Jewish World Review July 3, 2003 / 3 Tamuz, 5763
Confucius Say "Charlie Chan is a Good Thing"
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The Fox Movie Channel was all ready to broadcast a summer festival of vintage Charlie Chan mysteries from the thirties and forties, but at the last minute decided to drop the whole thing. The cable channel cited "concerns about racial insensitivity" voiced by some Asian activist organizations which led Fox to discontinue showing the pictures.
In a letter to Fox last week, Christine Chen, Executive Director for a Washington D.C. based civil rights group called Organization of Chinese Americans Inc. labeled the films "A painful reminder of Hollywood's racist refusal to hire minorities to play parts that were designated for them."
Well, political correctness strikes again. Once again, witch-hunting activist groups on the left have saved the world from yet another evil -- this time they have struck down those mean-spirited racist Charlie Chan movies that have been poisoning the minds of white America for over seventy years and have added to the vast Caucasian conspiracy in keeping Asian Americans downtrodden and out of mainstream society in this country.
Thanks to civil rights advocacy groups, such as the Organization of Chinese Americans Inc. and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, the classic Charlie Chan detective films have been banished from the broadcast airwaves. Nicely done, political activists! And now that Charlie Chan is out of the way, the "industry" can concentrate on creating more socially relevant and morally uplifting Asian films, like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and about nine thousand more kung fu movies.
Writer Earl Derr Briggers created Charlie Chan, an Oriental detective on the Honolulu police force, for a series of novels which became enormously popular at the beginning of the last century. The character first appeared on screen in 1926 and gained in popularity throughout the thirties and forties, appearing in more than forty feature films -- the last one, "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" made in 1981 starring Peter Ustinov.
When Warner Oland, a Swedish-born character actor, took over the role in 1931 the series really took off. Keye Luke was cast as his enthusiastic Americanized "number one son" Lee and audiences loved it. In his movie and video guide, Leonard Maltin describes the chemistry between Oland and Luke and how that relationship really made the pictures special. He says, "their good-natured parrying gave the series a uniquely human, and humorous, foundation that made them more than mere whodunits."
Sidney Toler took over the part after Oland died in 1937. He was joined by Victor Sen Young as Jimmy Chan, Charlie's Number Two Son and the series continued.
Some of my happiest memories are of watching old movies on television with my dad on Saturday afternoons. We'd sit on the couch together and watch a good old cowboy picture with Randolph Scott or sometimes a gangster picture starring Sterling Hayden or Robert Mitchum. Sometimes we'd share laughs watching Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello -- how my dad loved Stan Laurel and Lou Costello!
And whenever they'd run a Charlie Chan detective mystery, well, it didn't get much better than that. You not only got a suspenseful murder mystery, but they were great fun, too. We especially loved the character relationship between Charlie and his "number one son" (and later, various other numbered sons and even a bobby soxer daughter). For me, I must admit, Sidney Toler was my favorite over Warner Oland.
Civil rights activists get their jollies in looking for bigotry, sexism, and unfair practices in the movies made during the golden age of Hollywood. Was it always fair for everyone back then? No. Is it fair for everyone now? No. Will it ever be completely fair for all? Not as long as human beings run it. See, movie people are only human, after all -- no matter what some people think.
I'm certain that one big problem the civil rights groups have with the Charlie Chan films is the fact that white actors have always portrayed him. I have two words for that -- so what? That's why they call it acting. The conception that only an actor who is Asian should play Asian is new. Traditionally actors played all manner of characters, races, religions, nationalities and personalities without having to actually BE the person they are pretending to be. That's okay. Brando has played an Asian character. So did Katharine Hepburn. Should only Jewish people play Jews on screen? Should only gays play gay characters?
There may be some isolated, embarrassing examples of stereotyping in old films, but they are a product of their time. It is patently unfair to assign the mores of today to the movies of fifty or sixty years ago. Furthermore, when your talking about Charlie Chan, the character was never portrayed in an ugly way. Chan was, quite simply, a gentleman. Not only that, he was an ingenious sleuth, and a loving family man.
Charlie Chan was never intimidated by anyone -- he didn't take any crap from his kids or anyone else. An he never took a back seat to anyone. He was never made fun of in those movies. The audience laughed with Chan, never at him. Charlie Chan was always shown respect as a father by all members of his family in ways that are never portrayed in today's movies and television (for any race). Not only that, but all the white detectives, cops, and others in the pictures show him nothing but the highest respect as a person and have admiration for his brilliance as a crime solving detective.
It is clear to me that the spokespeople condemning Charlie Chan movies as racist, have never watched them. Far from being a "racial embarrassment" Charlie Chan was a genuine credit to his race, to his heritage, to his profession, and to his family. A man of principle and honor and tradition. For most of America in the last century, he was the first true Asian super hero. And he did it without using Kung Fu. He used his wits, his humor, and his logic -- several attributes that are sorely lacking within the politically correct community of witch-hunters.
No Charlie Chan movies will be shown this summer. Too bad. We are all a bit poorer without them.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.