On the Set with Warner Oland

Today, the name Warner Oland (1879-1938) is synonymous with Charlie Chan, the fictional Honolulu detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. But Mr. Oland was much more than a talented character actor. He spoke several languages and, with his wife Edith, made the first English language translations of plays by August Strindberg. Born in Sweden, his family emigrated to the United States when Warner was 13 years old. He gravitated from the stage to films in the 1910s and first attracted attention playing the villain in Pearl White’s legendary movie serial, THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914).

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In those days the craft of acting included the ability to credibly portray characters of different nationalities or ethnic origins, and even different races. We are much more parochial today about these things but Warner Oland was the first actor to successfully portray a Chinese hero in American films. How successful? He starred in seventeen Charlie Chan films at 20th Century-Fox from 1931 through 1937 (technically, 18 films if we count an uncompleted one begun in January 1938 but abandoned as Warner’s health deteriorated).

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Boris Karloff co-starred with Warner in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936)

Warner had already established himself in a variety of ethnic roles during the silent film era, most notably as Cantor Rabinowitz in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). He also impersonated an Austrian Archduke in the lavish DON Q, SON OF ZORRO (1925):
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DON JUAN (1926), the first feature film to use synchronized sound, had Warner in the historical role of Cesare Borgia. Here is Warner on the DON JUAN set with Montagu Love on the right, and seated left to right, Helene Costello, Estelle Taylor, and Myrna Loy:
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Elaborately costumed as an unscrupulous Frenchman in WHEN A MAN LOVES (1927):
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By 1929, sound films revealed Warner to have a rich and soulful voice. Here he plays an American gangster in THE MIGHTY (1929) with Raymond Hatton (standing) and George Bancroft:
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By 1931, Warner switched tracks from villain to hero with CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, one of four lost Chans. The film became an unexpected hit and the second film in the series, THE BLACK CAMEL (also 1931), was actually filmed in Hawaii. Here, Warner looks as menacing towards Dorothy Revier as Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAMEL:
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Offscreen, Warner was a doting papa to his schnauzer Raggedy Ann:
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Back at work, Warner takes time out for a Ouija Board on the set of CHARLIE CHAN’S SECRET (1936), a story that involved spiritualism and seances:
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Producer John Stone (left) confers with director H. Bruce Humberstone as Warner and William Demerest listen on the set of CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936):
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Two visiting Chinese doctors on their way to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore stop by the set of OPERA to check Warner’s pulse:
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Author Earl Derr Biggers wrote six Chan novels and based Charlie Chan on a real life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. Warner met Apana when he was in Hawaii filming THE BLACK CAMEL. It’s worth noting that Warner Oland admired Charlie Chan because the character had many qualities that Warner lacked. Chan was a non-smoker and a teetotler whereas Warner was a heavy smoker and (later) a heavy drinker. Chan had eleven children but Warner, who liked kids, was childless. Eventually, Warner remained in the character of Chan even when not filming and signed his name on legal documents as Chan.

Keye Luke played Chan’s son Lee in several of the later Oland entries in the series, here in OPERA. The two actors became good friends offscreen:
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Celebrity-endorsed products are nothing new. Here is Warner and apparently Charlie Chan recommending the new 1938 Desoto:
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Today, many of Warner’s films, silent and sound, are readily available on DVD including all of his surviving Charlie Chans.

DON JUAN – 85th Anniversary of World Premiere – August 6, 1926

The Dawn of Sound Films arrived, oddly enough, with a silent film on the evening of August 6, 1926, in New York City at the Warner Theater. Musical accompaniment was provided by the 107 members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – via recording heard over the theater’s public address system. But a series of short films preceded the main feature in which various performers from the opera, theater, and vaudville spoke, sang, and played instruments. The main feature was DON JUAN, starring a real-life Don Juan – John Barrymore, who had just taken two continents by storm with his modernized version of HAMLET on the stage. The Great Profile, as Barrymore was nicknamed, spoke not an audible word but the audience was captivated by the unerring synchronization of music and action (plus a few sound effects like church bells) through a system called Vitaphone. Nobody suspected it on that night, but the tolling of those church bells turned out to be a funeral dirge for silent film (a beautiful artform, by the way):

It comes as a surprise to 21st century audiences that DON JUAN is one of the best swashbuckler action films EVER – quite apart from its position in film history. In case you’re wondering, DON JUAN can be seen on Turner Classic Movies several times a year and Warners Archives recently issued this film on dvd with all of the Vitaphone shorts from the program on that August 6th, 85 years ago:

In Germany, this film was known as Don Juan – Der gro├če Liebhaber, and here is the complete German souvenir program as restored by your blogmeister (from a bile green back to cool blue):


Montagu Love, seen below on the upper left, played the villain Count Donati. Love specialized in screen villainy and continued his nefarious schemes well into the sound era as the corrupt Bishop of the Black Cannons in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and King Phillip of Spain in THE SEA HAWK (1940), among many other films:

Count Donati was a fictional villain but DON JUAN also featured two historical villains that made Donati look almost like a good guy – Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. Estelle Taylor on the left below played Lucretia and at the time was the wife of boxing champ Jack Dempsey. Warner Oland on the right below played Cesare Borgia but his most enduring role was ahead in the 1930s starring in the popular Charlie Chan detective films:

The film was climaxed by a rousing sword duel between Don Juan and Count Donati. But instead of providing the film’s ending as all Errol Flynn fans would later expect, the sword fight triggers a series of action sequences that have never been equaled these many years:


The back cover of the souvenir program features this rather seductive portrait of Mary Astor, the film’s heroine. Astor and Barrymore had enjoyed, uh, a relationship prior to making DON JUAN that had ended some time earlier. Their pairing in this film proved awkward for both of them. They would not be reteamed until 1939 in the classic romantic comedy, MIDNIGHT – but that’s another story:

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