The Oakland Tribune [12/11/38] put it succinctly in their headline for their story about the replacement for Warner Oland:
Missouri Man Follows Swede in Chan Role
The article ran two months after the decision that Sidney Toler would be the new Charlie Chan. Having pointed out the disparity of their origins, their story went on to compare the two actors and introduce to their readers (or recall to their memory) just who the new Chan was.
The successful candidate – Sidney Toler – had many similarities to Oland. Both men were tall [6 foot] and heavyset. Both came from the stage, Oland’s first stage appearance in the early 1900s was in a Sarah Bernhardt production. He put a total of fourteen years in on the boards, and along with his wife translated the works of August Strindberg. Toler, being older by five years, started in the theater right out of college in 1892 (the same year a thirteen year old Oland emigrated from Sweden with his family), and wrote many plays as well.
Oland, however, was first off the mark when it came to film roles – he appeared with Theda Bara in Jewels of Madonna in 1909 for William Fox. Toler did not appear before the camera until 20 years later – in Madame X, (under the direction of fellow actor Lionel Barrymore).
And both Toler and Oland had played villains, and both had played Orientals.
When Oland died, he left behind some pretty big shoes. No one else in film history to that date had appeared in such a long lived series of feature films portraying the same character. His fans were legion. And the exhibitors were keen for a Chan to light up their screens and box office coffers.
And it had seemed it would come to pass.
Fox had announced a starting date (first week in August 1938) for the next production – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but they weren’t getting any responses from Oland to their summons for his sooner return. They did not know that he was on his death bed. The exhibitors mourned at the news of his passing, and the week after rejoiced to hear that a search was underway for a new Chan, and already rumors were circulating that a contract player on the Fox lot, J Edward Bromberg, held the inside track.
However, screen tests for the part were still ongoing in October with Charles Coburn and Sidney Toler the most recent candidates. The field topped out at 35 before the final decision was made (Oland had been the chosen one from a field of 19). Fox must have been getting nervous about going forward, for they hedged their bets by canvassing the exhibitors as to their continued support for the series, arguing that they did have the Mr Moto series to fall back on. Their poll must have been reassuring.
So far 1938 was a busy year for Toler. He split himself between two studios and five projects in supporting roles. Though his main studio had been principally Paramount, he appeared in two of Fox’s B unit films – ‘The Wild Night’ and ‘Up the River,’ both comedies about criminals. After Toler was tapped for the Chan part on October 18, the film columnists posited afterwards that Toler had angled to become Chan. Toler confirmed it in a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1939 (before his third Chan film was released). He confessed that he won the part on the strength of his “performance as a con man in Up the River.” And then columnist Robbin Coons got more specific – in essence Toler played the part of the con man as if he were Chan (just without the accent) by making the case to the director beforehand that his character should be “quiet, subtle and restrained.”And it was reported that the rushes from Up the River and Toler’s character in particular wowed Sol Wurtzel. Such was his contribution and because of how well the film came together that Darryl Zanuck (Wurtzel’s boss) bumped Up the River to an ‘A’ picture status. Toler was rewarded with a screen test for the Chan part and walked away with the role.
The advance reviews for ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’ confirmed their choice.
The Variety review 12/21/38
“Adventures of Charlie Chan get off to a fresh start with Sidney Toler handling the title role in most capable fashion. His Chan has poise and lightness, and is less theatric than previously. Followers of the series should quickly accept him as Chan, and if comparisons with the late Warner Oland’s conception are made they will generally be in his favor.”
The Film Bulletin review (an Exhibitor publication) 12/31/38
“a lighter, more affable and less formal Charlie Chan. .. reviewer found himself more concerned with the story than comparisons between Oland and Toler.”
And gave the following promo tip: “Call him the greatest character in mystery fiction – a character that will never die!”
And soon like Oland, Toler was receiving adulatory fan mail – by the bucket loads – addressed merely to his character’s name – Charlie Chan. It led Toler to muse about his getting the role in the first place. In that article from the Philadelphia Inquirer he remarked that before Chan he was a ‘triple threat actor’ – comedian, villain or any other role. (He must have been feeling what George Reeves felt later after playing the Superman role on TV, and was no longer offered other parts). For Toler ends his comments, in a comic fashion, but with the sting of truth, relating a dream “in which he was playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, when someone in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled – ‘You can’t fool me – That’s Charlie Chan.’”
Stayed tuned for a rundown on the four Chan films released in 1939 starring Sidney Toler.