Maybe it’s hard to imagine, or maybe it’s not, but there was a time in Hollywood when minority characters were little-seen in movies and if they were, they were made to look like the crudest and most base stereotypes.
That’s why the four dozen (!) movies based on Earl Derr Biggers’ detective character, Charlie Chan, are so hard to wrap our heads around these days.
And why it almost seemed like an improvement when Hollywood employed a series of white men to play the Asian detective.
In a series of movies that began in the days of silent films and ran for more than two decades, Chan – often accompanied by one of his many offspring – assisted the police in solving murders. By the time of World War II, Chan was an active agent for the U.S. government, hunting down spies and foiling acts of sabotage.
That’s where we find Chan in 1945’s “Charlie Chan in The Scarlet Clue.”
Sidney Toler takes over in the Chan role from Warner Oland, the Swede (again !) who played the lead in previous entries. He’s aided by Benson Fong as Tommy Chan – filling in for Keye Luke as one of Chan’s sons – and Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver.
Chan and Co. are investigating the efforts of spies to steal radar secrets and their investigation is focused on a radio station and a secret lab.
The movie is almost obsessive about its use of media and technology. The mob of suspects are actors in a radio drama. The mystery is all about radar. And when a henchman calls the Big Bad on the phone, the bad guy replies via Western Union teletype.
The comedy relief – and the shrieking – is left to Moreland, who banters with another African-American man – the two finish each other’s sentences, knowingly – almost gets electrocuted by some Frankenstein-esque lab equipment and squeals with terror when the floor drops out of an elevator.
As troublesome as the idea of casting a caucasian actor as a Chinese-American detective is, Toler – like other actors who played Chan – plays Chan as canny and smarter than anyone else in the movie. Yes, he speaks in a kind of pidgin English and employs old Chinese proverbs to mystify those around him. But Chan is played, for the most part, with dignity.
But Moreland’s character is more troubling. I can only imagine audiences laughing uproariously at the actor’s antics, which seem offensive today even if you watch them through the prism of Hollywood’s racial history. Moreland was a popular and talented actor who was best known for these types of “excitable black folk” roles.
“Charlie Chan in the Scarlet Clue” is best viewed as a moment in time, a time when pop culture went through twists and turns and gyrations to sell movie tickets.