Warner Oland

Warner Oland (born Johan Verner Ölund; 3 October 1879 – 6 August 1938) was a Swedish-American actor. His career included time on Broadway and numerous film appearances. He is most remembered for playing several Chinese and Chinese-American characters: Dr. Fu Manchu, Henry Chang in Shanghai Express, and, most notably, Honolulu Police detective Lieutenant Charlie Chan in 16 films.[1]

Warner Oland
Warneroland 1916.jpg
Oland in 1919
Johan Verner Ölund

(1879-10-03)October 3, 1879
Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Sweden
DiedAugust 6, 1938(1938-08-06) (aged 58)
Stockholm, Sweden
Resting placeSouthborough Rural Cemetery, Southborough, Massachusetts, US
Years active1902–1937
Known forCharlie Chan
Edith Gardener Shearn
(m. 1907⁠–⁠1938)

Early yearsEdit

Oland was born in the village of Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Västerbotten County, Sweden. He claimed that his vaguely Asian appearance was due to possessing some Mongolian ancestry,[2][3] though his known ancestry contains no indication that this was so.[4]

When he was 13, Oland's family emigrated to the United States, in November 1892, on board the S/S Thingvalla, which sailed from Christiania, Norway, to New York. After an initial stay in New York City, the family settled in New Britain, Connecticut. Educated in Boston, Oland spoke English and his native Swedish, and eventually translated some of the plays of August Strindberg.

As a young man, Oland pursued a career in theater, at first working on set design while developing his skills as a dramatic actor. In 1906, he was signed to tour the country with the troupe led by Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945). The following year, he met and married the playwright and portrait painter Edith Gardener Shearn (1872-1968). Shearn made an ideal partner for Oland. She mastered Swedish, helping him with the translation of Strindberg's works that they jointly published in book form in 1912.[5]

Film careerEdit

Career beginningsEdit

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. As a result of his training as a Shakespearean actor and his easy adoption of a sinister look, he was much in demand as a villain and in ethnic roles. 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.

Oland as the popular Asian character Charlie Chan in 1936's Charlie Chan's Secret

Becoming a starEdit

Oland's normal appearance fit the Hollywood expectation of caricatured Asianness of the time, despite his having no proven Asian ethnic background[citation needed]. 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.[6]

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 (although the second one was purely a cameo appearance). 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. Oland played a werewolf, biting the protagonist, played by Henry Hull, in Werewolf of London (1935).[7]

The Charlie Chan industryEdit

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, while earning Oland $40,000 per movie. Oland took his role seriously, studying the Chinese language and calligraphy.[8][9]

Last Year and DeathEdit

Despite his wealth and success, Oland suffered from alcoholism that severely affected his health and his 30-year marriage. In January 1938, he started filming Charlie Chan at the Ringside. However, a week into shooting, his erratic behavior culminated in his walking off the set, causing the film to be abandoned. After a spell in the hospital, he signed a new three-picture deal with Fox to continue playing Chan.

During this period he was involved in a bitter divorce from his wife. He was forbidden, by court order, from traveling overseas or moving his assets abroad. Around this time, he was involved in a public incident when, having ordered his chauffeur to drive him to Mexico, he was observed during a rest stop sitting on the running board of his car throwing his shoes at onlookers.

The divorce settlement, favoring his wife, was announced to the media on April 2, 1938. The same day he left the US by ship, turning up in southern Europe, then proceeding 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, August 6, 1938, aged 58.[10]

Following cremation in Sweden, his ashes were brought back to the United States by his ex-wife, for interment in the Southborough Rural Cemetery in Southborough, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where the Olands had previously resided in a historic farmhouse.[11][12]

Oland's last film, the unfinished Charlie Chan at the Ringside, was reworked, with Oland's scenes reshot with Peter Lorre, and was released as Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938).

Warner is referenced anonymously in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, when they met on a train, a famous actor who was, at first, critical of Yogananda's eastern garb and the conversation soon evolved into an amicable philosophical discussion.[13]



  1. ^ "Warner Oland". Svensk Filmdatabas. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  2. ^ Hanke, Ken. Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina, 1989.
  3. ^ LoBianco, Lorraine. "Daughter of the Dragon" Turner Classic Movies.
  4. ^ Swedish genealogist Sven-Erik Johansson has traced Ölund's ancestry back 5 generations. Sikhallan Genealogy site
  5. ^ "Alla Nazimova". Women Film Pioneers. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  6. ^ "Warner Oland". Charlie Chan Family Home. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  7. ^ "Warner Oland". Classic Monsters. September 6, 2017. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  8. ^ Lepore, Jill. "Chan, The Man" The New Yorker, August 9, 2010.
  9. ^ "Warner Oland". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  10. ^ Wollstein, Hans J. (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 July 30, 2010.
  11. ^ "Warner Oland". Chicago Daily Tribune. August 7, 1938. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  12. ^ "Warner Oland". New York Times. August 7, 1938. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
  13. ^ Goldberg, Philip G. (2018). The Life of Yogananda. New Delhi: Hay House India. p. 103. ISBN 978-9-3868-3252-8.

Other sourcesEdit

  • Alistair, Rupert (2018). "Warner Oland". The Name Below the Title : 65 Classic Movie Character Actors from Hollywood's Golden Age (softcover) (First ed.). Great Britain: Independently published. pp. 196–199. ISBN 978-1-7200-3837-5.
  • Katchmer, George A. (1991). Eighty Silent Film Stars: Biographies and Filmographies of the Obscure to the Well Known (hardcover) (First ed.). Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-89950-494-0.
  • Huang, Yunte (2010) Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (New York: W W Norton) ISBN 978-0-393-06962-4

External linksEdit