The Early Charlie Chan Movies

There were six Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers. The first five were made into the first five movies. The sixth book was never made into a film, although it appeared on stage in a short-lived run. It later became broadcast as a radio drama called “The Landini Murder Case.”

The House Without a Key (1926)—Silent (Lost Film)—Pathe

The first Charlie Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became the first Charlie Chan movie ever made.

Released in 1926, this Pathe film was a 10-episode serial directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet. (Bennet became known for directing B westerns and serials during the sound era, including the two Superman serials (Superman and Atom Man versus Superman,) and the second Batman serial (Batman and Robin).

Japanese actor George Kuwa played Charlie Chan.

Unfortunately, The House Without a Key is lost, but we do have some information about it. The Charlie Chan Family website includes a synopsis of each episode.

It is clear from the synopsis that the film was inspired by the book and reasonably faithful to it. (Earl Derr Biggers stipulated that Charlie Chan movies —and, later, radio dramatizations and a stage play—be based on his writing and his stories. Biggers didn’t allow original material about Chan while he was alive.)

A two-page advertisement promoting the movie before its release fails to mention Charlie Chan at all. Emphasizing the known popular actors of the day, such as Allene Ray and Walter Miller, and the thrilling action, the studios may have been reticent about bringing attention to an Oriental hero due to contemporary prejudices inherent in the audiences they were reaching out to.

Author Earl Derr Biggers was not entirely satisfied with the portrayal of Chan, thinking the film didn’t capture the essence of the character. Not until Warner Oland would portray Chan several films later did Biggers become enthused with how Chan was depicted on screen.

The Chinese Parrot (1927)—Silent; lost—Universal Pictures Corporation

In this second Charlie Chan movie, the part of Chan went to Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin. George Kuwa, who had portrayed Chan in The House Without a Key, appeared as Chinese cook Louis Wong in this Universal Studies release.

Based on the second novel, this, too, was a silent film and is also lost.

This was the only Chan film produced by Universal Studios and its producer Carl Laemmle.

After “The Chinese Parrot” film was made, Earl Derr Biggers said, “They botched it again. They just can’t get Charlie Chan right.” (This quote is from Barbara Gregorich, author of Charlie Chan’s Poppa: The Life of Earl Derr Biggers.)

Behind That Curtain

Biggers’s third Chan novel became the third Chan film, and the first talking Chan film. Made by William H. Fox’s studio (Fox Film Corporation, which later became 20th-Century Fox), and it is extant.

Korean-American actor E. L. Park portrayed Chan in this film, although he didn’t appear until the last few scenes. Inspector Frederic Bruce of Scotland Yard, however, refers to him early in the film as “my friend.”

In the book, Sir Frederic Bruce is investigating a murder that occurred in England. Eve Mannering marries Eric Durand. Soon after their honeymoon, Eve discovers that Eric may have been involved in the murder. She leaves him and joins the party of Colonel John Beetham, an explorer who she knows from England and who happens to cross paths with her in India. He also happens to be an admirer and was once her suitor.

Inspector Bruce is searching for Eve because he thinks she has information that may help him solve the murder. When she gets wind of this, she slips away from Colonel Beetham’s party and flees to New York City.

What does an attractive woman do when she wants to remain hidden? In the book (though left out of the movie), Eve makes the unwise decision to become a model who appears in printed advertisements.

Sir Frederic Bruce becomes aware of this and heads for New York, but Eve Durand stays ahead of him and makes her way to San Francisco, where she gets a job as an elevator operator in the Kirk Building.

The Kirk Building is owned by young businessman Barry Kirk, who leases office space to businesses. Kirk keeps two floors in the building for himself—one floor for his own office, and another floor for his living quarters (which he calls his “bungalow”).

Barry meets and becomes friends with Charlie Chan, who is still on the mainland after his Chinese Parrot adventure. Chan has booked passage for home on an ocean liner, but it sails once a week and Charlie has a few days to wait.

Barry invites Chan to his “bungalow,” where he has invited a few guests to attend a slide show that Beetham is presenting. (In the movie, this event takes place at a theater where people can purchase tickets to attend.)

Sir Frederic Bruce is in attendance, having tracked Eve Durand to San Francisco but he doesn’t know exactly where she is. In the book, Bruce is murdered and replaced by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Duff; in the movie Bruce is shot but survives.

