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April 28, 1874|
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||February 12, 1947
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Actor, playwright, theatre director|
|Spouse(s)||Vivian Marston (1907-1943) (her death)
Viva Tattersall (1943-1947) (his death)
Sidney Toler (April 28, 1874 – February 12, 1947) was an American actor, playwright, and theatre director. Of primarily Scottish ancestry, he was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan on screen, and is best remembered for that role.
Early life and career
Born in Warrensburg, Missouri, Toler showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Following his graduation from college, he became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the 1920s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930, co-written with Viva Tattersall).
In 1929, Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years, he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with George M. Cohan, and Call of the Wild (1935), featuring Clark Gable. He generally had mid-level roles, often as police officers or minor officials.
Charlie Chan series
Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio decided on Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century-Fox announced its choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less than a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu, which had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke. Toler's portrayal of the Chinese detective in Charlie Chan in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke. Toler's Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural. When needed, Charlie Chan now displayed overt sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy.
Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, Fox concluded the series. The wartime collapse of the international film market may have been a factor, but the main reason was that Fox was curtailing virtually all of its low-budget series. Fox's other "B" series -- (Jane Withers, Michael Shayne, The Cisco Kid -- also ended that year. (Only Laurel and Hardy remained in Fox's "B" unit, until it shut down at the end of 1944.)
With Fox no longer producing Chan films, Toler immediately sought the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers. Toler had hoped that if he could find someone to produce new Charlie Chan films, starring himself, he might get Fox to distribute them. Fox declined, but Toler sold the idea to Monogram Pictures, a lower-budget film studio. Phil Krasne, a Hollywood lawyer who invested in film productions, partnered with James Burkett to produce the Monogram Chans.
With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a more limited budget were somewhat apparent. Production values were no match for those of Fox; Monogram's budgets were typically about 40% of what Fox's had been. In fairness to Monogram, the films did gradually improve, with The Chinese Cat, The Shanghai Cobra, and Dark Alibi often cited as favorites by fans. Cast changes were again made: Sen Yung's Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present and popular Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief (and black audiences) to the series. Monogram's Charlie Chan films boasted tricky screenplays with many surprise culprits and murder devices, and were profitable and successful.
Toler's first wife was Vivian Marston, an American actress of Spanish and Canadian ancestry, whom he married in 1907 and who occasionally used the surname Marston-Toler professionally. She died in 1943. The couple had no children.
In 1943, Toler married longtime friend Viva Tattersall (née Vera Tattersall, 1898-1989), a British-born actress with whom he had co-written several plays, including Ritzy (1930) and Dress Parade (1929). Their marriage lasted until Toler's death in 1947. The couple had no children.
Later years and death
By the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting Toler. Diagnosed with cancer, the 72-year-old Toler was so ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Shadows over Chinatown (1946) that he could hardly walk. Monogram hired Toler's original foil, "Number Two Son" Victor Sen Yung, for Toler's last two films, quite probably to ease the burden on Toler. Toler mustered enough strength to complete his last film, The Trap, which was filmed in July-August 1946 and released in November that same year. (Yung and Moreland relieve Toler of much of the action in The Trap). Toler's Monogram output matched his Fox output: 11 films for each studio.
Sidney Toler died on February 12, 1947, at his home in Los Angeles, California from intestinal cancer. Monogram continued the series with actor Roland Winters who appeared in six more feature films as Charlie Chan.
|1920||The Bait||writer of source material, play The Tiger Lady|
|1921||A Heart to Let||writer with Harriett Lummis Smith of source material, the play Agatha's Aunt|
|1929||Madame X||Dr. Merivel||Alternative title: Absinthe|
|1930||The Devil's Parade||Satan|
|1931||White Shoulders||William Sothern|
|Strictly Dishonorable||Patrolman Mulligan|
|1932||Blondie of the Follies||Pete|
|Blonde Venus||Det. Wilson|
|The Phantom President||Professor Aikenhead|
|Speak Easily||Stage Director|
|1933||The Narrow Corner||Ryan, the Go-Between|
|1934||Dark Hazard||John Bright|
|Spitfire||Mr. Jim Sawyer|
|The Trumpet Blows||Pepi Sancho|
|Upper World||Officer Moran|
|1935||Romance in Manhattan||Police Sergeant|
|The Call of the Wild||Joe Groggins|
|1936||Three Godfathers||Prof. Amos Snape|
|The Gorgeous Hussy||Daniel Webster|
|Our Relations||Captain of SS Periwinkle|
|1937||That Certain Woman||Detective Lieutenant Neely|
|Double Wedding||Mr. Keough|
|1938||Gold Is Where You Find It||Harrison McCooey|
|The Mysterious Rider||Frosty Kilburn|
|If I Were King||Robin Turgis|
|Up the River||Jeffrey Mitchell|
|Charlie Chan in Honolulu||Charlie Chan|
|Law of the Pampas||Fernando||A Hopalong Cassidy Film|
|Disbarred||G.L. "Hardy" Mardsen|
|Charlie Chan in Reno||Charlie Chan|
|Charlie Chan at Treasure Island||Charlie Chan|
|Charlie Chan in City in Darkness||Charlie Chan|
|1940||Charlie Chan in Panama||Charlie Chan|
|Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise||Charlie Chan|
|Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum||Charlie Chan|
|Murder Over New York||Charlie Chan|
|1941||Charlie Chan in Rio||Charlie Chan|
|Dead Men Tell||Charlie Chan|
|1942||Castle in the Desert||Charlie Chan|
|1943||A Night to Remember||Inspector Hankins|
|Isle of Forgotten Sins||Krogan/Carruthers||Alternative title Monsoon|
|1944||Charlie Chan in the Secret Service||Charlie Chan||The first Monogram "Charlie Chan" film|
|The Chinese Cat||Charlie Chan||Alternate title Murder in the Funhouse|
|Black Magic||Charlie Chan||Alternate title Meeting at Midnight|
|1945||It's in the Bag!||Detective Sully||Alternative title: The Fifth Chair|
|The Shanghai Cobra||Charlie Chan|
|The Jade Mask||Charlie Chan|
|The Red Dragon||Charlie Chan|
|The Scarlet Clue||Charlie Chan|
|1946||Dark Alibi||Charlie Chan|
|Shadows Over Chinatown||Charlie Chan|
|Dangerous Money||Charlie Chan|
|The Trap||Charlie Chan|
- Playthings (1918)
- The Bait (1921) (made into a 1921 silent film, The Bait)
- A Heart to Let (1921)
- Marriage year and ancestry cited in 1910 U. S. Federal Census for Massachusetts, accessed online at ancestry.com on 25 September 2011
- Career outlined in Johnson Briscoe, "The Actors' Birthday Book" (Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908), page 54
- Surname Marston-Toler given in "The Green Book Album: A Magazine of the Passing Show", January 1910, page 429
- "Catalogue of Copyright Entries", US Government Printing Office, 1929, page 6
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