In the early Warner Oland movies—“Charlie Chan Carries On,” “The Black Camel,” “Charlie Chan’s Chance,” “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case,” and “Charlie Chan’s Courage”—Charlie Chan’s family accurately reflects what the novels describe.
Earl Derr Biggers had stipulated that the movies (and other media including stage plays and radio dramatizations) follow his writing. At the time, the film studios lacked permission to create original stories.
But when Biggers died of a heart attack, his widow—the former Eleanor Ladd—granted permission to create original stories—and, boy, are we ever grateful that she did!
The first original story—"Charlie Chan in London”—shows Charlie in his hotel room reviewing a photograph showing his family: Charlie, his wife, and about eleven children are in the photograph. Then Charlie replaces this photo on the bureau and picks up a picture of the most recent addition to the Chan family, an infant.
“Charlie Chan in Paris” introduces Keye Luke as Charlie’s number one son Lee:
Keye Luke as Number One son Lee Chan: “Hello, Pop. What’s the matter? Did I scare you? Gosh, it’s good to see you.
Chan: “Most joyful to welcome.”
Lee (Keye Luke) doesn’t appear in the next film, “Charlie Chan in Egypt,” but Charlie refers to him when he says, “As son Lee would say, ‘You telling me?’ ”
But Lee returns in the following film, “Charlie Chan in Shanghai.” When he sees Lee, Charlie says, “Joy equals astonishment at seeing offspring in Shanghai.”
Lee is very active in this film, and the chemistry between Charlie (Warner Oland) and Lee (Keye Luke) is strong. Charlie praises Lee:
Chan to Lee: “Instinct of detective father inherited by noble offspring.”
Lee Chan: “But what’s it all about?”
Chan: “Talk cannot cook rice.”
Lee: “You mean you don’t know what it’s all about, yourself?”
Chan: “Silence best answer when uncertain.”
When Lee dives down a flight of stairs to tackle an enemy, Charlie says, “Very proud of athletic offspring.”
Lee doesn’t appear in the next film, “Charlie Chan’s Secret.” However, Charlie mentions him more than once. In one place, Chan says, “As son Lee would say, ‘Play hunch.’ ” Elsewhere, he says, “As son Lee would say, ‘Okey dokey.’ Let us go.”
Lee is in every one of the remaining Warner Oland films, and a number of Chan’s other children are introduced to us. Children who are not his own also admire him and enjoy his company. For example, in “Charlie Chan in Shanghai” Chan is on an ocean liner. A group of children are gathered around him while he sings, “Long the journey, hard the way. But his heart was gay.”
As the films continue, just as Charlie had quoted Lee in “Charlie Chan in Egypt” and “Charlie Chan’s Secret,” his children quote Charlie in many films.
In “Charlie Chan at the Olympics,” Lee inattentively and carelessly walks into Betty—an Olympic athlete and teammate of his. Lee says, “As my Pop would say, ‘Man who stretch neck looking up very apt to break neck falling down,’ or something like that.”
In “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island,” Jimmy says, “As Pop would put it, ‘Swelled head gives owner more trouble than indigestion.’ ”
But who is Charlie Chan’s number one son really? In the books and the early films he is named Henry. In the lost “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case” he is named Oswald. And starting with “Charlie Chan in Paris” we know him as Lee.
For an interesting and clever solution to this apparent contradiction, see The Charlie Chan Family Home -- The Family Room: Charlie Chan's Multitudinous Family. Other discrepancies among the films are also explored on the page I just linked to, and a more detailed and robust investigation of Chan’s family is discussed than I can give here. Inconsistencies, such as the size of the Chan family (for example, a film may show that Chan has more children in an earlier film while a later film may show that Chan seems to have fewer children) are investigated methodically.
Also there are occasional identifications of who is the number two (or number three) son or daughter. We tend to overlook such discrepancies because the films are entertaining and we are absorbed in the story.
Here is a short list of some of the children:
“Charlie Chan at the Circus” introduces Charlie’s entire family. As Charlie and his wife, led by their children, line up to enter the circus through a turnstile, a ticket taker counts each member of his family:
Ticket taker: “. . . Eleven, Twelve. . . ” [When Chan’s wife goes through a turnstile at the end of the line of children. . . ] “Thirteen. . .”
Chan: “Fourteen. Including humble self.” [Chan has tickets in his hatband and leans forward so the ticket taker can retrieve them.]
Chan: “Thank you so much.”
Interactions among Charlie Chan and his children continued to appear throughout the series—not only those which featured Warner Oland but with subsequent actors Sydney Toler and Roland Winters. Examples include the following.
Obviously, Charlie Chan is proud of his offspring, as the following examples show:
Chan [presenting Frances to Matthews]: “Beauty of Chan family.”
Frances: “Also junior member, with the brains.”
Charlie enters his hotel room. Lee, his back to Charlie, is bending over drying his hair with a towel. Charlie smacks Lee’s butt. Lee jumps, turns to face his father, and removes the towel:
Lee: “Aw, gee, Pop. How’d you know it was me?”
Chan: “Frequent spankings when young make rear view very familiar.”
