Charlie Chan from 1936

DATELINE: A Cursed Movie?

 Unlikely Swedish Hawaiian

We really don’t see the hubbub over an actor playing ethnic or racial roles if there is dignity and nothing racist in the situation. Apart from taking a key role in the payroll department away from an actor of Chinese Hawaiian extraction, there seems only minimal harm.

In Charlie Chan’s Secret, you have the peak of a respectful Chan movie. He has no comic sidekick son and characters call him “Mr. Chan” out of respect. Fifty years later a black actor playing a detective insisted they “call me Mr. Tibbs.”

Swedish actor Warner Oland is about as far as you can go from being Chinese American. And, that so-called accent is actually a cadence without using certain words. It doesn’t seem offensive, but we are laid back on this movie, turning us into an offensive apologist unfortunately.

You would never make this movie today, but that’s the point. It was made over 80 years ago. And, it has a certain charm in its sociological innocence. Within a few years, the role became a racially offensive joke, which may show the cycles of racism.

Charlie Chan’s Secretfeatures sunken luxury liners, missing persons, a center for psychic research, fake mediums, and assorted red herrings among the rich in San Francisco.

The usual suspects all have reason to kill the heir to the fortune of the Colby family: lawyer, psychic researcher, greedy cousin, all benefit from his death. Comic relief is provided by an overly nervous butler (marvelous Herbert Mundin who died young in a car crash a few years later).

Yet, there were other curses on the movie. Within a few years, the prime suspect actor Arthur Edmund Carewe died by suicide shortly after the movie’s release when he learned of health problems.

And, of course, Warner Oland went on vacation to Sweden and died there of bronchial pneumonia. Several other actors found their careers at dead ends after this picture. It really was the Curse of Charlie’s Secret.