The name Warner Oland might not be familiar to many people. However, he was actually one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and biggest stars during the 1930’s. In his career he appeared in over 100 films. Today, his roles would be considered politically incorrect, but at the time they were made, they reflected the way white film makers saw minority groups.
Warner Oland was born in the northern Swedish county of Västerbotten in 1879. In 1892, he emigrated with his family to the USA where he anglified his Swedish name – Johan Verner Öhlund.
After leaving school, he quickly got into acting and the theater. He was the first person to translate Strindberg and Ibsen and present it to the American audience. He started his career in silent movies, and had a small part in the very first talkie ever made – The Jazz Singer, and later played opposite Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
However, he is most famous for his depiction of a certain character – the iconic Chinese detective Charlie Chan. In over 16 films, Werner played this legendary character and, because of it, he became a huge star and box office success.
During the 1930’s Hollywood did not cast Asian actors in leading roles. This is why Warner Oland was given the job – his appearance reflecting the idea at the time of what Chinese people looked like. A bit of make-up, a false mustache and the stereotypical image was complete. He played other Asian characters such as super villain Fu Manchu.
Later on, the character of Charlie Chan became very controversial. When author Earl Derr Biggers created the character, he wanted to show an alternative to the evil Chinamen, which was the prevailing representation at the time. Charlie Chan was intended to be accommodating and unthreatening to combat xenophobia.
Werner Oland died in Stockholm in 1938 of pneumonia. He also had long-standing problems with alcoholism and ill health. He was married to a wealthy Bostonian, the artist Edith Gardener Shearn. Among their many houses was a historic farmhouse in Southborough Massachusetts. Here, Werner Oland is buried in the town cemetery.
He is probably the most famous, and anonymous, Swedish film star of all time.