make-up in Hollywood makes miracles (like with Kate Hepburn in The Dragon Seed), but the stereotypes are just awful. But, as I was thinking yesterday, what can you expect from a society pre-1950s, when the word "pregnant" couldn't be used in I Love Lucy?
    I need to see the Charlie Chan Warner Movies. While I was watching the Philo Vance movies on YouTube, several CC options appeared as a suggestion.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  2. Oh, man, I don't even wanna imagine Kate in yellow-face...

  3. Ah, La Dance Apache - a popular dance depicting the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp was developed in Paris and eventually became a worldwide sensation. You can see it performed and spoofed in many movies of the era up to one of Lucy's attempt to get into a show on "I Love Lucy".

    A few years ago on TCM they had a summer series examining Asians in classic film with a guest host university professor of Asian heritage. He preferred Sidney Toler as Chan because he was less polite. This irritated me on two counts. One, when did polite become a bad thing. Two, although it is not as evident in "...Paris", Warner Oland's Chan had a stock expression of "Thank you, so much" which was said with a withering sarcasm that often went over the heads of other characters, yet sometimes hit its mark.

    If you want to explore the issue further I can recommend an excellent book by by Yunte Huang called "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History".

    It is interesting to note that in his time, Oland as Chan was extremely popular in China. His personal appearances in that country would rival the coming of the Beatles.

    I'm so happy you took the time to check out a Chan picture. The addition of Lee in the form of the personable Keye Luke set the series out of the ordinary. Not many international detectives are family men, let alone grandfathers.

    1. Wow, I totally missed that intonation in Oland's voice. Then again, I didn't expect it.

      Thank you once again for inspiring me. Plus, I knew someone would know about that dance scene!

  4. This is a very thoughtful, fair-minded post, though I'm sorry to see that the casting issue prevented you from having much fun with the film, as that's what these films are to fans of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto et al - pure fun. A lot of this comes down to a personal decision; some people can't get past the "white man in yellow face" deal, and that's certainly understandable, and you make a good point regarding the "paragon-like" nature of the character. Myself, I enjoy the fact that Charlie is always by far the smartest, most capable guy in the room. Oland was always pretty polite, even when giving a backhanded insult to someone who made a nasty or offhandedly racist comment about him; Oland's successor, Sidney Toler, was far more sarcastic with his putdowns in such situations.

    CC IN PARIS isn't my favorite Chan film, but nearly every one with Warner Oland has something to recommend it, IMO. And trust me, compared to Sidney Toler and especially Roland Winters, Oland comes off as FAR more convincing as an Asian. I don't know if this experience has convinced you to give any more CHAN films a try, but just in case, I'd recommend CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT, ...AT THE CIRCUS, ...AT THE RACES, ...AT THE OLYMPICS, ...AT THE OPERA, ...AT TREASURE ISLAND and CASTLE IN THE DESERT (the last two with Toler).

    1. Let's just say that I don't doubt that the fans see it differently than I do and leave it at that.

      Interesting point you made about Sidney Toler. Perhaps one day I'll watch one of his just for comparison.

  5. I've never seen one for the same reason. I was afraid I'd be so distracted by the casting and stereotyping that I couldn't appreciate the film for what it did well. It's always easier with me to contextualize with books. I appreciate this thoughtful approach. Maybe I'll give one a try now....that dance sounds intriguing:)

    1. You're right, with books you can make the characters look and sound however you want.

  6. You make some interesting points about portraying race in movies... You've given me some things to think about.

    Also, so glad you included Charlie Chan in the Sleuthathon!

  7. Well, I figured someone was going to...

  8. Interesting analysis - I want to watch this to make up my own mind about the issue. The first film that introduced me to the 'white-man-playing-Asian' idea was Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's. I remember that was I was scandalised, since then I've avoided anything like Charlie Chan. I don't think I'd be able to enjoy it as a lighthearted caper movie as the stereotyping would always be at the back of my mind...but I might as well give it a chance!

  9. Everyone needs to make up their own mind about things like these.

  10. I enjoyed your thoughts on the racial casting question. I agree that matters of racial insensitivity are issues that all classic movie fans have to deal with-- and we all have our different lines. You made an excellent point about how the casting of CC actually sets up a barrier that modern audiences have difficulty crossing.
    Wonderful writing! And thanks for your contribution!

  11. I enjoyed your thoughts on Hollywood casting in the 1930s. For some reason, Warner Oland, who was Swedish, had been cast as Asians since the silent days. He played Fu Manchu in a series of early talkies, with Myrna Loy as his daughter. If you get a chance, look for the silent Old San Francisco (where he played a -- gasp -- half-breed) or the talkie Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.

  12. Fu Manchu, huh? Maybe playing CC was his way of redeeming himself for that.

  13. A great choice to write about for the Sleuthathon, Rich! I never understood why Asians weren't permitted "starring" roles in Hollywood either and in some films it has really turned me off ( Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed for example ), but I must disagree with you when it comes to Charlie Chan. I thought Oland ( and Sidney Toler ) both did a great job of bringing Biggers' Charlie Chan to life. When the films begin, I am immersed in the story and the characters and don't see Charlie as a white-man-playing-an-Asian. In fact, many times the writers went out of their way to make Charlie Chan stand out as more noble and caring then most of the characters ( which were usually a scurvy lot of suspects ). Someday though, I would like to see Charlie Chan brought back to the screen and this time, played by an Chinese actor. A SERIOUS mystery film...not a spoof. Which, come to think about it.....why hasn't that been done already?

  14. Probably because a movie like that doesn't lend itself well to superpowers and explosions.


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