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Warner Oland (October 3, 1879August 6, 1938) was a Swedishmarker actor most remembered for his role as Charlie Chan.


He was born Johan Verner Ölund in the village of Nyby, Bjurholm Municipalitymarker,Västerbotten Countymarker, Swedenmarker. When he was thirteen, his family emigrated to the United Statesmarker. Educated in Boston, Massachusettsmarker, he spoke English and his native Swedish, and eventually translated some of the plays of August Strindberg. As a young man he pursued a career in theater, at first working on set design while developing his acting skills. Trained as a dramatic actor, 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. The brilliant woman made an ideal partner for Oland and she mastered the Swedish language, helping him with the translation of Strindberg's works that they jointly had published in book form in 1912.

After several years in theater, including appearances on Broadwaymarker as Warner Oland, in 1912 he made his silent film debut in Pilgrim's Progress, a film based on the John Bunyan novel. It would be another three years before he returned to film work with a role in The Romance of Elaine, an adventure film starring the extremely popular Pearl White. As a result of his training as a Shakespearean actor and his easy adaptation to a sinister look, he was much in demand as a villain and in ethnic roles. He made several more films with Pearl White including his first portrayal of an oriental character in her 1919 film, The Lightning Raider. Over the next fifteen years he appeared in more than thirty films, including a major role in 1927's The Jazz Singer, one of the first talkies produced.

Oland's facial features, aided by makeup, allowed him to easily play the part of Asian characters. Given Hollywood's reluctance to hire Asian actors for substantial roles during that period (with only a few reluctant exceptions, such as Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakawa, and Philip Ahn), he portrayed a variety of Asian characters in "yellowface" in several movies before being offered the leading role in the 1929 film, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu as the first onscreen portrayal of the title character. A box office success, the film made Oland a star and during the next two years, he portrayed the evil Dr. Fu Manchu in three more films. Firmly locked into such roles, he was cast as Charlie Chan in the 1931 international detective mystery film, Charlie Chan Carries On and then in director Josef von Sternberg's 1932 classic film Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.

Although Oland did act in other films, the enormous worldwide box office success of his Charlie Chan film led to a Charlie Chan industry, with Oland starring in 16 films in total. Oland was also the first actor to play a werewolf in a major Hollywood film, in Werewolf of London (1935) as the werewolf who bites the protagonist, played by Henry Hull. Despite his wealth and success, Oland suffered from alcoholism that severely affected his health and his thirty-year marriage. In early 1938 Oland signed a new contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation to make three more Charlie Chan films but his health problems worsened and he was hospitalized for several weeks. Upon his release he took time off to travel to his native Sweden. His trip was very sudden, and he simply walked away from the Fox studio and the film he was in the middle of making.

In Sweden, Oland contracted bronchial pneumonia, worsened by the apparent onset of emphysema from years of heavy cigarette smoking. He died at a hospital in Stockholmmarker. 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). Warner Oland and his wife had made their primary residence in an historic farmhouse near the town of Southborough, Massachusettsmarker, a suburb of Boston. Following cremation in Sweden, his ashes were brought back to the United States by his wife for interment in the Southborough Rural Cemetery.

Partial Filmography

External links

Additional Reading

  • George A. Katchmer Eighty silent film stars, Biographies and filmographies of the obscure to the well known (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 1991)
  • Hans J. Wollstein Strangers in Hollywood, The History of Scandinavian Actors in American Films from 1910 to World War II (Metuchen, N.J., & London, 1994)

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