The Mighty B’s – Charlie Chan – Changing of the Guard Pt 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 2

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.

The Mighty B’s Charlie Chan The Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 1

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.

The Fatal RIng - Pearl White - Oland upper rt

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.