Sunday, August 31, 2008

Guest Blogger: Hal Glatzer - from Novel to Movie to Play

Today we welcome Hal Glatzer - author, playwright, song writer, actor, director and musician...and believe me, this is just the start of the list. Those of you who have been to Malice Domestic have enjoyed his "Theater of the Air" productions. In his guest essay, Hal talks about his latest, and perhaps most challenging project.

“The House Without a Key” – From Novel to Movie to Play

In 1919, Earl Derr Biggers was celebrating: he’d written a popular novel, “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” that had been turned into a hit play on Broadway. So he sailed to Honolulu for a vacation, and stayed in one of the first hotels on Waikiki Beach. But while he delighted in the tropical scenery, he was apparently more intrigued by the exploits of a local cop.

Chang Apana was short and wiry, and carried a gun, but his preferred weapon was a bullwhip. He was best known for combating organized crimes, such as smuggling, by working undercover, since, like many of Hawaii’s crooks in those days, he was not Caucasian (he was Chinese-Hawaiian) and he did not speak English well. If Zane Grey had based a character on Apana, he might have made him a paniolo, a Hawaiian cowpuncher, for the real Apana was much like the cowboy-sheriffs in Grey’s Western yarns.

But Biggers interpreted what he saw in Apana as Chinese virtues: a dedication to law and order, a sense of duty, a passion for decency and honesty . . . all of which was a refreshing contrast to the stereotypical image of Chinese characters as villains, like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.

So Biggers turned Apana into Charles (“Charlie”) Chan: a sagacious, middle-aged Honolulu policeman with a large family, a deep understanding of human nature, a deferential manner, and an accent. Chan tends to express big ideas subtly, through allusions and aphorisms, but he is always – in the words of popular-culture scholar Peter Feng – “the smartest man in the room.”

Biggers wrote six Chan novels, starting with “The House Without a Key,” in 1925. All of them were optioned by Hollywood; but Biggers died in 1933, after only a few silent movies and early talkies were made – and no prints of those first films have survived. Most of us have seen at least a few of the Charlie Chan movies that were made subsequently – there are more than forty, from three studios – but none is based on the book that introduced the character.

In “The House Without a Key,” a prominent man with a shady past is stabbed in his home on Waikiki Beach, where he has always felt safe (hence the title). His relatives think they can find the killer on their own; but it is Chan, of course, who solves the case. The book has never gone out of print, and the series is now being published in new editions from Academy Chicago.

As you may know, next year’s Left Coast Crime ( will be held here on the Big Island of Hawaii. For his connection to the Islands, and his creation of a local (albeit fictional) hero, the LCC organizers named Biggers the convention’s “Ghost of Honor.” And I was given an hour, on the opening night, in which to present a theatrical tribute to him.

Since I’ve been producing audio-plays at the Malice Domestic convention for several years, I initially looked for an old-time radio play. There was a Charlie-Chan series broadcast in the 1930s and ‘40s, and some recordings survive; but none of the episodes is actually based on a Biggers novel. I also looked in the Samuel French Co.’s catalog of stage plays, but found no Chan script of any kind there.

I did, however, locate a screenplay from 1933, by Lester Cole and Marion Orth, which – to my delight – was based on “The House Without a Key.” Fox produced and released the movie that year (under the title “Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case”), but it’s one of those early “lost” films that we will never see. So I obtained permission from 20th Century Fox, which holds the copyright, and adapted the screenplay into a one-act play script that can be performed in sixty minutes without intermission.

In this I feel I am honoring not only Biggers but the Chan character as well. He has long been popular – there were once eponymous comic strips and comic books, too – but there has also long been a contrary, disparaging opinion of him. The Hollywood version has especially galled Asian-Americans, because – one silent film excepted – he was always played by a Caucasian in “yellow-face” makeup. And by the time the last films were made, in the 1940s, the character had shrunk to little more than the cartoon version: a kow-towing, overweight Buddha whose dialog comes out of a fortune-cookie.

But that is not what Biggers created! And in my script, Chan hews close to the original conception of him. My production will be the first time this story has ever been presented on stage; and since I will cast the play with local actors, Chan will once again be portrayed by an Asian-American.

We will present “The House Without a Key” four times, here on the Big Island, giving three performances in Hilo, on March 5, 6 and 7, and one in Waikoloa, at Left Coast Crime, on March 8. I hope you all can be in the audience, next year, to enjoy this unique theatrical experience.

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Hal Glatzer is a veteran mystery writer and vintage Swing-era musician who lives now on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hal recommends this website for information on the new “The House Without a Key” edition being published by Academy Chicago.


Donis Casey said...

This sounds fantastic! The idea of returning Charlie Chan to his original brilliant self and not a caricature is an idea whose time should have come long ago.

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