Black Camel: Chuck Chan in 1931!

DATELINE: Lost Gem

actor legends

 Lugosi with Oland.

One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.

Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle:  Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.

Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.

The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.

The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.

Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.

Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.

There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.

This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.

 

 

 

Last Days of Warner Oland: On Anniversary of Death

DATELINE: Charlie Chan & Curry College

WO Oland in character

Ten years ago a little documentary biography was put together on actor Warner Oland. It can be found online.

We have long been a fan of his gentle, Method-acting style, immersing himself into playing (and living life) as the legendary Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers’s famous detective.

Oland, with his exotic name, was the first and best of all the Chans—so much so that many thought he was Asian. His heavy eyelids made him look the part. However, he was born in Sweden, next to Garbo, one of their earliest American immigrants to acting.

Oland loved playing Chan, and even gave interviews in character—but his drinking problem seemed to have exacerbated with a doomed marriage in 1938.  On the set of his last film Charlie Chan Ringside, he simply walked off the studio lot and disappeared.

The movie was shelved, and Oland went back to his native Sweden in the pre-war turmoil of Nazi troubles. There, welcomed home by Swedes, he caught pneumonia and died. His last Chan film was Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, a delightful performance. His close friend Keye Luke loved him as a Number One son might! Oland was cultured and cerebral.

Oland caught our attention years earlier, of course, on old-TV film festivals—but our real fascination came when we discovered he graduated from Curry College, then located in Boston as an elocution/speech school for actors.

We cut our own teeth at Curry for 30 years as a professor, of film studies, no less.

When we watched a Chan film this week, we went to the ubiquitous Youtube to find all our favorites. To our shock, we learned Warner Oland died 79 years ago the day we found a slight biographical movie called Charlie Chan is Missing: the Last Days of Warner Oland.

Charming and mysterious, Oland preferred his home in central Massachusetts, not far from our preferred home, and his wife had his body brought back to Southboro where his gravestone was the step to his beloved home in that town.

The film is short and chock full of info, but the clues to Warner Oland’s strange character disappeared with him.