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Charlie Chan's Words of Wisdom
by Howard M. Berlin

Category: General Nonfiction
Description: A selection of more than 600 proverbs spoken by the cinema's favorite Chinese detective. Also includes a selection of proverbs spoken by Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) in the cinema.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2001
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002


19 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [81 KB]
Words: 13877
Reading time: 39-55 min.


Aphorisms are short, pointed sentences expressing a truth or precept. In the movies, the inscrutable Charlie Chan, especially Warner Oland's Chan, was famous for his many pithy pearls of wisdom. These proverbs, sometimes presented as slight variations in wording of other well-known sayings, are perhaps the one most noticeable feature that distinguishes Charlie Chan from the many detectives that appeared on films, even that of Sherlock Holmes. Many of us have come to enjoy these Confucius-like expressions, many of which begin with the requisite "Ancient ancestor once say..." and are referred to by some authors as Chanograms, Chanisms, and Biggersisms.

Three books, to various degrees, have compiled these famous proverbial sayings attributed to the Charlie Chan character of the movies. The first was Quotations from Charlie Chan (Golden Press, 1968), edited by Harvey Chertok and Martha Torge and which has long been out of print. More than 320 quotations are divided into 36 categories, such as those having reference to wisdom, truth, superstition, love, friends, etc. Unfortunately no indications are provided as to which film a particular quotation is from. Furthermore, the two editors indicated that they obtained their compilation from the screen dialogs of only 21 Charlie Chan films--the Twentieth Century-Fox inclusive entries from Charlie Chan in London (1934) to Castle in the Desert (1942) with the exception of Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) which was considered "lost" at that time. Also missing from this list of 21 films were the films prior to Charlie Chan in London, also considered to be lost then--Behind That Curtain (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), The Black Camel (1931), Charlie Chan's Chance (1932), Charlie Chan's Greatest Case (1933), Charlie Chan's Courage (1934)--and all 17 Charlie Chan films by Monogram. However, several aphorisms from Charlie Chan Carries On, Charlie Chan's Greatest Case, and Charlie Chan's Courage, based on confirmation of published reviews and other sources, were indeed included in the Chertok-Torge book.

Following the printing of Quotations from Charlie Chan, film copies of "Curtain," "Camel," and "Paris" have since been found and more than 30 years later, two additional Charlie Chan books have been published. The first is A Guide to Charlie Chan Films (Greenwood Press, 1999) by Charles P. Mitchell. In this book, Mitchell considers the quotations as falling into to one of the following six categories: direct quotes, paraphrases, metaphors, observations, insults, and jokes. However none of the quotations are individually annotated as such. Instead, at the end of each film's discussion, Mitchell lists the aphorisms of the known Charlie Chan films in order of chronological occurrence in the film (presented in alphabetical order), but without any indication to whom these were spoken.

Six months later, my book, The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia (McFarland, 2000), was released. Here, all the aphorisms (in alphabetical order) are presented as a group. They are listed for each movie (in chronological order) along with to whom the quotation was spoken to. For fans of the Charlie Chan films, this format was done to give a better perspective to the proverb's meaning and context.

In all fairness, there will never be a definitive book complete with all the famous sayings attributed to the Oriental sleuth, even if all the lost films are eventually accounted for. There are some individuals who feel that virtually every line uttered by Charlie Chan is profound. However, some of the more obvious sayings have not been included in this book because they are so specific to the moment that, when taken out of context of the particular film, its meaning is lost. Until those from the four films currently considered lost--Charlie Chan Carries On, Charlie Chan's Chance, Charlie Chan's Greatest Case, and Charlie Chan's Courage--are found, one can only rely on those obtained from published reviews or available scripts. In the Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia, I include quotations that were not included in Mitchell's book and he has a number that I previously overlooked. Also, we both have quotations that are not present in the Chertok-Torge book and who have almost 80 sayings that cannot be attributed to any particular film of the Charlie Chan series.

In preparing this book, I again reviewed copies of all the 41 available Charlie Chan (talkie) films from my own collection and the reviews from the New York Times for the four lost films. I recompiled the quotations from these three books, attributing each quotation to the particular film and, within parentheses, indicated to whom the proverb is spoken. However, aphorisms spoken by those other than Charlie Chan character are not included. In deciding on the format for presentation in this book, I settled on a combination of formats from both my book and Mitchell's: each film, in chronological order, is presented with its aphorisms in the order they occur in the film. Also, I noted to whom the quotation was directed. Those complied for each of the four lost films, using published reviews and other sources, are simply listed in alphabetical order. As a result, only one film, Behind That Curtain, had no aphorisms because the role of Charlie Chan (portrayed by E.L. Park) was a minor one, lasting only a few minutes. As many of the 36 categories of the Chertok-Torge book in my opinion are very subjective, I decided against following this arrangement.

In addition to the listing of Charlie Chan's aphorisms, I have also included two other items associated with Charlie Chan film series. First are the words to a song about Princess Ming Lo Fu, a Chinese children's lullaby sung by Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935). Also included is the text of a promotional short starring Warner Oland as an endorsement for a 1935 referendum in Pennsylvania to allow theaters to show movies on Sundays.

Besides the popular Charlie Chan films made by Twentieth Century-Fox and Monogram, two other Oriental detective film series were contemporaneously made. One is the Mr. Moto series (8 films, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1937--1939) starring Peter Lorre, and the other is the Mr. Wong series (6 films, Monogram, 1938--1940) featuring Boris Karloff for the first five and Keye Luke for the last entry. The few wise sayings that can be attributed to these two series are also included in this book.

In all, there are over 600 words of wisdom attributed to these three Oriental detectives. Unlike Mitchell's A Guide to Charlie Chan Films, I do not include those from The Return of Charlie Chan (1971) with Ross Martin; the 1957 TV series, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan starring J. Carrol Naish; the Peter Ustinov spoof, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981); or any of the few foreign language films, such as Eran Trece (1931, Spanish), a remake of Charlie Chan Carries On.

For the record, my favorite aphorism is, "Mind like parachute--only function when open!" (from Charlie Chan at the Circus), which I often place at the beginning of exams in many of the college courses I teach. I hope you enjoy this little book as much as I had fun compiling it.

As Charlie Chan often says, "Thank you, so much."

Dr. Howard M. Berlin

Wilmington, Delaware

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