Warner Oland

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Warner Oland
Warner Oland.jpg
as Charlie Chan
Born Johan Verner Ölund
(1879-10-03)October 3, 1879
Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Västerbotten County, Sweden
Died August 6, 1938(1938-08-06) (aged 58)
Stockholm, Sweden
Cause of death bronchial pneumonia
Resting place Southborough Rural Cemetery, Southborough, Massachusetts
Occupation Actor
Years active 1906–1937
Spouse(s) Edith Gardener Shearn (m. 1907–38)

Warner Oland (October 3, 1879 – August 6, 1938) was a Swedish American actor most remembered for his screen role as the detective Charlie Chan. He moved to the United States when he was 13 and pursued a film career that would include time on Broadway and dozens of film appearances. He starred in a total of 16 Charlie Chan films.

Early years[edit]

He was born Johan Verner Ölund in the village of Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Västerbotten County, Sweden. He claimed that his vaguely Asian appearance was due to possessing some Mongolian ancestry,[1]:1[2] though his known ancestry contains no indication that this was so.[3] When he was thirteen, his family immigrated to the United States. Educated in Boston, Massachusetts, 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 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.

Film career[edit]

Career beginnings[edit]

After several years in theater, including appearances on Broadway 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 film, The Lightning Raider (1919). Over the next 15 years, he appeared in more than 30 films, including a major role in The Jazz Singer (1927), one of the first talkies produced.

Racebending physicality[edit]

Oland's appearance fit the Hollywood expectation of caricatured Asianness of the time, despite his having no Asian cultural background. Oland portrayed a variety of Asian characters 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. Arguably, he holds the record for having appeared in yellowface most often in film.

Becoming a star[edit]

A box office success, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu 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 international detective mystery film Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and then in director Josef von Sternberg's 1932 classic film Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.

The Charlie Chan industry[edit]

The enormous worldwide box office success of his Charlie Chan film led to more, with Oland starring in 16 Chan films in total; the series, Jill Lepore later wrote, "kept Fox afloat" during the 1930s. The actor—who received $40,000 for each movie—took his role seriously, studying the Chinese language and calligraphy.[4] 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.

Personal life[edit]

Despite his wealth and success, Oland suffered from alcoholism that severely affected his health and his thirty-year marriage. In January 1938, he started filming Charlie Chan at Ringside. However, a week into shooting his erratic behavior led to his walking off the set and shooting was abandoned. After a spell in the hospital, he signed a new three picture deal with Fox to continue playing Chan. At the same time, he was involved in a bitter divorce from his wife and his finances were restricted. So too was his ability to go overseas as a legal order prevented him from traveling and moving his assets abroad. About this time, he was involved in an incident when, after ordering his chauffeur to drive him to Mexico, he was observed during a rest stop to be sitting on the running board of his car and throwing his shoes at onlookers. The divorce settlement (favoring his wife) was announced to the media on April 2, 1938, and the same day he embarked on a ship out of the country. He turned up in southern Europe, before returning to his native Sweden where he stayed with an architect friend.


In Sweden, Oland contracted bronchial pneumonia, worsened by the apparent onset of emphysema from years of heavy cigarette smoking and he died in a hospital in Stockholm.[5] 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, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Following cremation in Sweden, his ashes were brought back to the United States by his ex-wife for interment in the Southborough Rural Cemetery.

Partial filmography[edit]


  1. ^ Hanke, Ken. Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina, 1989.
  2. ^ LoBianco, Lorraine. "Daughter of the Dragon" Turner Classic Movies.
  3. ^ Swedish genealogist Sven-Erik Johansson has traced Ölund's ancestry back 5 generations. Sikhallan Genealogy site
  4. ^ Lepore, Jill. "CHAN, THE MAN" The New Yorker, 9 August 2010.
  5. ^ Hans J. Wollstein (1994). Strangers in Hollywood: the history of Scandinavian actors in American films from 1910 to World War II. Scarecrow Press. p. 309. ISBN 978-0-8108-2938-1. Retrieved 30 July 2010. 

Additional reading[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]