The Hollywood Detective Movie

Dorian Whitmore

The Hollywood detective film genre has consistently proven itself popular with movie-going audiences. The attraction to this type of character and the stories involving detectives actually began on radio with a number of successful detective series radio programs. In the early part of the 20th century, as the motion picture industry began to grow, people began to turn off the radio and fill the movie theaters to view the detective movies that Hollywood was producing.

Detective movies did not always require sound in order to entertainingly portray the mystery that was involved. In fact, silent films played a large part in the detective movies that were released during the 1920s. However, the addition of sound greatly enhanced viewers enjoyment through classic dialogue and sound effects.

Of all the detective movies made by Hollywood, Sherlock Holmes may be the most popular. There have been over 200 films and television shows based on the character.

Edger Allen Poe is generally regarded as having introduced the first fictional detective character in 1841. The detectives name was C. Auguste Dupin. The classic sleuth Sherlock Holmes, as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, achieved widespread popularity easily becoming the most famous fictional detective in motion picture history. So famous that the character has been portrayed by more actors than any other character in film history. The actor most recognized as playing Holmes is Basil Rathbone, with Nigel Bruce as his trusted associate Dr. Watson. This team shared top billing from 1939 – 1946. Some other notable actors to play the role included Robert Rundell, and Reginald Owen.

Another extremely popular film detective during this period was Charlie Chan. There were 46 Charlie Chan movies made between 1929 and 1946, and interestingly enough, the Chinese detective was never played by a Chinese actor. Introduced to the movie-going public as a minor role played by E.L. Park in the 1929 movie Behind That Curtain, the characters popularity soared with 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On starring Warner Oland as the detective. Oland continued in the role of Chan for fifteen additional films right up until his death. Sidney Tolar took over the role for another eleven films produced by 20th Century Fox through 1942 when Tolar himself bought the screen rights and began a new series of Charlie Chan films with Monogram Pictures.

Actor Roland Winters followed in the role after Tolar’s death and the series continued for another six films. Sadly, the quality of the films went dramatically downhill after Tolar’s purchase of the screen rights.

As for the character himself, Detective Charlie Chan worked for the Honolulu Police Department, was married, and had fourteen children, often referring to the oldest as “number one son”. In an era when Asians were mostly thought of as laundrymen, house boys, or just villains, Chan stood out as a positive example for Asians. Other popular detective film series included Mr. Moto, The Thin Man Series (along with Sherlock Holmes, my personal favorite) and Bulldog Drummond.

Just as they were in the early part of the 20th century, Hollywood detective movies continue to appear on the movie screen on a regular basis, and will continue to owe their success to these humble beginnings. It’s the lure of mystery that will continue to keep audiences coming back for more.

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