Jimmy [after Chan whacks his butt from behind]: “Pop! Am I glad to see you! How’d you know it was me?”
Chan: “Frequent spankings have made favorite son’s anatomy most familiar.”
Lee says,: “Don’t worry, Pop. I learned to sprint when you used to chase me through the water with a paddle.”
Charlie’s son Willie has gotten poor grades in school. Rather than telling his father, Willie attempts to hide the letter that the school sent to inform Willie’s parents. But, of course, Charlie has already read the letter and proposes to discipline Willie for lying.
Charlie says, “Please assume proper position across parent’s knee.”
Willie goes across Charlie’s knee but, fortunately for Willie, Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard enters Charlie’s office to visit him, interrupting the spanking about to be administered. Willie escapes the punishment unscathed.
Sometimes Charlie makes a comment to one of his children that seems condescending, such as when they are puzzling through clues. He seems critical of their fledgling, as-yet-amateurish attempts to offer a solution to a case. Chan’s criticisms may reflect his personal sense of humor as well as his frustration at their well-intentioned interference.
Charlie is a patient man, but there are times that try one’s patience, such as in scenes like the following.
Charlie’s daughter Frances says, “You know, Pop. I got an idea about this Bonner case.”
Chan responds, “Water on brain now leaking, huh?”
Charlie responds to son Tommy’s offer to help:
Tommy: “If you’re stuck, I’ll help you out.”
Chan: “You are like business end of waterspout — always running off at mouth.”
Chan says to Tommy, “Your assistance about as welcome as water in a leaking ship.”
Sometimes Chan gives disparaging, meant-to-be witty remarks to his children, such as when he refers to them as feeble minded or stupid. This sometimes occurs when introducing them to a third party.
Again, this may be a sign of Chan’s sense of humor. But it may also reflect a sense of his frustration when the children are overeager to follow a false lead too hastily.
Chan says, “This is number three son, Tommy. And this one is second assistant, Birmingham Brown. Both at times often feebleminded.” (“The Scarlet Clue”)
Tommy: “That’s easy, Pop. The murderer will be the one with the guilty look.”
Chan [to Captain]: “Number three son have excellent head. Question have always been what it contain.”
Llafontanne: “I have a feeling that I was followed here tonight.” He leaps to his feet. “Mr. Chan, look!” [There are shadows under the door.]
Chan: “Yes. Was afraid you were about to notice him.” [He calls to his son Tommy], “Come out!” [Then, to Llafontanne, he explains], “Small assistant; second son. Suffer from thinking spells of stupidity.”
Chan says, “My boy, if silence is golden, you are bankrupt.”
Charlie is particularly annoyed when he is paying for his college-age children to be educated but they play hooky.
A larger-than-life “mechanical man” (i.e., a robot) was sometimes a featured attraction at arcades. These may tell your fortune or challenge you to play chess or checkers.
As depicted in this film, the robot was activated by a human who would climb into the device. When Jimmy experiments by disappearing into the robot, his father discovers him and says, “Will please explain presence of one dummy inside another dummy.”
Tommy says, “Pop, we have been thinking.”
Chan replies, “Most impossible.”
Chan: “Number two son promising detective. Promise very much; deliver very little.”
Chan: “Son Tommy is noisy woodpecker on family tree.”
Tommy says, “Pop. I want to talk to you as man to man.”
Chan responds, “I am ready but you still have few years to go.”
Tommy: “You know what I think, Pop?”
Chan: “Number three son is thinking. Uh, most unusual, but does not assist police.”
Jimmy says, “But I tell you, Pop. . . ”
Chan responds, “Correction, please. Pop tell you. Offspring return to footwork. Parent take care of headwork.”
A common frustration that Charlie has with his kids is that they often skip school to help him investigate cases. Chan articulates this in scenes including the following:
Chan: “Humble parent thanks uncertain weather for expression of love from favorite offspring.”
Jimmy: “Oh, but I mean it, Pop. Honest.”
Chan: “Then do not let fair skies tomorrow change restless mind.”
Jimmy: “Oh, I won’t. I’ll get right on the train and go back to school.”
Chan: “Appreciate decision. One scholar in family better than two detectives.”
Chan’s children (some of whom have become college age) occasionally embarrass Charlie when they use slang. Charlie’s son Jimmy reacts to a convoluted theory when he says, “Sounds awfully screwy to me.”
Chan remarks, “Son’s grammar result of expensive American education.”
Chan [to Captain]: “Number two son behave about hot music like corn over hot fire. Pops!”
Captain: “Have you ever seen the Samba dance before, Jimmy?”
Jimmy: “Have I! I saw it in the States months ago. It’s taken on pretty fast down here, though.”
Captain: “Yes, it has.”
Jimmy: “They do it pretty good, too.”
Captain: “They should. It’s one of our national dances.”
Jimmy: “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think.”
Chan: “Biggest mistakes in history made by people who didn’t think.”
Jimmy: “I’m sorry.”
Captain: “Is quite all right, Jimmy.”
Jimmy: “Gee, thanks, Cap.”
Chan: “Senor Souto, please excuse number two son’s North American familiarity. Expensive college education fail to teach offspring correct manner of addressing honorable Delegado — or Captain of Police of Rio de Janeiro.”
