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Warner Oland Poster

Biography

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Overview (5)

Date of Birth 3 October 1879Nyby, Västerbottens län, Sweden
Date of Death 6 August 1938Stockholm, Stockholms län, Sweden  (bronchial pneumonia)
Birth NameJohan Verner Öhlund
Nickname Jack
Height 5' 11" (1.8 m)

Mini Bio (1)

Warner Oland was born Johan Verner Olund 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. His family emigrated to the US on October 15, 1892. His father Jonas was a shopkeeper and his mother was Maria Johanna (nee Forsberg).

After finishing grade school and working on Broadway during his 20s, Oland settled in California in the early 1910s, where he worked odd jobs. The movie industry was in its beginning stages in Hollywood, and Johan Olund--changing his name to the more Americanized "Warner Oland"--worked as a stage actor for a while before getting small parts in films in the 1910s and 1920s. As Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound pictures in the late 1920s (Oland co-starred in Warner Brothers' groundbreaking part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927)), he began landing more prominent roles.

His greatest success came in 1931 when he was cast in the role of Charlie Chan, a Honolulu-based Chinese-American police detective in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), based on the popular detective mystery series by Earl Derr Biggers [1884-1933] which was produced by Fox Films. His performance as the seemingly mild-mannered but razor-sharp Asian detective won him critical acclaim, which resulted in his playing Chan again in the sequel, The Black Camel (1931).

The success of the Chan character turned into a cash cow for Fox Studios 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 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.

Oland appeared in a total of 16 Charlie Chan feature films from 1931 to 1937. The Chan films were budgeted approaching 1930s A-picture levels (approximately $275,000) and were usually shot within tight 30-day schedules, three films per year (sadly, a number of these have apparently been lost). The series was pretty much the only guaranteed profit-maker 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 from Fox Films into Twentieth Century-Fox.

From 1931 to 1935 Oland did other films besides the Chan series, but he was increasingly relegated to roles that didn't vary much beyond mysterious Asians, and in mid-1935 he became so identified as Charlie Chan that he was assigned to the series exclusively. His last eight 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. The best of the series is generally considered to be Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), featuring lavish set design and a particularly effective menacing villain in Boris Karloff.

Oland's physical and mental problems slowly began to catch up to him, and in 1937 he was said to have suffered a nervous breakdown apparently due to some kind of mental dementia. The Fox executives, knowing that Oland was one of its biggest money earners, kept his alcoholism and mental problems hidden 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 and never returned. He was heard complaining the studio was possessed by voodoo and feared contracting pneumonia. Over the next month there were numerous 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, unbeknown 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 was also 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 them 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 studio Monogram Pictures and continue on even after Toler's death in 1947 with Roland Winters in the role through six 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."

- IMDb Mini Biography By: matt-282 and Jack Backstreet (qv's & corrections by A. Nonymous)

Spouse (1)

Edith Shearn (1907 - 6 August 1938) (his death)

Trivia (5)

Buried in Southborough Rural Cemetery, Southborough, Massachusetts. His gravestone, a rough oval, was made from one of the steps of his beloved home in this town.
Oland got a big break when the actress Alla Nazimova spotted him performing Shakespeare and signed him to her 1906 touring company of Ibsen's plays.
Biography in: "American National Biography". Supplement 1, pp. 461-462. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
He didn't need make-up when he played Charlie Chan; all he would do is curl down his moustache and curl up his eyebrows. In fact, the Chinese often mistook him for one of their own countrymen. He attributed this to the fact that his Russian grandmother was of Mongolian descent.
Soon after his last film, another Chan entry titled Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), which was completed in the fall of 1937, Oland began experiencing symptoms of dementia. He was apprehended walking outside his neighborhood in his underwear in the company of his prized miniature schnauzer completely disoriented. He returned to Sweden and sadly, Oland died the following August after a brief bout with pneumonia.

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