Monday, September 30, 2013

To catch a thief

Hope you enjoyed your weekend.

Mine was OK until I tripped at the UT game on Saturday while letting a little girl out of the aisle so she could use the bathroom.

(I know what you're thinking and, no, I hadn't had any beer.)

The fall exacerbated the pain in my already aching back and banged up a previously perfect right knee.

So, Sunday was spent quietly on the couch, off my feet, with ice, ibuprofen and NFL football to keep me company.

After a brief nap, I watched a sentimental favorite, Warner Oland in "Charlie Chan in London."

The character has become controversial in our politically correct modern era. In this case, it's a shame, for two reasons.

First, I'm a sucker for black-and-white B-movie detective flicks of the 1930s and 1940s, my other favorite being the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce "Sherlock Holmes" series. The Chan series -- particularly with Oland -- is among the best.

Second, the ironic part about it is that Chan was conceived as an answer to negative Chinese characters in American popular culture at the time, especially Fu Manchu.

Author Earl Derr Biggers was inspired to write his first novel while staying at The House Without A Key in Hawaii. Chan is said to be based in part on Hawaiian detective Chang Apana.

Oland -- the best Chan -- played the character in 15 films for Fox until his death, when he was replaced by Sidney Toler (who was OK, especially before he moved to Monogram). The movies were wildly popular, both in the United States and in China. The series helped keep Fox afloat during the Depression.

Critics remain divided on Charlie Chan.

Michael Brodhead argues that "Biggers's sympathetic treatment of the Charlie Chan novels convinces the reader that the author consciously and forthrightly spoke out for the Chinese - a people to be not only accepted but admired."

John Soister argues that Charlie Chan is both a positive role model and an offensive stereotype; when Biggers created the character, he offered a unique alternative to stereotypical evil Chinamen, a man who was at the same time "sufficiently accommodating in personality... unthreatening in demeanor... and removed from his Asian homeland... to quell any underlying xenophobia."

For what it's worth, I think Chan is a good character if you take him in context of the times in which the movies were made. Like Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, an African-American who was often the smartest person on Jack Benny's radio show (and could needle Benny like no other member of the cast), Charlie Chan was smarter than everyone around him -- Caucasian or otherwise -- and, unlike so many stereotypical characters of the period (and even unlike Rochester), wasn't reduced to being domestic help, an evil thug, or a downright joke. 

I simply find the films to be fun, classic whodunits from a bygone era, especially on a Sunday night when I hurt like hell. 

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