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Chan not Chinese, but still a pioneer

Times Staff Writer

There’s no getting around the fact that the vintage Charlie Chan mystery movies of the 1930s and ‘40s are, to put it mildly, politically incorrect in this day and age because three of the actors who brought Earl Derr Biggers’ sage Chinese detective to life on screen were played by Caucasians: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters.

But as the numerous documentaries point out on Fox’s “The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 1" ($60) DVD set, these movies marked the first time there had been an Asian hero on screen. Generally, Asian characters had been villains or servants. Chan was brilliant, a fervent family man, moral and admired around the world. Biggers created Chan as a reaction against the racist Yellow Peril stories popular in the early 20th century.

Documentaries in the four-disc set include “The Real Charlie Chan,” which explores the life of famed Honolulu detective Chang Apana, and “The Legacy of Charlie Chan.”

The set features four films starring the Swedish-born Oland, who played the detective from 1931 until his death in 1938. These films are far more entertaining -- and less racist -- than those made in the 1940s with Toler and Winters.

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In 1935’s “Charlie Chan in Shanghai,” the detective tries to solve a murder and uncover an opium ring with the help of his oldest son, Lee (Keye Luke). The film also stars Charles Locher, who two years later would become a star under the name Jon Hall in John Ford’s “The Hurricane.”

The “Shanghai” DVD includes “Eran Trece,” the Spanish-language version of “Charlie Chan Carries On,” in which Manuel Arbo plays Chan. The English language version, the first with Oland, no longer exists.

“Charlie Chan in Egypt,” also from 1935, is the most politically incorrect of this set because of the cringe-inducing stereotypical portrayal of an African-American servant played by Stepin Fetchit -- his character’s name is Snowshoes. The film also features a teenage Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino.

Also in the set are 1935’s “Charlie Chan in Paris” and “Charlie Chan in London” from 1934 (the first movie not based on one of Biggers’ six Chan novels).

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Also new this week

“Syriana” (Warner, $29): George Clooney won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best supporting actor for his performance as an world-weary CIA operative in Stephen Gaghan’s dense thriller about the tangled workings of the global oil industry. Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright also star. Extras include a thoughtful interview with Clooney and a making-of featurette.

“The Cult of the Suicide Bomber” (Ryko, $20): Former CIA spy Robert Baer -- the operative on which Clooney’s “Syriana” character is based -- explores the genesis of suicide bombers in this chilling documentary.

“Eight Below” (Disney, $30): Paul Walker is the human star of this Disney family film, but the scene-stealers are the gorgeous Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes that comprise a dog team left to fend for themselves when humans abandon their post in Antarctica. Extras include an informative documentary on how the dogs were chosen and trained.

“The Hills Have Eyes -- Unrated Edition” (Fox, $30): Viscerally bloody remake of the 1977 Wes Craven classic horror flick about a family traveling through the Southwest on their way to California who are stalked by a group of cannibalistic mutants. Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan and Emilie de Ravin of “Lost” head the cast. Extras include enthusiastic commentary from French director Alexandre Aja and his collaborator, art director-co-screenwriter Gregory Levasseur and producer Marianne Maddalena, and a track with self-effacing producers Craven and Peter Locke; a behind-the-scenes documentary and passable production diaries.

“Equinox” (Criterion, $40): Influential monster movie thriller that was made over a two-year period for $6,500 by Oscar-winning visual effects artist Dennis Muren (“Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park”) when he was just a teenager. Producer Jack H. Harris of “The Blob” fame acquired the film for distribution and enlisted writer-director-actor Jack Woods to shoot new footage.

The two-disc set includes the Woods-Harris 1970 version, as well as Muren and co-writer-director Mark McGee’s 1967 original, a video introduction by writer Forrest J. Ackerman, commentary with Woods and Harris on the 1970 release and amusing commentary with Muren, McGee and effects technician Jim Danforth on the 1967 version, deleted scenes and outtakes, stop-motion test footage and interviews with several actors, including Frank Bonner, who went on to star in “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast From Hell,” a 1972 short featuring the crew of “Equinox.”

And: “Night Watch” (Fox, $28), “Look, Up in the Sky -- the Amazing Story of Superman” (Warner, $15)

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