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08 March, 2008

Old Movies, Old Mores: Judging the Films of Yesterday with the Eyes of Today

Movies, whether the classic Horror Films of the 1930’s, the Sci-Fi B-Pictures of the 1950’s, or the mega-budget Hollywood Hypefests of today, are in many ways time capsules of the era in which they were produced. Just as the Saturday morning serial Westerns of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers represented, not the Old West as it truly was, but how it was imagined to be by 1950’s audiences, movies capture the prejudices and sensitivities of the time in which they were produced. They reflect not only the best, but also the worst, of us.

Many films produced before the mid-1960’s are now considered problematic by virtue of the way they depict racial, ethnic, or sexual stereotypes, and there’s no doubt that they cast African-Americans, Asians, Women, and other minorities in the worst possible light. Several, such as Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH, have virtually disappeared into an all-inclusive sea of political correctness; while others, though coming close to that fate, have been rescued by studios and distributors who recognize that art and history don’t often cast a pretty reflection. Among these latter are the Charlie Chan series of films.

Beginning in 1926 and continuing for nearly fifty years, Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional Chinese Detective Charlie Chan was one of the biggest and best gumshoes on the cinematic street. First portrayed by George Kuwa, and later and most famously by Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, Chan was the stereotypical Western ideal of the inscrutable Oriental, dispensing bits of Confucian wisdom in Pidgin English, while subtly laying his trap for the unwary criminal. Aided by a series of African-American chauffeurs and butlers (most notably Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland…), as well as his numerically-differentiated offspring, Chan, an Inspector with the Honolulu Police Department, traveled the world in no fewer than 48 films, with titles such as THE BLACK CAMEL and CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND. At every stop, foul deeds would require his expertise to be set right, usually at great risk to himself and his party.

Given the strictures and mores of the times, these films hardly pictured Chan in an unfavorable light; indeed, he often came off as the only intelligent person in sight. As his sons, butlers, and various Occidental lawmen stumbled over themselves in their efforts to solve the crime, Chan would sit patiently, amused smile on his lips, waiting for the criminal to reveal him or her self.

When I was young, these films were staples of Saturday afternoon broadcasting, particularly the later films starring Toler and Roland Winters. (Winters inherited the role after his predecessor’s death) I grew to love them, almost as much as I did the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, and always looked forward to watching Charlie deal with the bad guys in his own enigmatic style.

However, in recent years, it has become fashionable to disavow and ignore parts of our history that we deem unflattering or embarrassing, and as usual, Hollywood plays the role of trendsetter here. Whole catalogs of films have been removed from public view because of the manner in which they portray minorities, some merely because they might be perceived as offensive. The great Detective fell victim to this sterilization of the cinema, as 20th Century Fox, which owns the most of the Chan franchise, became concerned with how Asian-Americans would view the Chan films. In 2003, the Fox Movie Channel, after having given these films a restoration for broadcast, dropped their plans to air them. Charlie Chan disappeared into their vaults, and most of us fans thought he’d never return.

Then, in the early part of this decade, rumors began to circulate that MGM was finally going to release some of the Monogram Chans on DVD. The set, dubbed “Chanthology”, was slated to contain six of the first of the Chan films produced at Monogram Pictures, starring Toler. It wasn’t exactly what the fans were hoping for, but it was a damn sight better than nothing.

MGM acknowledged the criticisms of the films by including a disclaimer, explaining that, in the times these films were produced, racial and ethnic stereotypes were not regarded in the same light as they are today. This was not enough to quell the concerns voiced by some Chinese-American groups over the “Yellow Peril” connotations of the movies, though. Nor did it satisfy the valid argument that, of the three main actors to portray the detective, none were Asian—all were Caucasian men.

Beginning in the 1930’s, and continuing well into the 1960’s, Asians were one of Hollywood’s favorite ethnicities for casting as villains. Initially it was the Japanese menace that terrorized the Box-office, but following the end of World War II, and the rise of Mao Ze Dong’s Communists, that emphasis shifted to the Chinese. Though a few of the “Yellow Peril” films were well done, most notably the 1932 classic THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, most were low-budget programmers churned out ad nauseum by “poverty row” type studios. They have little enough redeeming value cinematically speaking; socially or culturally, they have none. Historically however, these movies do provide a powerful document on just how pervasive prejudice against the growing Asian population was at that time.

However, none of this is applicable to the Chan films. In no way could they be construed as fitting the “Yellow Peril” mold, nor is Charlie ever presented in an intentionally adverse way. True, he is a stereotype, and not a particularly flattering one to modern Chinese-Americans. But few characters in films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, whether white or black, Asian or European, male or female, were more than stereotypes. Few characters received the development that is taken for granted today, and none were well-rounded, fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional representations of actual people. No one wondered about their motivation… their motivation was the $50-$100 they were paid each week to act.

Nor was it unusual to cast whites in ethnic roles. If Sam Jaffe could play the Indian water-boy Gunga Din, German-born Henry Brandon the Comanche Chief Scar in THE SEARCHERS, or Myrna Loy the Chinese daughter of Fu Manchu, then no one would have been hesitant about casting the Swedish immigrant Warner Oland as the Chinese detective Charlie Chan.

Could they have done better? Of course, but why? Few at the time saw any problems with the way that blacks, and Asians, and women were depicted in the movies… at least few other than the blacks, Asians, and women who resented such portrayals. But their voices were ignored, until the studios could no longer ignore them. And that was long past the point of Chan’s heyday.

In the end, “Chanthology” did hit the stores, and its success led Fox to begin releasing their collection of the truly great films in the series, the ones starring both Warner Oland and Toler. Four volumes of these classics have now been released, not counting the original “Chanthology” and both MGM and Fox has a long way to go yet before the library is complete. But they’re getting there, and so are we… in the footsteps of Honolulu’s master detective.

While I truly enjoy the Chan films, I am not blind to their faults; neither do I feel they are as offensive as made out to be. Hollywood produced some incredibly racist films in the first half of the last century, and the Chan films are far from the worst. But no matter how hard these films may be to view today, we do ourselves a disservice when we lock them away and pretend they never happened.

It’s important that we remember these films, that we not allow these types of movies to become lost to us. When you cut people off from the historical records of the mistakes that they or their ancestors made, you also remove the instructive value of those mistakes. Aphorisms come into being for a reason, and one of the best is “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” If we are allowed to forget just how ugly prejudice can be, how can we remember to work against it?
















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