In the Desert With Charlie Chan

Looking for diversion, I picked up The Chinese Parrot, by Earl Derr Biggers (1926) and I found it. The plot of the book, the second in the Charlie Chan series, is diverting in its own right, but in addition to that, it was written at a time when people had telephone numbers like Pasadena 76, so it transports the reader back in time.

There’s a glimpse behind the scenes at a Hollywood movie studio in the Twenties, and a cast of characters that immediately put me in mind of the movies of that era — the young son of a jewelry store owner, looking to find himself, the young cowgirl full of gumption (already engaged) who scouts out locations for a film company, the former New York reporter living out his days as a desert-town editor…

There’s the ruthless tycoon, of course, and an opera singer, and a host of other very three-dimensional grifters, prospectors, society types and movie people, not to mention the inimitable Honolulu police detective himself.

I think the greatest authors are the ones who can create good minor characters like the crooked innkeepers and debauched friars of Alexander Dumas, or the Fat Man and the Pansy in The Maltese Falcon.

I have a few quibbles with the plot, but I have to say, every character in this book is a living, breathing human being, especially the parrot, who dies far too early, in my estimation. If only he could have been resurrected.

The upshot is a book that reads like an old movie where you can really picture the people and the action. Not surprisingly, the Charlie Chan series, eventually, became a big hit on the silver screen, spawning fifteen movies, even though Derr Biggers only wrote five books.

The first few film adaptations were flops because they had Chinese actors playing Charlie Chan. (What an idea! Like an Indian actor playing Gandhi!)

Once they cast a Westerner in the role (Swedish actor Warner Oland). it was a huge success. That tells you something, but I’m not sure what. In the books, Charlie Chan is little, which Warner Oland, surely, is not.

Charlie Chan has been described as a demeaning stereotype because he is deferential, even in the face of racism, and because he speaks broken English.

Actor Keye Luke, who played Chan’s Number One Son, was asked if he thought that the character was demeaning to the Chinese. “Demeaning to the race?” he replied, “My God! You’ve got a Chinese hero!”

Famed mystery writer Ellery Queen agreed that Derr Biggers’ character was “a service to humanity and to inter-racial relations.” Up until that time, US movie audiences knew only sinister Chinese characters like Fu Manchu.

If you read the book carefully, you see that he actually speaks English as he feels it ought to be spoken, and if he is deferential to loutish Americans, it is always with a wink to the audience, indicating that he is going to make saps out of them, and he does, with very satifying results.