This is all too evident in the fate of Charlie Chan in recent years. The portly Chinese detective was created in the early 1920s by Ohio-born author Earl Derr Biggers, who correctly envisioned Chan as an interesting new kind of detective and as an antidote to the then-common popular-fiction treatment of Asians as sinister, heartless villains. Sax Rohmer’s supervillain Fu Manchu was only the most obvious example of the latter.
Charlie Chan, based on a real, Chinese police detective from Hawaii, Chang Apana, was the polar opposite of those fictional Asian evildoers: a brilliant detective with understandably limited facility in the English language, his powers of observation, logic, and personal rectitude and humility made him an exemplary, entirely honorable character. The public agreed, making the series of six novels an instant success after its initial volume, The House Without a Key, appeared in 1925. The mysteries in the novels were not particularly strong; Chan’s character was what carried the books and made them bestsellers and a serious cultural force.
It was only natural that the movie industry would try to capture this magic on film, and after a couple of false starts the Fox studio hit on a successful formula with Swedish-born actor Warner Oland in the lead role. Between 1931 and his death in 1938, Oland starred in 16 Charlie Chan films for the Fox studio. His is considered the definitive cinematic representation of the character, brilliantly expressing Chan’s peaceful heroism and insightful aphorisms. Oland was followed by Sidney Toler and then Roland Winters in the role, as the series continued until 1949. The films declined in budgets, quality, and popularity after World War II, but the movies gained a great following on television in subsequent decades.
So, why haven’t you seen Charlie Chan on TV lately? As I reported in National Review Online in 2003, the company that owns the TV rights to the best of the Chan films, Fox Movie Channel, refuses to show them and won’t license the rights to anybody else. The reason the network gave at the time was that ethnic groups had complained:
Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today. As a result of the public response to the airing of these films, Fox Movie Channel will remove them from the schedule.
This was a thoroughly disingenuous claim. The groups that were complaining were not objecting to particular “situations or depictions” that made Chinese people look bad. Quite the contrary, the Charlie Chan in the films was just as laudable as the character in the novels. No, what the ethnic rabble-rousers were largely complaining about was that the Chinese character had been played by a Swede. So, to get their revenge on long-dead Fox film producers, the ethnic advocacy groups persuaded the chicken-hearted current-day Fox execs to suppress these films about a wonderful, exemplary Asian-American character. The irony is truly mind-boggling.
Interestingly, there were black characters in the films who were sometimes too broadly comical in their presentation, but there has been relatively little protest about that. Actually, these characters are much more likeable than the largely Caucasian murder suspects, and the performances by Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, and Mantan Moreland in the series are brilliant comic turns that should be treasured by people of all ethnic origins, certainly not suppressed.
But the political correctness police had spoken, and despite the expense Fox had gone to in restoring the Chan films with new, clean prints, the Fox Movie Channel bent to the pressure from ethnic advocacy groups and suppressed the films completely. At the time of Fox’s decision, however, I stated that the studio would probably release the films on DVD at some point, to recoup their money.
That time is now. Fox has just released Charlie Chan, Volume 1, which includes four of the best Chan films, from the mid-1930s: Charlie Chan in London, Charlie Chan in Paris, Charlie Chan in Egypt, and Charlie Chan in Shanghai. These films were originally released in 1934 and 1935 and are a superb introduction to both the character and the series. Highlights abound: London includes an early performance by Ray Milland, Paris has some very atmospheric scenes set in the Paris sewers, Egypt includes similarly claustrophobic and suspenseful scenes in ancient Egyptian tombs (plus a superb comic performance by Stepin Fetchit), and Shanghai gives us a deeper look at Charlie’s family relationships. In addition, the set includes Eran Trace, the Hollywood-produced Spanish-language version of the lost 1931 entry Charlie Chan Carries On, Oland’s first Chan film.
The fact that Fox put four chronologically consecutive films in the set, instead of including the superb Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), which features a beautifully sinister performance by Boris Karloff and scenes from an opera written expressly for the film, is actually a very good sign. It suggests that the studio is going to release more of the films and will do so in chronological order. That makes great sense.
Still, the long wait for the release of the Fox Chan films rankles fans of the series. MGM, which owns the rights to the later, lower-quality Monogram Studio entries, has shown much more mettle than Fox. MGM Home Entertainment released the cleverly named Chanthology on DVD a full two years ago, putting together the first six Monogram films, all starring Sidney Toler and all reasonably entertaining. And Charlie Chan’s character still shines through.
Somehow, the world did not end as a result of the release of the Chanthology, but it still took two years for Fox to get around to putting out any of the superior Fox productions.
In addition, the prints used for Fox’s DVD set, although allegedly restored, are not nearly as good as most such restorations, and the bonus featurettes are scanty and not particularly informative or insightful. Why Fox would treat these films and their audience so cavalierly is a mystery even Charlie Chan would have difficulty solving.
Or perhaps the obvious answer is the correct one: Fox wants to grab a few bucks from diehard Charlie Chan fans while remaining under the radar and avoiding more protests from ethnic advocacy groups. A search of the Fox website reveals no references to Charlie Chan at all. The boxed set of left-wing documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s FX Channel TV show 30 Days is right at the top of the New Releases list, but Chan is nowhere to be found.
Nor is there any mention of the upcoming Mr. Moto DVD set, which Fox is releasing on August 1. The eight-film Mr. Moto series, based on the series of novels by American author John Marquand and produced by Twentieth Century-Fox in the late 1930s, starred Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as the diminutive, brilliant Japanese detective and judo expert. Like the Chan films, the Moto movies are charming artifacts to which Fox has the rights and which Fox Movie Channel never shows. According to the amazon.com description, the upcoming DVD set includes four Moto films, but not the first four, skipping the third entry, Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), for some reason.
I suppose we might be grateful that these films are being released on DVD at all, however secretive and slovenly the presentation, but the travails of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto tell us a lot about the way the culture and corporate America work today, and it is not a happy message. Increasingly in the business world as well as in the political and educational realms, the current American elites are willing to take conservatives’ money, but not their advice.
For that, they go to the very people who would most like to destroy them.
– S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. He blogs on popular culture at http://www.stkarnick.com/.