Charlie Chan’s Secret


‘…doesn’t offer the guided tour to out-dated attitudes that might be anticipated…’

‘There’s no studio so big that it won’t bend over to pick up a dollar’ is an old-time Hollywood maxim, but applies just as easily to today; Amazon Prime proudly display this 1936 programmer at little cost, since the film is now in the public domain and the studio don’t have to spend a penny to screen it. Having said that, the print itself is pretty sharp, and probably hasn’t looked this good since the original release. But there are various reasons that the Chan series haven’t been tv staples like the Sherlock Holmes films featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and most of these reasons are do to with changing attitudes to race.

Charlie Chan’s Secret is, of course, that he’s played by a man of Swedish decent, Warner Oland, who legend has it was often inebriated on set. There’s little evidence of such excess here; Chan is investigating the disappearance of Allen Colby, a white, privileged heir to a family fortune, who seems to have vanished in a ship’s sinking. Chan finds a pocket book which contains Colby’s notes about his fears of assassination, and decides to travel to the family mansion, dubbed a ‘squirrel cage’, to investigate. Colby gets there first, but is promptly murdered, but by who? Only Chan has the smarts to figure it out…

As a rule of thumb, is you have to ask is something is offensive, it’s probably because it is. A Swede playing a Chinese detective is as genetically wrong as Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan in Dr Strange, surely? And that wouldn’t happen in the 21st century, right? The character name Charlie Chan is synonymous with a racial stereotype, but Chinese audiences embraced Oland and these films, making him something of a celebrity. Indeed, Charlie Chan’s Secret has a surprisingly positive attitude to the central character, who generally knows what’s going on and who’s doing what to whom. Chan’s fortune-cookie aphorisms vary in quality, but his deductions are sensible and grounded in some kind of forensic reality. Only a sight gag about the size of Chan’s family plays into stereotype; perhaps the notoriety of the character comes from the rarity of admirable Chinese characters in Western films at the time.

At only 70 minutes, Charlie Chan’s Secret doesn’t offer the guided tour to out-dated manners that might be anticipated; the big secret, as with the Sherlock Holmes mystery Pursuit to Algiers, comes from Chan’s ability to disguise one of the family members in plain sight, and it’s the one device in the film that falls flat because it’s so painfully obvious. But today’s racism exists without much help from Charlie Chan, and these simple, route-one programmers just about turn a few negative stereotypes into something more positive. So maybe these films aren’t the hotbed of racism that might be expected; as Chan says, ‘Hasty deduction like ancient egg. Look good from outside.’



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  1. A similar problem to the Fu Manchu series I would guess. Christopher Frayling wrote a brilliant book about the origins of the Fu Manchu books and films and the attitudes towards them which were often quite different to our assumptions today.

      • Only just saw this, I think I am being very generous towards the Nosferatu of Nova Scotia, and I’m sure he will be posting some equally considered words back to me.

          • Yup. Will wait until the whole thing is up if it’s meant to be good. Or watch the first two if it’s not. As long as it’s accurate in the presentation of inter-dimensional mischief-makers.

              • Hmm…the word has been a little underwhelming, which is a bummer given that he’s a great character. Any idea what’s wrong?

                • I’ve been trying to figure that out and I think it’s the storyline they’re taking. Don’t know how much relates to the comics as I never read any of them. The acting is fine, CGI mostly good, but it’s just lacking something. Funny enough I was most looking forward to this one, then Winter soldier, then Wandavision but so far Wanda wins for me with Winter Soldier a close second. Hoping Loki improves.

                  • Hmm…as with Han Solo, a great supporting character doesn’t always make a great protagonist. Won’t put me off, I’ll still give it a shot, but genuine thanks for lowering my expectations…only spin-off that interested me so far. Offered to go to Toronto and buy Alex a drink but slapped down, heartbreaking…

  2. Ooh dipping a toe into Alex’s ocean there. Re the race thing, I wonder if there was a Chinese English speaking actor who could have played Chan back then, or an English speaking Tibetan monk who could have replaced Ms.Swinton.

    • I felt it worth writing this review because no serious critic has tackled the Charlie Chan movies as seen through the prism of our modern understanding of race. I guess the point of that comparison was that we seem inclined to give Marvel a free pass for casting that’s every inch as outlandish because, erm, money and blind brand loyalty.

      • But who would they have cast as an alternative? I can only find one Tibetan actor on google Tensin Woeser, so apart from him whoever they got to do the part wouldn’t be right. Who would you have cast?

        • I can’t claim to be an expert on Tibetan actors. But films are ripped apart and shamed for ethnically insensitive casting, but Marvel fans give their films a feee pass. Tilda Swinton is from Scotland, that doesn’t suggest much effort to find someone who fits the correct ethnicity.

          Alex off in a huff after I confronted him about his strange behaviour. He’s hiding in the bins as we speak.

                • Sure, making a mealy mouthed apology read by a few thousand after you’ve trampled an entire continent’s sense of identity undoubtedly balances up the scales.

                  • Didn’t say that. Marvel are not the only ones by far that have done some whitewashing, and I’m not saying it makes it right so don’t start on that, it’s been an ongoing problem and still went on even after the Swinton episode, Ghost in The Shell, The Curse of La Llorona et al. I don’t think Marvel will be doing it again, they haven’t since then anyway. I don’t think. his apology was mealy mouthed at all, seemed genuine to me. But I like Marvel movies and you don’t, so perhaps we are both coloured with our own prejudices.

                    • Sure, correct in all counts. I fear that this is less to do with genuine concern about cultural racism than point scoring. I’m left wondering what the problem with Charlie Chan is. Chinese people liked the films, this kind of casting is the norm, the content doesn’t seem aggressively racist, and they these films are widely rubbished. Yet we make films with far more questionable attitudes today. Film-makers are quick to apologise once your money is in their bank. Anyway, I will be turning my attentions to Loki soon, the best current Marvel character, and played by Tom Hiddleston, a genuine alien trickster, so racial issues do not apply!

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