Saturday, October 3, 2015

Born Today October 3: Warner Oland


Born Johan Verner Öhlund in Nyby, Sweden (a tiny little place at the time), his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1892.  After finishing school, he went straight to Broadway, where he worked through most of his 20's. He relocated to California in the early 1910's. It was at this time that he took the stage name Warner Oland, although he was affectionately known by his nickname "Jack," which no doubt derived from his birth name of Johan. He first worked on the stage there, while making attempts to break into the film industry, which he finally did in 1912 a two part, two reel film entitled Pilgrim's Progress.  From there on out he went on to have an extremely successful career in Hollywood films.  In the case of actors who are not specialist on the stage, such as he was, he was able to make the transition to silent film and back again to speaking parts when talkies came along.  He had a major role in the legendary early talkie The Jazz Singer in 1927.  He became somewhat of a specialist in "yellow face" (similar term to the more well know "black face," but in this case it means playing Asian--this took much longer to be frowned on in Hollywood, and still a sore topic of debate and conversation today) due a turn as Fu Manchu.  As a result of this he landed the role of Charlie Chan in 1931, a character that had formerly been played by actual Asian actors.  This lead to a slew Chan movies that proved financially lucrative for Fox; unfortunately for them this came to an abrupt end. He lived in Southborough, Ma. as his primary residence for many years with his wife Edith in a very old well preserved farmhouse there, despite his Hollywood career.  He and his wife became involved in a bitter divorce after 30 years of marriage based on finances (filed by her) in 1937-1938, with a settlement finally coming favoring his wife on the day he set sail for Europe (she had, apparently, endured years of serious alcohol and some undisclosed "mental problems" on his behalf--the nature of which Fox kept under serious wraps due the the Chan character).  What is known is that he intended to returned to his mother's home in Sweden; some sort of reconciliation deal was made with Edith (she must have genuinely cared for him) and then he contracted a very serious case bronchial pneumonia, and was transported to a hospital Stockholm, it was discovered by Swedish doctors that he was also suffering from emphysema, but who knows for how long.  He passed away on 6 August 1938 at the age of 57.  His wife had his remains cremated and transported back the Massachusetts for burial in the Southborough Rural Cemetery.  He seems to have been a extremely talented and rather tragic figure.  For his Chan roles, he is said to have took time to time to learn "Chinese." (that may or may not be true). If even half the stories of what he is reported to have said or done are true, it seems he suffered from some sort of schizophrenia.  On one occasion close to his departure from the US, he walked off a set and didn't return, he was apparently over-heard telling a studio executive that the set was possessed by voodoo, and he feared that he would get pneumonia.  Ironic in a way, since that is what he ultimately died of; but it was probably the on-set of the emphysema that was really troubling him (I'm not even going to get into the miniature schnauzers!).  He is buried in the Southborough Rural Cemetery in Southborough, MA.  Since this is the Countdown To Halloween it is worth noting that in the silent era he starred opposite the great Vamp herself Theda Bara in the 1915 Sin, and also appeared in "yellow-face" in the 1935 Werewolf Of London.  Let's hope he has found peace. 

With Theda

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