In the 1920s and 30s, Swedish-American film actor Warner Oland gained international fame, mainly through recurring portrayals of stereotypical Orientalist characters. However, despite 97 films, some of them canonical milestones, and a large following in Sweden, the United States, and China, Oland remains a parenthesis in film history. Some film scholars have investigated the racist parameters of his most famous incarnation, Charlie Chan, but there is no book-length study of Oland's film career. To a broader audience, he is mostly unknown. While the racist connotations of Oland's most famous roles have probably contributed to his present-day historical obscurity, such explanations fail to consider the complexity of the identity politics inherent in his public identity; a Swede who emigrated to the U.S., only to become globally famous for portraying screen Orientals.
Drawing on a wide range of primary source materials on the reception and perception of Oland and his films from Swedish, U.S. and Chinese archives, I trace how Oland’s persona operated in a figurative borderland, transgressing fixed notions of national essentialism and racial stereotyping. By focusing on the reception of Oland´s ethnic hybridity, I show that Oland´s star persona facilitated a “transcultural contact zone” straddling cross-cultural tensions between the American film industry and other national, regional, and local film cultures across the globe. Thus, this is also a case study of the underexplored transnational history of Classic Hollywood cinema, promising to produce new historical perspectives on representations of race and ethnic identity in film.