Charlie Chan Profile
Who is Charlie Chan?
Charlie Chan — b. 1925 d. Never!
Eggs should not dance with stones.
Theory like balloon — easy to blow up, quick to explode.
Insignificant molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain.
No, they’re not the aphorisms of Confucius. They’re the words of the man who may have caused an entire generation of Westerners to accept the idea of “Chinese wisdom.” He accomplished this feat not in a school or library, but in a movie theatre. He is Charlie Chan, the detective whose adventures still fascinate mystery-lovers of the present.
Charlie Chan wasn’t entirely a fictional creation. The author Earl Derr Biggers fashioned him after a real-life detective in Honolulu named Chang Apana. The character appeared in six novels, the first of which was The House Without a Key, but it was his presence in more than forty movies that Charlie Chan replaced the then-pervasive image of the devious, sinister “Oriental villain” (such as Fu Manchu) with that of a calm, insightful, and never-failing sleuth who prevailed no matter how clever his adversary, or how much bumbling interference he experienced from one of his several wannabe sons.
Several actors have portrayed Charlie Chan on the screen, with little variation in their potrayals. Despite his Honolulu home base, few of his adventures were in Hawaii. Charlie Chan was probably the widest-traveled detective in fiction. You could find him in London, Paris, Egypt, Shanghai, Panama, Rio and Reno, New York and New Orleans, and a dozen other locales where baffling cases of Murder and Grand Larceny were waiting to be solved. He was sent to the Opera, the Race Track, the Circus, the Olympics, even to a Wax Museum. Some of Hollywood’s finest and most charistmatic actors of the period accompanied him: Boris Karloff, Bela Logusi, Lionel Atwill, Caesar Romero , Leo G. Carroll, Pauline Moore, Lon Chaney, Jr. And, of course, his Number One or Number Two Son was always there to assist their father in unraveling the mystery, invariably becoming more hindrance than help.
One interesting aspect of the Charlie Chan stories is cross-culturization. Charlie, being both Chinese, Hawaiian (and therefore American) is also anxious to preserve the ideals of his ancestry. His cases become especially interesting when the cultures of East and West clash, adding an unusual and intriguing element to the crime-fiction genre. (And speaking of cross-culturization, the first actor to portray Charlie Chan was Swedish!)
Audiences fell in love with Charlie Chan, to such an extent that it gave birth to what can only be called a “Charlie Chan Industry.” Not only were his movies popular, but there was a Charlie Chan radio series from 1932 to 1948, offering such stellar voices as Ed Begley, Walter Connally, and Santos Ortega. After the last Charlie Chan movie set was struck, Charlie was reincarnated on television, with J. Carrol Naish in the title role. There was even a Charlie Chan comic strip, and an animated series for children, of which the less said the better. The late Ross Martin made a pilot of “The Return of Charlie Chan” which included Leslie Nielson in the cast, but it never made the cut.
Fortunately, many of the Charlie Chan films are available as Charlie Chan videos or Charlie Chan DVDs, and now a new generation can experience their unique blend of crime detection and comedy. Charlie Chan mysteries and books about Charlie Chan are also available. Most important, the video medium can bring them one of the most original and entertaining characters in fiction.
It seems likely that the distinctive charm and wisdom of Charlie Chan may never fade from our consciousness.
Henry Slesar, two-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, has a prodigous output of mystery fiction, including several hundred published stories, seven novels, three features, a hundred primetime teleplays. He scripted more stories for Alfred Hitchcock than any other writer, and was headwriter of the mystery-based daytime serial “The Edge of Night” for fifteen years.