The year 1939 would be marked by a sea (or C C for Charlie Chan) change for the B unit at Twentieth Century Fox. It all began in early 1938 when the head of the unit, Sol M Wurtzel was presented with a huge headache – the star of his Charlie Chan series walked off the set in the midst of filming his seventeenth feature – ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside.’ Ostensively it was to get a drink of water, but the actor, Warner Oland, kept going and walked off the lot, too.
Oland was very troubled at the time. His wife was suing him for separate maintenance, and complaining about his alcoholism. These two factors easily explain his odd behavior the week prior to his exit.
The Ringside film was to have begun shooting on Monday, January 10th, but Oland was a no show, sending word that the scheduled sound stage was too drafty and thus a danger to his health. By that Wednesday the producers had lined up a ‘warmer’ sound stage, and filming commenced with Oland playing the Chan character, but come Saturday he walked out without a word of explanation.
Oland was back in the fold on Monday January 17th, up until the time of the ‘drink of water’ incident. Then he just disappeared. To where? Nobody knew. As to why, nothing was mentioned about it at the time, but I noticed in my research that that month marked their 30th wedding anniversary. Perhaps, he was overwhelmed on that score.
Finally he was located at home on January twentieth, but that was too late as far as the producers were concerned. In the meantime, they had suspended him for three months and had pulled the plug on the film. There was much speculation in the press as to what would happen next. Many columnists were working their contacts within the studio, and brought back the report of the confusion reigning there. Louella Parsons wrote on the 25th that Fox was narrowing their options down to two; either get a new Chan, or promote Keye Luke, Chan’s number one son to take over the series altogether. By early February, Wurtzel came up with another option. He made a decision to salvage ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside’ by converting it into a Mr Moto film, another series produced under his aegis. New scenes would be shot with Peter Lorre’s character grafted into the story, which had him interacting with Chan’s number one son Keye Luke.
About the time the newly named ‘Mr Moto’s Gamble’ was shooting, Oland took off with his chauffeur and his nurse and created more problems in Arizona. Evidently, he had not told his companions his plans until they reached Tucson. A heated argument broke out with Milton Tharp, his chauffeur, when Oland wanted him to cross into Mexico and head for Guaymas (Oland owned a substantial ranch a little further down, on an island off Mazatlan). Tharp refused. For he knew that Oland was broke and had no access to any funds as all he had, had been placed in receivership by his wife’s lawyers. Instead Tharp drove them to the police station where the argument escalated and their resultant spat drew a crowd. Bristling about the curious onlookers, Oland tried to disperse them by hurling stuff at them – his thermos, lighted cigars, then his shoes and his socks – anything that came to hand. When photographers arrived, Oland got out and chased after them, bare foot and wrapped in an Indian blanket. Tharp was able to explain the situation to Police Chief Wollard, who detailed a former deputy sheriff to accompany the troop back to LA, where Oland was admitted to a private sanitarium in Hollywood.
Two weeks later, the United Press was reporting that Oland was on the way to recovery. The studio changed his three month suspension into three month vacation, and they were hoping he could return to the role in the fall.
Just before the release of the Mr Moto ex-Chan film in April, Oland’s divorce became final, and soon after he left for Europe. He would travel to Italy, France and England before settling in to his native Sweden to complete his rest and recovery.
Sadly though – on August 6th, Oland contracted pneumonia (per press accounts) and died in a hospital in Stockholm. (Official cause of death was listed as cirrhosis hepatitis cardiosclerosis).
Recovering from their shock, 20th Century Fox was left scrambling again. The Chan films were too lucrative to drop, for they churned out a million plus per year. Time to get serious about a replacement to play Charlie Chan.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story next time, here on Watch This Space.
Aside – Oland’s death was connected to that curiosity of celebrity deaths – those that occur in threesomes. Oland (in the upper right corner of the above photo) in an even stranger coincidence was related to the two celebs whose deaths proximated his. On August 4, just two days prior to his demise, Pearl White, the heroine of highly popular serials in the silent era, passed away in Paris. Oland played the heavy who was trying to kill her at every turn. (He remembers that one episode called for him to dispatch her with a pile driver). The other – director John G Blystone died the same day as Oland. He had been his director on ‘Charlie Chan’s Chance’ back in 1932.