Although there are minor differences between the book and the movie, the film remains faithful to the spirit and to the main incidents as related by Biggers. I find it an enjoyable film, although Chan is not the character that Warner Oland was to portray. Oland became the detective many of us have come to know and love.

We learn about Charlie Chan’s friendship with Sir Frederic Bruce of Scotland Yard early in the film. About 20 minutes or so into the film, Sir Frederic Bruce is sitting his office, conversing with an Inspector:

Bruce: “This will interest you. My friend Chan. . . “

Inspector: “Uh-huh.”

Bruce: “. . . the head detective in the world.

Inspector: “Excepting yourself, sir.”

Bruce: “Well, um, naturally. Chinese have a strange way of finding out things we miss. Now, who on earth but Chan could have discovered that these slippers found that night on Galt were given to the owner by the Emperor of China?”

Inspector: “But has he found the owner?”

Bruce: “Yes. Read this cablegram from San Francisco.”

Inspector: “John Beetham.”

Bruce: “Exactly. They belong to Colonel Beetham — given him for distinguished service in China.”

Inspector: “Then you think he killed Hilary Galt?”

Bruce: “No, my friend, that is not true. One never knows what lies behind the curtain. But this slipper will lead us to the guilty one. You know, no one seemed able to tell me what that embroidery meant. But Chan divined the answer: ‘Walk softly. Go far.’ . . . I think, Inspector, that I shall walk softly. And perhaps—perhaps—I shall find who killed Galt.”

About an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, Eve Durand comes home to her room in San Francisco. She learns from her housemaid that the police had a search warrant and searched her apartment. Her housemaid says, “One of ‘em’s Charlie Chan, whose name is in all the newspapers.”

In another scene, Sir Frederic Bruce asks a policeman on the street for directions:

Bruce: “Could you by any chance tell me where I can find Mr. Chan?”

Policeman: “You mean Inspector Charlie Chan?

Bruce: “Yes.”

Policeman: “Well, he’s right down the mid-block. . . . Walk down the hill.”

When Sir Frederic Bruce meets Chan, he begins giving instructions:

Bruce: “At the lecture. . . “

Chan: “Yes?”

Bruce: “You will of course see that every exit is barred.”

Chan: “It has already been attended to.”

Bruce: “Good man. Chan, I believe that everything is going to work out as we had planned.”

Chan: “It is the only way those honorable leads love each other may find happiness.”

At this point, Chan and Sir Bruce are interrupted by the strains of a saxophone coming through the window. Chan goes to the window and speaks to the young man in Chinese. The young man says, “Hotsy totsy, Mr Chan.”

This idea of young people using American slang phrases is developed more in the Warner Oland films (for example, in screenplays of the lost Warner Oland films) when we see Chan sitting at the table with his wife and children, and they use slang words and phrases such as “You’re full of beans” or “That’s just applesauce.” But this will be discussed later in this series of articles.

Even though we don’t get to see Chan’s investigative techniques or participation to the extent they are described in the book we do get to see some glimpses of his personality and his sensitivity to the feelings of others. For example, Sir Frederic Bruce says, “You know, when I learned from Beetham at Teheran what had happened I made up my mind not to move against the guilty until I was sure the innocent wouldn’t suffer any useless scandal.”

Chan replies, “I am overwhelmed at your sentiments in the matter.”

The following exchange takes place among Eve Durand, Sir Frederick Bruce, and Colonel John Beetham, Regarding her husband Eric, Eve says: “I never want to see him again.”

Beetham: “You never will, Dear.”

Bruce: “No?”

Beetham: “No.”

Eve: “John—Is he dead?”

Beetham: “Yes. Chan said he resisted arrest”

Bruce: “Hmm. How careless of Chan. But perhaps it’s better after all he can’t speak. What no man hears, no man ever knows.”

Beetham: “Sir Frederic, now I understand.”

Bruce: “Thank you. We have walked softly and gone far, my friend. And the journey is over.”

Although we have not seen much of Charlie Chan in this film, and Earl Derr Biggers was not enamored by the portrayal of Chan in these first three movies, we like what we see. And the best is yet to come. . . .

(This is a link through which I make a small commission if you buy. See here for more details.)

For more information about Charlie Chan, click on the links below to read articles.

The Novels by Earl Derr Biggers:

Charlie Chan Movies