Charlie Chan: Very Honourable Cousin

My uncle, Henry Stone, may have been hero, a soldier and pilot for both Canada and the USA in two of their wars, and was instrumental in setting up the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Minnesota, but our family had a cousin with an altogether different kind of fame.

Warner Oland, compliments of Wikipedia

Although the name “Warner Oland” may not ring any bells for many people anymore – even in relation to The Swedish Pioneers. After all, that name bears no similarities to the other names we’ve come across: He’s not a Sten or a Stone or a Holmlund. But Warner Oland was a cousin and a famous one at that, best known as the actor who played the most perplexing and well-loved movie detectives ever, Charlie Chan. That was after reaching stardom and box office success in one of Paramount’s first talkies, the 1929 release of “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.” Cousin Warner played the title role Dr. Fu Manchu.

According to Wikipedia, the Olands settled around Boston after emigrating from Sweden. Warner was drawn to New York City, and his show business career started out as a stage hand.

Cousin Warner Oland

The rather dashing Warner Oland

The Jazz Singer

But Warner wasn’t content with a behind-the-scenes role, and became trained as a Shakespearian actor. Slowly but surely, parts started to come along. Because of his acting abilities and his ability to look “ethnic” with the addition of a “little goatee on his chin”, he started to find himself in demand, including a major role in one of the first talkie’s ever, the 1927 hit The Jazz Singer which starred Al Jolson.

Dr. Fu Manchu

Warner Oland - cousin Warner

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu

In 1929, after being cast as the evil criminal genius, Dr. Fu Manchu, Oland was given the starring role as detective Charlie Chan with Fox Studios. The very first movie, Charlie Chan Carries On, was a box office success and Oland was eventually contracted to 15 more Charlie Chan films.

Charlie Chan was a completely different character than Dr. Manchu, and although this dark-haired Swedish-born man was playing an oriental detective, Chan’s character was kind, funny, generous, clever and honourable. Given $40,000 for each of the Chan films — as well as stardom (Oland starred opposite of Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express), it seems that Warner liked the booze just a little bit too much, and it started to interfere with his family life – and his job.

After he and his wife of 30 years, playwright and portrait painter Edith Gardener Shearn divorced, Oland got on a ship to Europe and eventually ended up in Stockholm, staying at the home of one of his friends. But the drink and years of smoking caught up with him and he died, aged 58, in Stockholm, from bronchial pneumonia.

His ex-wife had his cremated ashes shipped back to the USA for internment, and a memorial to cousin Warner can be found at the Southborough Rural Cemetery in Southborough, Massacheussets.

How We’re Related

Family trees are not easy to draw and put online, so I’m going to tell you how we are related.

We go back to Olaf Forsberg and his two sons: Erik and Carl. I’m on Erik’s branch of the tree and cousin Warner is on Carl’s.

  • Erik Forsberg was born in 1797 and married Beata Christine. They had a daughter Anna Ulrika who married Olof Gustave Holmlund and they has a son, Erik August Holmlund who married Emma Sofia and they had a daughter Judith Theresa (my mom) who married Peter Stone (my dad) and THEY had a daughter and that is me:   Leslie Maureen Stone (who later married Gerald Patrick Merlin O’Shea).
  • Carl Forsberg married Anna Brita and they had a son named Erik who married Brita Sophia and they had a daughter named Maria Johanna who married Jonas Ölund and they had a son Johan Verner Ölund who became Warner Oland when his family emigrated to the USA as a teenager in 1892 — the year my mother was born. Warner was born in Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Västerbotten County, Sweden.

Here are a couple of interesting sites to learn more about cousin Warner.

  • Go to Hellman is a blog written by Eric Hellman, also a cousin, who has a put his family tree into a database. You can learn about him and look at their family tree from off of this page – including Eric’s thoughts on whether or nor Oland was Mongolian as is claimed in Wikipedia;
  • The Charlie Chan Family Scrapbook – this seems to be a scan of photos, newspaper clippings about Warner’s career, put online and is really worth a look to get an idea of the breadth of Oland’s career. The image at the top of this page comes from this site.
  • Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room – Charlie Chan and Me – Film critic Ken Hanke wrote a book called “Charlie Chan at the Movies” and this post recounts a bit of that story.
  • YouTube – You can find a bunch of Charlie Chan movies on YouTube, including this one: Charlie Chan at the Olympics.

I always knew that the man who’d played Charlie Chan was related to us, but I don’t remember seeing any of his movies when I was young. My older sisters and brothers, however, might have even seen his movies when they were originally released.

I’d like to thank my niece, Deborah Rowbotham, Georgie‘s daughter, for bringing this story to my attention, and to my daughter, Colleen O’Shea, for bringing it to life.

2 Comments, RSS

  1. Susan Hedges

    I remember mom talking about Charlie Chan movies, but did not know the connection. I found this story really amusing. I remember being in a wig store with her once and I put on a black wig, she started laughing said I looked Chinese, and she was right. Thanks for the picture you sent.

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