Jimmy: “Oh, Pop, I didn’t —“
Chan: “Never mind." [to Captain] "He didn’t think.”
Captain [to Jimmy]: “Never mind, Jimmy. As you North Americans say, ‘is quite okay.’”
“The Chinese Cat” displays another example of Charlie’s frustration:
Chan: “Why are you playing hooky from expensive college education?”
Tommy: “Well, I thought you’d be glad to see me. And, besides, didn’t I get you a swell case?”
Chan: “Every time you appear, I have swell case of assorted troubles.”
When Charlie’s Number Four son Edward enters a scene with Birmingham Brown, Edward says, “Greetings, Father.”
Chan says, “I am right. It is mistake. Intruder is number four son Edward, who stop becoming college student to become social problem. Also, his assistant, Birmingham Brown.”
Charlie refers to Tommy when he says to Leah, “This Mr. Chan is number three son, Tommy, who should be at University of California but who, for some strange reason, now out on parole.”
Charlie’s son Lee asks for his allowance money because he wants to buy flowers for a young woman he likes.
Charlie says, “Puppy love very expensive pastime.”
Lee says, “Aw, gee, Pop. We’re leaving tonight. And this is, well, sort of a farewell present. She’s a lovely girl — she’s —”
Chan completes Lee’s sentence: “Graceful as bamboo shoot; beautiful as blossom of water lily.”
“Yeah! That’s her,” says Lee. “When did you meet her?”
Chan: “Never. But long time ago use same description for honorable mother.”
When Chan intends to interview a woman, Jimmy asks, “Why, Pop! Have you got a girlfriend waiting for you upstairs?”
Chan replies, “Only girlfriend is honorable wife in Honolulu.”
The use of slang by Charlie’s children frustrates him and shows the generation gap between them. “Charlie Chan in Rio” includes the following comic scene:
Jimmy: “I’ve got a theory. It’s suicide.”
Chan: “Startling deduction. Explain, please.”
Jimmy: “Well, she got hep that we were closing in on her and rather than face it, she stabbed herself.”
Chan: “In the back?”
“Charlie Chan in the Secret Service” includes another comic scene that shows several of his children using slang:
Chan: “Very strange woman, Mrs. Hargue.”
Tommy: “Yeah, Pop. She’s spicky icky. Right off the cuff and way off the beam.”
Chan: “Could possibly speak English?”
Iris: “He means she’s a slick chick gone to seed, Pop. She’s got bats in her head and bees in her bustle.”
Chan: “Language sound very strange to elderly ears.”
Tommy: “Sure, Pop, but we’re hep cats of the younger generation. You’re Confucius, and I’m Confucius, Jr.”
Chan: “Confucius, Jr., please go.”
By this time in the series we have been introduced to Charlie Chan’s number one son, Lee, Number Two son, Jimmy, and Number Three son, Tommy, as well as other children of his. In “The Jade Mask,” we are introduced to Charlie’s Number Four son, Edward (who Charlie calls “Eddie”). Chan’s “Number Four son,” Edward is the intellectual member of the Chan family.
When Charlie is trying to close a suitcase that is overfull, he sits on it in an attempt to latch it—unsuccessfully. Calling “Eddie” to help:
Chan: “Eddie — remove nose from book and come over here.”
Edward: “Please call me Edward, father. ‘Eddie’ is so juvenile.”
Chan [to Birmingham Brown]: “Number four son Eddie is very expensively educated bookworm." [to Eddie] "Please. Forget brain and use brawn.”
Eddie: “Very well. But your modus operandi is all wrong. According to the science of gravity, the pressure of the weight of a solid body is useless unless directed solely at a single point.”
Brown: “His language is strictly stratospheric — too high flown for me.”
Eddie: “Allow me to demonstrate.” [Lifts Chan’s feet (Chan is sitting on the suitcase). Brown closes it instantly.] “There you are.” [Pulls out book and returns to the couch.]
Iris Chan [to man guarding the door to the house she and her brother Tommy are visiting]: “Hello.”
Man: “Hello. Say, aren’t you Iris Chan — Charlie’s number two daughter?”
Iris: “Uh-huh.” [Iris recognizes the man.]
Guard: “That’s right. Hey! Last time I saw you, you were no bigger than that. Now how’d you remember me?”
Iris: “A woman never forgets a good-looking man.”
Guard: “Who’s your boyfriend?”
Iris: “He’s no friend. He’s my brother, Tommy.”
Guard: “No! Oh, looking for your father? He’s inside.”
One of the most endearing features of the Charlie Chan movies is the relationship Charlie has with his family. This makes the films memorable. We enjoy them so much that we tend to overlook minor discrepancies or inconsistencies, such as the number of children in the family from one film to another, if a later movie shows fewer children than a previous movie did, or whether a child is introduced as “number two [or three]” son or daughter inconsistently among the films.
Charlie Chan is a devoted father and an honorable family man. And we love him for that.
For more information about Charlie Chan, click on the links below to read articles.
The Novels by Earl Derr Biggers:
Charlie Chan Movies
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