When watching movies “of a certain age”, one has to keep in mind the old saw that “the past is a foreign country”. Social and cultural attitudes were quite different in the past, and those attitudes will be reflected on the silver screen. Not just the way people behaved in general (the casual smoking and drinking, for example), but the way people of other races were depicted.
The “Charlie Chan” movies were based on a character created by mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, who was inspired by newspaper accounts of Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Chang Apana. Chan would appear in six novels, and became so popular that Hollywood would make over three dozen “Charlie Chan” movies.
In this particular film, Chan has been sent to Egypt by a French archaeological society to find out why goods from an excavation they’re sponsoring have been winding up in the hands of private collectors. This quickly turns into a multiple murder investigation, but for our purposes, there’s another question to investigate:
How many ethnic stereotypes can you cram into one movie, without pushing it over the line into blatant offensiveness?
Chan is played here by Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor who rose to prominence on the screen by portraying Chinese characters. He certainly fit the part; Biggers described Chan as being “large” if not overweight. I’m not sure there were any Chinese or even Asian actors in general of sufficient star power to take on a lead role like this, so one really cannot blame the studio for their casting choice. They can be taken to task for the characterization, though. Chan speaks in a lot of “fortune cookie” aphorisms; one can be charitable and say that it is due to an unfamiliarity with speaking English. Or, one can see it as deliberate strategy to make it seem that he is less intelligent than he really is. In either case, it comes directly from the novels.
Taking the part of “Snowshoes”, a driver and general servant, is Lincoln Perry, here billed under his stage name of Stepin Fetchit. Perry was a veteran vaudeville performer who easily made the transition to the big screen. He almost always was cast as a servant, and was promoted as “The Laziest Man in the World”. Here, he speaks and moves slowly, as called for by that description. I take it that the role was supposed to be comic relief, but the movie doesn’t really need that (and there’s little humor in Perry’s role anyway).
Some can find it quite painful to see these depictions of minority characters. Saying that the portrayal of Chan isn’t as bad as the “Fu Manchu” character, or that Gone With The Wind would have worse portrayals of Blacks than what’s seen here, is really damning with faint praise.
But let’s stop and take a second look at the characters.
Biggers created Charlie Chan as a deliberate attempt to counter the racist depictions he saw everywhere in his home state of California. Chan is very intelligent and observant; here in Egypt he spots the still-damp varnish on a centuries-old sarcophagus, and takes note of how peculiar it is that the female lead smokes her own specially-made cigarettes (among other observations). Oland plays him as a “Columbo” type detective, puttering about being unassuming and inoffensive as he carefully puts together all the pieces of the puzzle. If the character became a stereotype and caricature in its later incarnations, that’s not the fault of Biggers. Or Oland.
It is also worth noting that the character was wildly popular in China. Here was the first time Westerners had bothered to make one of them the hero!
As far as Perry’s portrayal of Snowshoes, I immediately saw him as a “stoner” type character. He’s laid back and relaxed, taking everything in stride (there’s even one scene where he’s enjoying puffing on a hookah). No pop-eyed jumping about here! A recent interpretation of Perry’s roles paints his characters as more of a “trickster” archetype; the “Laziest Man in the World” was getting Whitey to do all the real work. This, apparently, was an actual tactic used by slaves (“putting on old massa”) and would have been familiar to Black audiences of the time. And as biographer Mel Watkins poins out in Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, Perry played the exact same character in a handful of “black only” films. There, his acting is outrageously funny, and one can see just how talented a comic actor he was. He honed his acting skills on the “Chitlin Circuit” of Black vaudeville theaters playing to Black crowds. Surely if they found his portrayal offensive, they’d have let him know about it.
It should also be noted that Perry gets significant billing (even if under his stage name) here. He’d racked up enough appearances and credibility by this time to have earned it. And speaking of earnings, by around the time this movie came out, he’d become the first millionaire Black actor.
If you want offensive characters, the one that really ticked me off is the bespectacled mule driver / guide who appears in the first scene. He really overdoes the bowing and scraping and “effendi”-ing and demanding baksheesh. Thankfully, he’s only in that one scene.
One final note on the archaeology – it’s not how contemporary archaeologists would conduct an excavation, but at least it’s not blatant grave robbing. It’s noted in passing that the Egyptian government gets first dibs on any artifacts they find, and there is a small lab were items are x-rayed, catalogued, and prepared for shipment. No cameras are in evidence for photographing things, but at least there aren’t the Flasks of Bubbling Colored Liquids that are in almost every lab to let you know that SCIENCE! is happening.