Because I was so bothered by my recent viewing of The Mask of Fu Manchu, I was a little nervous about watching the Charlie Chan movies for the first time. Shouldn't have been though.
I'm not inherently offended by yellowface. I would be if it were to take place today, but I don't feel the same ickiness watching it in its historical context that I do when watching Bing Crosby do blackface in Holiday Inn, for example. I don't know why that is and it's possibly indefensible, but in the case of the Charlie Chan movies -- at least in the Warner Oland ones -- I was able to accept it and move on. Maybe it's the fact that Oland (unlike, say, Boris Karloff) makes a pretty convincing Chinese man. Or maybe it's the fact that the other Asians in the series were played by actual Asians. Or maybe it's just the fact that Charlie Chan is such an intelligent, likable character anyway and I was utterly charmed by him.
It's amazing to me that the same time period that spawned the Yellow Peril movies also saw the popularity of the Chan films. You might not have been able to cast an Asian man in a lead role in the '30s, but that you could make a main character out of one is remarkable. My first thought -- overly sensitive maybe from the Fu Manchu experience -- was that Chan is so humble and self-deprecating that he may have put audiences more at ease. He certainly does embody some negative stereotypes. But they're far outweighed by the positive image he portrays and I don't think it's fair to say that the negative ones are what endeared him to moviegoers.
He doesn't play dumb because no one will accept a Chinese man as a serious detective. That's obviously not the case because in the four films I watched he's taken very seriously and is highly respected by everyone who knows him. He makes light of himself because he knows that criminals will underestimate him and slip up. He's sort of a precursor to Columbo that way.
Charlie Chan in London is the fifth Chan movie to star Oland. The first one, The Black Camel, is still around, but it's apparently not representative of the series. The next three have been lost, so London is the first one of what people usually think of when they think of Charlie Chan movies. In it, Chan transports a criminal he caught in Hawaii to England and gets asked to prove a murder convict's innocence by catching the real killer. It's a nice little cozy mystery; all takes place at an English country manor, complete with fox hunt.
Charlie Chan in Paris has him continuing his world tour by investigating a French bank suspected of forging bonds. It captures the flavor of Paris in the same way that Disney's Epcot Center does, but even if it's not authentic, it's a wonderful, romantic view of the city where even the sewers look like fun to roam around in. It's also a notable movie because it introduces Chan's son Lee into the films. I'm the oldest son in my family and my dad often called me "Number One Son" when I was growing up. I've always known that was a Charlie Chan reference, but this was the first time I'd actually seen Chan and son operate together. Keye Luke is awesome as Lee.
Next is Charlie Chan in Egypt, which would be my favorite of the four I watched except for one element. Stepin Fetchit is at best annoying; at worst an incredibly offensive '30s stereotype of Black men. He's a controversial figure though, because while most non-White actors in the '30s had a hard time putting food on their tables, Stepin Fetchit was the Eddie Murphy of his day (in the sense that he was hugely popular with moviegoers) and made a fortune playing the character he created. I guess White audiences loved his act back then, but he's rarely funny (he did have a couple of good lines) to today's ears. I finally decided that the best thing for me to do was to imitate Chan in the film and just ignore him as much as possible.
What's great about Egypt though is its Scooby Doo plot with a hidden treasure, an Egyptian curse, lots of suspects, and a villain who dresses up as a ghost to scare off the curious.
What ended up being my for real favorite was Charlie Chan in Shanghai which reintroduces Keye Luke and has Chan working with American Intelligence to catch some smugglers. I don't want to give anything away, but there's some great cat-and-mouse going on as Chan and the bad guys try to outwit each other. Keye Luke as Lee Chan is especially cool this time as he tries to manage a love life around his responsibilities to his dad and the case. Charlie never does call Lee his Number One Son though. Maybe that comes later in the series.
All in all, the Warner Oland Chan films are a lot of fun, mainly because the lead character is so lovable. I'm very curious now to check out the Sidney Toler version and see how those compare.