Time to have an uncomfortable chat. As part of my current murder mystery review marathon, I’m going to be covering some older movies that have issues. I was going to say for a modern audience, but even when they were made it wasn’t okay. For obvious reasons Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s kept casting white actors in the roles of Asian characters. When I say obvious reasons, I really mean racism. Whether it was real or imagined the studios, both big and small, thought that a Charlie Chan or Mr. Wong movie starring an Asian wouldn’t sell to the public. Then again when Karloff left the Mr. Wong franchise and they tried to continue it with Keye Luke, the response was so poor from theaters that the studio canceled any more movies. That isn’t an excuse it just shows that perhaps the studios were correct in their assumptions about the American audiences at the time.
As uncomfortable as I am with many of these movies, especially the heavily accented performances of the actors playing Charlie Chan, I felt like I had to cover them when I tackled the mystery movies in this current marathon. Many of them are well made and enjoyable. I also don’t want to overlook the fact that these franchises while casting a white actor in yellowface also feature many Asian actors in supporting roles. Like the previously mentioned Keye Luke, we also get some great performances from Sen Yung in the Chan series (which also starred Luke in many early entries). Movies like this kept many young minority actors working and in the business, which needs to be appreciated. I’m glad that Luke could pay his bills and be around for some of the amazing stuff he did later in his career.
And if I’m going to mention the Chan movies, I suppose I should also acknowledge that many folks have problems with African American actor Mantan Moreland performances as Birmingham Brown. Though I disagree with that and say he was playing the fool no different then Lou Costello or Curly Howard. And in fact, did it as well as either of them, which is saying a lot since they are the gold standard of that sort of thing. But I’m getting off topic.
I’m going to cover these movies as the entertainment that they were intended to be. They aren’t mean spirited or overtly racist. Rather they reflect the times in which they were made. Again, let me stress that isn’t an excuse. You can’t watch any of these movies without acknowledging that it isn’t okay to put a white actor in makeup and have him play into racial stereotypes. And I really did struggle with my choice to review them. But some of these are good movies with great performances from Luke, Yung, and Moreland. In many cases they carry the movie as the mystery is less the focus and instead the comedic hijinks are the highlight. The old saying “make sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind here. Is it better to ignore these movies or should we still talk about them? I’m choosing to talk.
If you really hate these or just want to ignore them, I totally understand. I’m not here to try and tell people to get over it, or that it was okay back then and you can’t judge them with a modern sensibility. Neither of those positions hold water in my opinion and these movies deserve some of the scorn that they get. Despite the issues I still think there is some value here and hope that you can see it as well.
© Copyright 2022 John Shatzer