Het is vandaag al tachtig jaar geleden dat één van mijn jeugdidolen is overleden. Hoe kan dat nu? Ik ben zelf immers nog geen zeventig jaar! Wel, dat komt omdat de toenmalige BRT toen nog de zeer loflijke gewoonte had om films uit de goeden ouden tijd uit te zenden, meestal op zaterdag- of zondagnamiddag. En één van mijn helden was toen de Zweedse (!) acteur Warner Oland die de rol vertolkte van de Chinese detective Charlie Chan.

Dat Warner Oland een Zweed was, dat wist ik toen natuurlijk nog niet en al zeker niet dat hij eigenlijk Johan Verner Ölund heette, iets wat ik pas vandaag verneem. He was born in the village of Nyby in Sweden. He claimed that his vaguely Asian appearance was due to possessing some Mongolian ancestry, though his known ancestry contains no indication that this was so.
When he was 13, his family emigrated to the United States in November 1892. Educated in Boston, Oland spoke English and his native Swedish, and eventually translated some of the plays of August Strindberg. In 1906, he was signed to tour the country with the troupe led by actress Alla Nazimova. The following year he met and married the playwright and portrait painter Edith Gardener Shearn. Shearn made an ideal partner for Oland. She mastered Swedish, helping him with the translation of Strindberg’s works that they jointly published in book form in 1912.
After several years in theater, including appearances on Broadway as Warner Oland, in 1912 he made his silent film debut in The Pilgrim’s Progress, a film based on the John Bunyan novel. As a result of his training as a Shakespearean actor and his easy adoption of a sinister look, he was much in demand as a villain and in ethnic roles. Over the next 15 years, he appeared in more than 30 films, including a major role in The Jazz Singer (1927), one of the first talkies produced.
Oland’s normal appearance fit the Hollywood expectation of caricatured Asianness of the time, despite his having no definitively proven Asian cultural background. In Old San Francisco (1927), Oland played an Asian unsuccessfully impersonating a white man. Oland portrayed a variety of Asian characters in several movies before being offered the leading role in the 1929 film, The Mysterious Dr.Fu Manchu. It was the first onscreen portrayal of the Fu Manchu character in film.
A box office success, The Mysterious Dr.Fu Manchu made Oland a star, and during the next two years he portrayed the evil Dr.Fu Manchu in three more films (although the second one was purely a cameo appearance). Firmly locked into such roles, he was cast as Charlie Chan in the international detective mystery film Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and then in director Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 classic film Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.
The enormous worldwide box office success of his Charlie Chan film led to more, with Oland starring in 16 Chan films in total. The series “kept Fox afloat” during the 1930s, while earning Oland $40,000 per movie. Oland took his role seriously, studying the Chinese language and calligraphy.
Oland was also the first actor to play a werewolf in a major Hollywood film, biting the protagonist, played by Henry Hull, in Werewolf of London (1935). Once again, Oland’s character was Asian.
Despite his wealth and success, Oland suffered from alcoholism that severely affected his health and his 30-year marriage. In January 1938, he started filming Charlie Chan at the Ringside. However, a week into shooting his erratic behavior culminated in his walking off the set, causing the film to be abandoned. After a spell in the hospital, he signed a new three-picture deal with Fox to continue playing Chan. At the same time, he was involved in a bitter divorce from his wife which prevented him, by court order, from traveling overseas and moving his assets abroad. The divorce settlement, favoring his wife, was announced to the media on April 2, 1938, and the same day he left the USA by ship, turning up in southern Europe, then proceeding to his native Sweden where he stayed with an architect friend.
In Sweden, Oland contracted bronchial pneumonia, worsened by the apparent onset of emphysema from years of heavy cigarette smoking and he died in a hospital in Stockholm. Following cremation in Sweden, his ashes were brought back to the United States by his ex-wife for interment in the Southborough Rural Cemetery in Southborough, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where the Olands had previously resided in an historic farmhouse.
Oland’s last film was the unfinished Charlie Chan at the Ringside. Fox reshot Oland’s scenes with Peter Lorre and released the finished picture as Mr.Moto’s Gamble (1938). (Wikipedia)

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