Warner Oland

Birth name:
Johan Verner Ölund
Date of Birth:
6 August 1879 Nyby, Västerbottens län, Sweden
Height:
5' 11" (1.80 m)
Warner Oland was born in the small village of Nyby in Bjurholm parish in the county of Vasterbotten, Sweden on October 3, 1879. Bjurholm is situated about 60 kilometers outside the town of Umea. Warner Oland's real name was Johan Verner Olund. He emigrated with his parents to the US on October 15, 1892. His father was the shopkeeper Jonas Olund and his mother was Maria Johanna Forsberg.After finishing grade school and working on Broadway during his 20s, Oland settled in California in the early 1910s, where he took odd jobs before eying the silent film industry in the early years of Hollywood. Olund had changed his name to a more "Americanized" name of Warner Oland during his stage career and began acting in small parts in various silent films during the 1910s and 1920s. As the Hollywood film industry made the transition from silent to sound pictures in the late 1920s (he co-starred in Warner Brothers' ground breaking part-talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927)), Oland began landing more prominent roles.His greatest success was in 1931 when he was cast in the role of Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American police detective based in Honolulu in the film Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) based on the popular detective mystery series by author Earl Derr Biggers [1884-1933] which was produced by Fox Films. His role as the charismatic Asian detective won him critic acclaim which landed him more acting parts in playing Charlie Chan following with The Black Camel (1931).The success of the Chan character turned into a money spinning franchise for Fox and Oland became a valuable property. It seems incredible today, but in Fox's pre-Shirley Temple period, Oland was considered the only guaranteed profit maker on the Fox lot. He became wealthy and bred miniature schnauzers. Although seemingly happy, Oland became increasingly dependent upon alcohol and exhibited bizarre delusional behavior after periods of drinking.The Chan films were budgeted approaching 1930s A-picture levels (approximately $275,000) and were usually shot within tight 30-day schedules, 3 films per year (sadly a number of these have apparently been lost). The series was practically the only guaranteed money spinner the ailing studio could bank on during the days leading to its takeover by ex-Warner's production chief Darryl F. Zanuck in 1935 that resulted in its transformation into Twentieth Century Fox.From 1931-35, Oland continued to work outside the series but was increasingly relegated to roles not varying far from mysterious Asians. By mid-1935 he became so identified as Charlie Chan he was assigned to the series exclusively. His last 8 films were all Chan entries, usually co-starring Keye Luke, who played Chan's Number One Son. While considered somewhat stereotypical today, these films were met with wide critical acclaim and all were hugely profitable. Arguably the best is considered to be Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), featuring lavish set design and a particularly effective menacing performance by Boris Karloff.Oland's physical and mental problems slowly began to catch up with him when by 1937 he was said to have suffered a nervous breakdown apparently due to some kind of mental dementia. Still one of Fox's biggest money earners, Oland's longtime alcoholism was tolerated and suppressed from the public. In November, 1937 Edith, his wife of 30 years, filed for divorce. In January, 1938 "Charlie Chan at (the) Ringside" began production at Fox's Western Avenue lot under the direction of James Tinling with an increasingly erratic Oland. After a few days shooting inside studio 6, Oland walked out. He was heard complaining the studio was possessed by voodoo and feared contracting pneumonia. Over the next month there were numerous studio negotiations between Oland and SAG (Oland had been an early member) and production was briefly resumed then suspended after Oland again failed to report to work. He was hospitalized and released then decided to return to his mother's home in Sweden. Oland's film career, unbeknownst to him, was over. In the interim, producer Sol M. Wurtzel, desperate to salvage the property ordered the Chan picture reworked as Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938), with minor supporting cast changes. Successful negotiations were made with the Biggers' estate and the film was quickly shot with Peter Lorre and released April 7, 1938. The film itself remains an anachronism in the Moto series as it contains much Chan-like dialog, tacked on Moto-esque action scenes and a guest starring role by Keye Luke. Regardless, it too was a hit.During his visit to Sweden, Oland negotiated a reconciliation with Edith but contracted bronchial pneumonia and died there on August 6, 1938, at age 57. Ironically, Fox contract (and Chan series) director John G. Blystone died the same day.Numerous actors were tested to fill Oland's shoes as Charlie Chan. Among other actors considered and tested were Cy Kendall, Walter Connolly, J. Edward Bromberg, Noah Beery Jr., Michael Visaroff, and Leo Carillo. Kendall and Connelly had played Chan on radio. The series continued at Fox for another 11 entries with Sidney Toler, who was signed by Zanuck in mid-October 1938. Toler injected more humor into the character as scripts became somewhat more pedestrian. By 1942, Fox considered the series exhausted and it would ultimately be sold to low budget Monogram and continue on even after Toler's death in 1947 with Roland Winters in the role through 6 dismal films into 1949.In a postscript, Fox director Norman Foster paid a subtle tribute to Oland in the next Moto film, Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939). During that movie's production in August 1938, cast and crew learned of Oland's passing in his native Sweden. Over the title Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), on the bill of the Sultana Theatre of Variety, they placed the banner "Last Day."
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