Warner Oland: Charlie Chan Was a Swede

Warner Oland (1879-1938) was an October 3 baby. Swedish by birth, Oland is most famous today for playing the stereotypical detective character Charlie Chan in a series of films, as well as the evil supervillain Dr. Fu Manchu, and numerous other faux Asian characters, as well as other roles in classic pictures in the teens, twenties and thirties. He immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of 13.

After his schooling in Boston, he became an actor, making it to Broadway as early as 1902 at the age of 23 in The Eternal City. He would be in nine Broadway shows over the next decade, including Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1904-1905), and Ibsen’s The Master Builder and A Doll’s House (both 1907 and starring Alla Nazimova, with whom he went on tour). In 1907 he married wealthy Boston socialite and playwright Edith Gardener Shearn, with whom he collaborated on translations of Strindberg’s The Father and The Stronger, in which he appeared in 1912 and 1913.

“I…heff…no…SON!” Oland in “The Jazz Singer”

In 1912 he appeared in his first film, an adaptation of Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Some of his earliest films were opposite screen vamp Theda Bara: Sin (1915), Destruction (1915), and The Etrnal Sapho (1916). He did some Wharton serials, like Beatrice Fairfax (1916) and Patria (1917), the latter with Irene Castle. It was at this point he began getting cast as Asians, usually villains, purportedly on account of the shape of his eyes. Many of his characters had names like Wu Fang, Li Hsun, Charlie Yong, and Fu Shing. With Douglas Fairbanks he is in Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), and the semi-talkie Don Juan (1926). This led to his being cast as the Cantor Rabinowitz in the seminal The Jazz Singer (1927).

He was in Fu Manchu films from 1929 to 1931. Later the character would be played by Boris Karloff, which is especially amusing given that in the 1931 film The Drums of Jeopardy Oland played a character named…Dr. Boris Karlov.

He’s in a few stand alone movies that have become classics, such as Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong; an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1934) with Garbo; and the horror classic Werewolf of London (1935), with Henry Hull, who shares his same birthday, as it happens. Then there were the Charlie Chan films — 16 of them from 1931 until his death, and more were planned.

Whether or not it was the type of roles (or in the end, role) he was getting (after all, he’d done Shakespeare, Ibsen and Strindberg on Broadway), Oland developed a serious booze problem, and in 1938 it all came crashing down. His wife divorced him, shooting was halted on Charlie Chan at the Ringside, he caused an embarrassing public incident (drunkenly throwing his shoes at passers-by), and finally he sickened and died of pneumonia. The Mr. Moto films starring Peter Lorre were quickly devised to fill the void left by Chan. Peter Sellers would later lampoon both the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu characters towards the end of his own life and career. The Gods of Good Fortune…Do Not Smile…On He Who Perpetuates Stereotypes.

Yes, but you can only carry on so long


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