Earl Derr Biggers

Born - Aug 26, 1884   |   Died - Apr 5, 1933   |   Genres - Mystery, Comedy, Crime, Romance

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Earl Derr Biggers was one of the most popular humor writers of the early 20th century, and also enjoyed a string of hit plays in New York and London. His professional writing career lasted barely 20 years, but he is best remembered today for one truly immortal creation: Charlie Chan.

Earl Derr Biggers was born in Warren, OH, the son of Robert J. Biggers and the former Emma E. Derr. He attended Harvard during the first decade of the 20th century, where he was identified as something of a rebel against the prevailing academic wisdom, embracing such popular modern writers as Rudyard Kipling and Richard Harding Davis over more accepted figures such as Keats, Fielding, and Richardson. A year after graduating, he began establishing himself as a popular writer, authoring humor articles (and later reviews as well) for the Boston Traveler. He began writing plays in the second decade of the century, making his debut with If You're Only Human, which was a failure after its premiere in 1912. He scored a huge success as a novelist the following year with his debut book, The Seven Keys to Baldpate, a work that incorporated mystery, satire, and romance. Not only was the book a critical and commercial success, but it attracted the interest of George M. Cohan, who bought the theatrical rights and turned it into a hit theatrical production, which was subsequently filmed in 1915, 1917, 1925, 1929, 1935, 1947, and in 1983 as House of the Long Shadows. He published two more novels during the 1910s, Love Insurance (1914) and The Agony Column (1916), but his main activity was focused on humor writing, particularly in magazines and short stories. He enjoyed hits with the plays Inside the Lines (which got 500 performances -- a very long run in those days -- in London) and A Cure for Curables, which had a two-year run in New York. He also collaborated with Christopher Morley on one play, but he was generally unhappy with the transition of his plays to the stage and, instead, went to the newly founded film colony of Hollywood in the late teens.

The first adaptation of Love Insurance was done in 1919, and another version was made in 1924. It was on vacation in Hawaii that Biggers found the inspiration for his most popular creation. He chanced to hear stories of a real-life Chinese detective based in Honolulu named Chang Apana, and out of those tales, created the character of Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department. The first story, The House Without a Key, debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925 and was re-published as a book later that same year. In 1926 came the second Charlie Chan story, The Chinese Parrot, which also appeared as both a serialized story and a book. Over the next six years, Biggers authored six more novels, two unrelated to the Chan mysteries and four Charlie Chan stories: Behind the Curtain (1928), in which he introduced the element of Chan's philosophical aphorisms; The Black Camel (1929), the first of the stories in which the suspects are all gathered together at the denouement; Charlie Chan Carries On (1930); and Keeper of the Keys (1932). The first screen adaptation of the Chan stories appeared in 1926, but it wasn't until 1931 when Warner Oland assumed the role in the screen version of Charlie Chan Carries On (now a lost film) that the character began to capture the imaginations of filmgoers. All six of the Chan novels were licensed for movie adaptations by Fox Films, who brought them to the screen during the first half of the '30s, some under their literary titles and two under other names (Charlie Chan's Greatest Case [1933] was based on The House Without a Key and Charlie Chan's Courage [1934] adapted from The Chinese Parrot).

Biggers only lived to see the early successes of the Chan stories onscreen. He died in April of 1933 at the age of 48, from a heart attack. He was one of the most popular mystery authors in the country at the time, and was also enjoying the renown success from the four screen adaptations of Cohan's The Seven Keys to Baldpate. Biggers' creations were so popular that they outlived him, without skipping a beat. The Charlie Chan movies were easily one of the most successful screen series in history, with over 40 movies based on the character. Fox's series continued with Warner Oland until his death in 1938, after which Sidney Toler took over the role. When Fox decided to abandon the series (along with all other series films), Toler, sensing a potential gold mine, purchased the screen rights to the character from Biggers' estate and, in turn, brought the Chan "franchise" to Monogram Pictures, who resumed filming with Toler until his death in 1947. Roland Winters assumed the part for six final films, ending in 1949. Beyond the movies, however, were numerous Chan radio adaptations and comic strips, as well as attempts to bring the character to television in various guises over the ensuing decades. Another Biggers success in the years after his death include One Night in the Tropics (1940), a screen adaptation of Love Insurance. It was a more than reasonably funny movie in any case, but it was also the film that introduced the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to the big screen in supporting comic-relief roles.

Other authors emulated aspects of the Chan books, most notably John P. Marquand with his Japanese detective Mr. Moto (which also came to the screen courtesy of 20th Century Fox), and Hugh Wiley with Mr. Wong (filmed by Monogram). In recent years, the character of Chan has been derided as an offensive, outmoded racial stereotype. This view is somewhat shortsighted and ignorant; it also derives more from some of the poorer Chan films than from Biggers' writing. Biggers' Charlie Chan was a benevolent, literary counteractive to Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu. Indeed, as a literary creation and a screen character, Chan was the first Chinese character in popular Western culture who was not a villain, or a subservient social role, but was a skilled and respected professional -- a police officer (then a totally respected profession) and a force of good, feared by evildoers. That is why Chinese audiences (even in China) in the '30s loved the character of Chan in books and films, never caring that the movies had a Swedish actor (Warner Oland) portraying him; he was an improvement over any depiction they'd ever had before that time. Chan is also a complex character, who develops and changes over the course of the novels, and offers a range of intellectual and emotional depth. Additionally, Biggers often used theChan stories and the plots as a vehicle to critique American pop culture and the behavior of other Westerners around him. Indeed, Chan, the books, and the early films based on them were the first successful applications of a non-Western point-of-view. Charlie Chan became Earl Derr Biggers' most enduring legacy. Despite his long string of theatrical successes, and even the lingering appeal of The Seven Keys to Baldpate, it is for the Chan books that Biggers has been best and most widely recognized.