Complete Film

Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is one of several movies about the namesake fictional Honolulu detective. Originally created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan is an Asian character inspired by a real-life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana.

Biggers eventually wrote six novels involving his amiable Chinese character.  Moreover, the popularity of Chan went on to fuel approximately fifty movies, produced between 1926 and 1949 (there were also some later movies, but this time frame covers the canonical films).

The actors most well known for playing Charlie Chan were Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters, none of whom actually were Asian.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island

charlie-chan-at-treasure-island-v3Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is the 1939 installment of the long-running movie series. This film was the third to star Sidney Toler as the world-famous detective. Generally speaking, people have a positive opinion of the movie (it has an impressive 7.7 rating at IMDB) and it’s considered one of Toler’s best. A contemporaneous movie review from the New York Times is a bit cynical about the nature of Charlie Chan plots, but otherwise approving.

In the story, Charlie Chan and his son Jimmy arrive in San Francisco to attend the Golden Gate International Exposition held on Treasure Island. Soon after, the duo collaborates with friends at the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the San Francisco Chronicle in order to do battle with a local criminal — named Dr. Zodiac, or often just Zodiac — who is blackmailing people, sometimes to the point of suicide.

Zodiac Killer Inspiration?

Charlie Chan at Treasure IslandA number of parallels exist between certain plot elements of Charlie Chan at Treasure Island and the persona of the Zodiac Killer. The most obvious, of course, is a villain named Zodiac. Other important components include a setting in San Francisco and the prominence of SFPD and the Chronicle.

Beyond these similarities, however, there is yet another interesting aspect of the movie. Just before the climax, Chan describes the story’s antagonist in terms that come across as being uncannily apropos of the real-life serial killer.

Charlie Chan: … But Dr. Zodiac is not ordinary criminal. He is man with great ego, with disease known to science as “pseudologica fantastica.”

Lewis: [whistles]

Jimmy: Is it serious?

Charlie: Listen. [Reads from book] Pathological liars and swindlers suffer from exaggerated fantasy, unleashed vanity and great ambition which robs them of caution known to saner men.

Charlie: Criminal egotist find pleasure in laughing at police.

Scene with Curious Dialogue


So, what are we to make of the character “Zodiac” and the curious set of circumstances found in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island? Was the movie an inspiration for the man who would go on to terrorize the San Francisco Bay Area some thirty years later? Or, is the film’s existence just one of those strange coincidences that seem to show up in the minutia of the case at an improbable frequency?

Zodiac Watch

A 1962 advertisement for the Zodiac Sea Wolf Watch

One of the most convincing arguments against Dr. Zodiac being an influence on the Bay Area serial killer is the possibility of other influences. For example, many people suggest the killer was inspired to use the name “Zodiac” (and the corresponding symbol) by the Zodiac Watch Company. In my estimation, this scenario is unlikely, but it’s undeniably popular.

What is interesting about the idea of the killer being inspired by the Zodiac Watch Company is how it relates to Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. Fundamentally, the two are mutually exclusive. It is not possible for both sources to have served as the primary inspiration for the killer. At best, one was the primary inspiration and the other is just a coincidence that may have provided some degree of secondary reinforcement. A less likely possibility is that neither of the two were an inspiration, i.e. they both are just improbable coincidences.

My money is on Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. It has a multifaceted relevance that is difficult to chalk up to happenstance. The killer appears to have had multiple layers to his persona, and therefore the inspiration may well have been more of a starting point than a destination. But, I suspect it was an important element in the killer’s formulation of his persona.

What do you believe?