Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

More Charlie Chan

By David Luhrssen
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I might have been 10 or I might have been 12. It might have been on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon back in the three network days when old B movies were off-time filler on broadcast television. I stumbled across a movie set in a castle in the Mojave Desert, a Gothic fantasy amid the cacti inhabited by an obsessive historian creatively enveloping himself in a medieval environment. The castle had no electricity or telephone (indoor plumbing wasn’t mentioned). The plot concerned the castle’s guests, who kept dropping dead.

Recently I rediscovered this murder mystery on the new DVD set “Charlie Chan Vol. 5.” Castle in the Desert wasn’t unforgettable but it left an impression—it wasn’t great art but well crafted entertainment with an insight or two into human psychology.

The latest installment in a series of Charlie Chan sets features actor Sidney Toler, who replaced Warner Oland after the latter’s death in 1938. My impression is that Oland was a little more fluid than Toler, a little more natural seeming as a Caucasian playing a Chinese detective.

Whether Oland or Toler, the idea of a non-Oriental in a Chinese role has become offensive to contemporary sensibilities—partly because it deprived Orientals of lead roles in Hollywood and partly for easily allowing stereotypes to surface in the depiction. But in the context of their time, few found it strange. Actors were supposed to be able to span time, space and even race in their roles. The Chan movies did walk a fine line between indulging the audience’s stereotypes and overcoming them. Chan was often the victim of bigotry from the dimmer characters in his films, but allowed the slights to slide off his white suit without leaving a stain. In the end, he was always the smartest character in the room.

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