Saturday, September 5, 2009

Charlie Chan: Oland or Toler (or maybe even Winters)?




The Popcorn Flick was a Saturday afternoon film showcase on local television when I was a child. It featured popular series from the golden age of Hollywood like Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, Ma and Pa Kettle with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, the Andy Hardy Series and others. You get the idea. Along with Shock Theater, another local T.V. cornucopia of old films (this one featuring classic Universal horror reels), the Popcorn Flick was one of my first experiences with classic movies and their stars. Once such character driven film set I was introduced to as a 7 year-old, who thoroughly enjoyed these things (what??!) was Charlie Chan. Though I first became aware of the Oriental detective, whose sleuthing skills took him to the Opera, the Circus (both 1936) and even to the Olympics (1937), very young, I didn't actually understand or enjoy these films until the ripe old age of 11 or so.


Three actors portrayed the low-key snoop during his popular run in the 1930's and 1940's, none of which were actually of Asian descent (there were a handful of obscure portrayals other than these well known ones). The first was Warner Oland, a Swedish actor, who played Chan until his death in 1938, when Sidney Toler, who was of Scottish American descent, took over the role. Finally upon Toler's death in 1947, Boston born Roland Winters finished out the final installments in the late 40's.
Although I have my personal favorite Chan actor, I ask, if you have ever seen any of these classic whodunits, who is your favorite?

15 comments:

  1. Oland is my favourite, but I enjoy them all! (I also like the Mr Wong films with Karloff so, as you can see, I'm a hopeless case.)

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  2. I'll take Oland, who also turned in a fine fire-breathing portrayal as Jolson's stern father in "The Jazz Singer." While I've not yet seen Roland Winters tackle the role, I used to espy him, in his later years, ensconced with pals at the grill room at New York's fabled actors' club "The Players." He would booze and play cards and appeared every inch the distinguished theatrical gentleman.

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  3. Going to have to go with Warner Oland on this one, although to be fair, I haven't seen any of the Winters films.

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  4. I know Charlie Chan is totally un-pc, but I love the films. They are just plain fun who-dunits. My favorite Charlie Chan is Warner Oland, but I do like the others as well.

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  5. I'll have to with Warner Oland, too. His movies are better...fresher than the ones that followed, so that probably skews my opinion. Hey, are Peter Ustinov and Ross Martin not included as candidates in this discussion? (Just joking!)

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  6. I only remember Oland as my Charlie Chan-so I will have to go with him.

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  7. I too liked Oland's portrayal of Al Jolson's irate, religious father in The Jazz Singer, but I have yet to watch a Charlie Chan movie.

    I have, however, seen all eight of the Mr. Moto movies with Peter Lorre. They were the same studio with many of the same writers and even actors as many of the Charlie Chan flicks. The ideas were very similar too. I loved the Mr. Moto films, but I am sucker for a good Peter Lorre flick. Maybe layter this year I'll get my hands on some Charlie Chan...

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  8. I watched these movies on the Friday/Saturday night late show as a kid. I will have to vote for Oland as well.

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  9. Toler is to Chan what Rathbone is to Holmes. . .all others are merely cheap copies. . .

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  10. Sidney Toler, he was serious and funny at the same time. His spats with Jimmy were hilarious, as were his lines with Birmingham.

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  11. Sidney Toler for me too. I first saw these films as a kid on tv in the '60s and into the '70s and have fond memories of them. As hard as may be to believe, in many ways tv was better before the advent of cable. There was the late show, the late, late show and sometimes the late, late, late show! Also, movies in the afternoon and early evening. It was wonderful.

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    1. I totally agree with you! Some of my very best movie memories were in the late 70's before cable or in the very early years of it before there were a dozen or more movie channels.

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  12. Toler leaves the rest of them in the dust. He has a depth and nuance lacking in the others. He made the role his own. His body language, facial expressions, pronunciation, gestures--all perfectly integrated into a unique portrayal of Charlie Chan. He was affable, fearless, calm, dignified, but with a sly sense of humor and irony. You just have to love him.

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  13. Sidney Toler was okay but for me Warner Oland was the best.

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