Charlie Chan, Culture and Race Portrayals

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January 27, 2014 by kittynh

It’s always difficult for the viewer of today to listen to the  confused dialect that was Hollywood’s version of “This is how black people speak”, in the 1930’s -60’s in other movies.  It is  painful to watch any movie that throws in the ”funny black servant” for humor.  It’s one thing to laugh at the drunken Irish handyman in “Bringing Up Baby”, stereotype that he is, but movies seem to be crossing a line when Stepin Fetchit comes on the screen.  The humor that audiences found in his portrayal is lost on most modern audiences.  Indeed, his scenes are often edited or cut out of movies when shown today.

Warner Oland, a Swedish American Actor portray...

Warner Oland, a Swedish American Actor portraying Charlie Chan, a Chinese Hawaiian detective. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been watching the “Charlie Chan” movies, partly because of the tie in between the movies and New England where I now live.  Kay Linaker was a well known local teacher at Keene State College and performed in many of the Chan films.  I wanted to see her performances (she was a screenwriter, as well as actress and teacher, most notably known for writing “The Blob”).  She is incredibly lovely in the films. I especially enjoy the clothing of the period and she looks striking in the evening dresses she is wearing, even when she’s the murderer. A fun part of the Chan pictures is that the same character actors played in many of the films.

I also found what I expected to be uncomfortable, the obvious problem with Charlie Chan being played by a non-Asian, to be mitigated by the obvious fondness between the Asian actors and  2 of actors that portrayed Chan.  The extra features on my DVDs show much respect for the actors, Warner Oland and Sidney Toiler, from their Asian co stars.  The book “Charlie Chan:The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective”, is a good resource for understanding the relationship between the fictional detective and the real Hawaiian detective Chan is based on.  It also features the uneasy relationship between Chan, a made up character by the writer Earl DeBiggers, and the Asian community.  Another reason for watching the films is that Warner Oland had his roots in the Boston area, and his grave is right down the road from where my husband works.  I was curious about this actor.

Cover of "Phantom of Chinatown"

Cover of Phantom of Chinatown

It should be noted for a movie that features a real Asian in the lead, and treats the question of digging up ancient treasures from China to send to the United States, I highly recommend “The Phantom of Chinatown” starring Keye Luke.

At one point Keye Luke jokes that a group of Chinese archaeologists are coming to the United States to dig up the grave or George Washington.  I felt like cheering.

All of which brings us back to Stephin Fetchit.  The problem with some of the Chan films is that when the Fetchit character is on the screen, I can’t understand what he is saying.   I do understand he is playing the role of “the laziest man in the world”, but his slow drawl is almost impossible for me to understand. I wonder if it is because I’m not used to this extreme an amount of “character” or if I am just too uncomfortable with his portrayal.  He was an articulate successful man in real life. Indeed some of his comments are important clues in the movie “Charlie Chan at the Race Track”.   Miss what he says and you miss a clue. I’m glad to have seen an unedited version of the movie, if just to have a historic view of how truly humorless and degrading Hollywood could be.  Chan portrayed by a white person is at least being portrayed in a positive manner.  I’m not sure Chan is truly portraying a Chinese person, rather he is a stereotype.  But Stephin Fetchit is more of a shock for those that have never seen him perform.  He later worked with Civil Rights groups, and work in Hollywood for any black person was based on what the white film community wanted.  Indeed, it’s important that his work be seen for a proper understanding of this was at one time considered hilarious by our great grandparents.

English: Chang Apana (December 26, 1871 – Dece...

English: Chang Apana (December 26, 1871 – December 8, 1933) was a Chinese-Hawaiian member of the Honolulu Police Department, first as an officer, then as a detective. He is the officially-acknowledged inspiration for the fictional Asian detective character, Charlie Chan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other blacks appear in the Chan films. One positive representation is in the movie “Charlie Chan at the Olympics“.  The American team, as portrayed by actors in the film, is seen cheering Jesse Owens to victory.  Chan’s son is there, as is a black female athlete. There is even vintage film of the American team, with Owens clearly visible, that makes the film worth a viewing.  Sadly,  the Birmingham Brown character in the Chan films, while certainly easier to understand than Stepin Fetchit, suffers from the same degrading stereotypes.  Manton Moreland plays Brown, and had a very clever vaudeville act, which he performed with Ben Carter. The act featured an incredibly skillful routine called “Incomplete Sentence”.  Several of the Chan films feature this routine, which shows the skill of this comedic actor.

Watching you see the timing has to be perfect for the “Incomplete Sentence” to work, in fact it is a masterpiece of control of language and body movement.  There can be no doubt about what they are saying, or rather not saying at times.  Far from a mumbling, this routine is a tribute to Moreland and Carter’s ability with the English language.

Also keep in mind, if you want to watch the older Chan films, the leads were often drunk.  It was felt a slightly tipsy Warner Oland and later Sidney Toiler, sounded more Asian.

Also admire the skill of Moreland and Carter.  Check out Keye Luke, who had an incredibly long career in Hollywood, first as an artist and lastly in “Kung Fu”.  Also, the long forgotten “Phantom of Chinatown” needs a peek if just for the George Washington joke.  I recently told a version of that “joke” to someone talking about digging up a remote part of the Middle East.  I wondered when the Afghanistan archaeologists would be over to dig up parts of Jamestown.  It didn’t get much of a laugh.

Keye Luke studio publicity photo while on the ...

Keye Luke studio publicity photo while on the Charlie Chan (movie) cast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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