Charlie Chan (the forgotten detective)

I call him forgotten because it doesn’t seem like anyone knows of him; who he is or how super his movies are. Kayla and I had to quietly carry him in our hearts till we were able to share them with the H’s. Now we have someone to talk ‘Chan’ with! Hurrah!

The sad thing is, is that I’m going to have to tell you now who Charlie Chan is.

He was a fictional book character that became movies in the 4o’s. Black and white movies. He was a detective from Honolulu, and gave aid to many around the world, but mostly in America. Yep. He’s Chinese, too. He’s very humble, has much wisdom, and for most of the time, isn’t afraid to have one of his older children with him on the case. He’s a family man, which is one of the most wonderful things about him. Another neat thing about him is that he respects and remember those who’ve gone before him; normally mentioned by ‘ancient Chinese ancestors’.

He was portrayed by two different actors; first by Warner Oland who died after doing many films. The young man who had been playing ‘#1 Son’ Lee also stepped down. However, Chan films continued to come with the new actor, Sidney Toler, who was joined not just with the next son ‘#2 Son’ Jimmy, but also ‘#3 Son’ Tommy, ‘#4 Son’ Eddie, ‘#5 Son’, who was a younger boy, and two different daughters, whose names I can’t remember. There are probably others, whose films we haven’t seen yet. In total, Charlie Chan had about 14 children, and in several shows, including the very first that started off Sidney Toler, his ‘#1 Grandson’ joined the pack of a-mentioned offspring. He loves his family very much, and this is portrayed ‘louder’ in the first version especially.

Warner Oland

In the first ‘version’ of Charlie  Chan starring Warner Oland, the stories centered more on him and his fine relationship with ‘#1 Son’ Lee, who was an eager helper and friend to his father. They had lots of good adventures together, and Lee got into enough ‘scrapes’ to conjure up enough humor to balance to the brain scratching.

Charlie Chan and Lee

When Sidney Toler replaced the deceased Warner Oland, bringing in a whole new troop of side characters, it became less about the ‘father/son’ relationship and just more into entertainment, which is still just fine for all of Kayla and I. Still, even though Charlie has two different faces, the films are still really enjoyable and clean.

Sidney Toler

The children were a bit more disrespectful in the new ‘version’ but not o bad that we can’t watch them. Jimmy (my personal favorite) is an over-eager wanna-be-detective  at age 20 whose quick movements normally cause more chaos (and unlike older brother Lee, any help he gives is always accidental). He also has the best facial expressions.  Tommy, #3 son, is in more control of himself, so he’s almost always joined by the spook-frightened, mystery-dodger taxi driver, Birmingham. One mention of murder, and he’s out of the room. He’s really funny…seriously.

Just a sample of Birmingham's facial expressions

The mysteries have almost always been really good and are great ‘whodunits’. There have been several where we’ll all figure out which one is guilty, but there have also been some where the character whom you truly barely suspect becomes the murderer at the end.

One of the neat things of Charlie’s character is all the different ‘Chan’ sayings he sprinkles throughout the films.

“Motive like end of string, tied in many knots- end may be in sight but hard to unravel.” (Speaking of how difficult a mystery might be.)

“Hasty conclusion like hole in water- easy to make.”

“Joy in heart more desirable than bullet.”

“If want wild bird to sing do not put him in cage” (in context of letting suspects be free in surroundings; may give themselves away.)

“When money talk, few are deaf.”

“To destroy false prophet, must first unmask him before eyes of believers.”

“Beware of spider who invites fly into parlor.”

“Expert is someone makes hasty decision and is sometimes right.”

Sometimes the sons will try to copy their father in wise sayings, but they don’t sound quite so intelligent: as Lee said once, “As Pop would say, ‘when woman play with fire, man mostly likely get burned!’ *laughs* Or something like that!”  Jimmy once said a saying for his father; “As Pop would say, ‘Swell head give man more trouble then indigestion’ ”

And when the children really want to argue with their father, or are so excited they can’t control themselves, they slip into Chinese, which probably really isn’t Chinese; it just sounds like it. It’s really rather funny when they start babbling off in a oriental sounding fashion, their faces either wrinkled into giant frowns our exploding with utter excitement.

Jimmy will sometimes get really excited and will start dashing about the house they happen to be in yelling, “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” while flinging open doors hunting for him. Charlie will finally find his shouting son and say calmly, “Why does Son make sound like outboard motor?”

Anyway, I just had to share about the wonderful word of Charlie Chan. Oh, also, if you watch lots of films from this era, you will most likely start recognizing some of the other actors. Kayla and I have recognized actors from Shirley Temple films, Sherlock Holmes films, and even some of the Errol Flynn movies, so it’s neat to see different actors and actresses doing different roles.

So, get some of these films if you can and enjoy them, because they are rare remnants of a type of film that can no longer be found today. And it’s even rarer to watch a film where the detective is a strong father figure–with an eager offspring racing behind!

~Jamie Joyce


3 thoughts on “Charlie Chan (the forgotten detective)

  1. 3 cheers for Charlie Chan! That’s funny the way you were talking about him like he is alive! I like Jimmy alot but Burmingham takes the cake! He’s soo funny!

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