Review by KC Carlson
Recently released from Warner Archive is the Complete Series of The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan as a two-DVD set featuring all 16 episodes.
Chan Clan first aired on September 9, 1972. Placing it in the Hanna-Barbera universe, the show was preceded (in 1971) by Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch! and The Funky Phantom and followed (in 1973) by Speed Buggy and Inch High, Private Eye, among others. Not always mentioned as one of Hanna-Barbera’s “classic” shows — and one wonders why anybody in charge thought that kids would be interested in a revival of Charlie Chan — in retrospect, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan is a enjoyable feast for both fans and scholars of pop culture, with some very surprising names involved with its production.
According to Joe Barbera’s autobiography, My Life in ‘Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century, Barbera directly pitched Fred Silverman (then in charge of children’s programming at CBS) the idea of an animated reincarnation of Charlie Chan and his “clan” of a dozen children. (Later whittled down to 10 for this show. Plus a dog. EVERY HB cartoon had a dog.) Silverman bought it immediately. Then the problems began. Not the least of which was the fact that this show had a dozen lead characters — 10 kids, dad, and a dog. At least the dog (named Chu-Chu, and performed by Dog Whisperer Don Messick, who performed almost all of the HB dogs) didn’t actually speak — although he sorta “whispers” the show’s theme “song”. And it’s easily one of the ugliest (and least inconsistently animated) dog designs ever done by HB, who were usually very good about these sort of things. (Originally, I thought it was a cat.)
Meet the Chan Clan
The kids were all excellently designed, and all packed with individual visual personality. They had to be — they often didn’t get a lot of screen time because of the size of the cast. To help simplify the animation, the family was usually broken down into sub-teams of characters, frequently by age groups. The older kids were: Henry, the natural leader; Stanley, the comedy relief (he usually shouts the show’s catch-pharse “Wham-bam, we’re in a jam!” at least once an episode); and Suzie, the oldest daughter, but she was usually paired off with the middle kids. She’s essentially a variation on the stock HB Daphne type (from Scooby-Doo).
Alan, Suzie, Tom, and Anne Chan
The middle kids include Alan, the inventor of the amazing Chan Van (more later) and whatever gadgets the family needs; Anne, an early feminist tomboy, with a baseball cap (and voiced by a young Jodie Foster); Tom, the intellectual of the family (you can tell because he wears glasses!); and Flip, the most enthusiastic member of the Clan for solving mysteries. He’s usually seen wearing a porkpie hat.
The youngest kids are Nancy (age 9), the family klutz with the giant ponytail; Mimi (age 7), very girly and bossy, especially of; Scooter (age 6), the youngest and fiercely proud of being Flip’s “right arm”. Chu Chu (the dog) usually hangs out with the young kids in their primary role of being cute. But Chu Chu can also howl like a police siren, whenever the family needs to get somewhere fast in the Chan Van. Only in a Hanna Barbera show…
Flip, Mimi, Nancy, and Scooter Chan
The Chan Van was another in a long line of magic HB vehicles; it could disguise itself with the push of a button. Plus, it didn’t always turn into another road vehicle. In one episode, it turns into a hot dog cart. I always wondered where the hot dogs came from and what exactly was in them.
I Got the Music in Me!
One of the more charming aspects of the show is that the older kids have a rock band, called (duh) The Chan Clan. There were some pedigreed folks behind the scenes providing the tunes. Music supervision was by Don Kirshner (best known for producing the early Monkees’ music). Songwriting and main vocals were by Ron Dante, the voice of many 60s and 70s pop hits. “Tracy”, by the Cuff Links in 1969, is but one. He’s best known for his work (with Kirshner) on the Archies. Dante was the singing voice of Archie Andrews on their best-selling singles and albums. Dante’s lyricist for the Chan Clan was hitmaker Howard Greenfield (“Love Will Keep Us Together”, “Calendar Girl”), and the behind-the-scenes musicians included NYC session pros Hugh McCracken and David Spinoza (who, prior to their Chan Clan work, contributed to Paul McCartney’s 1971 Ram album).
Many of the HB shows of this era had music groups as part of their structure — it was almost a formula, which is gently mocked on the back of the Chan Clan DVD box: “kids, mysteries, canine, van”. They left out “rock band”. Music has always been a huge part of Hanna-Barbera, from their early jazzy scores (by the largely unsung) Hoyt Curtin, to HB’s first regular rock band — The Impossibles — and includes the Cattanooga Cats and Banana Splits. The latter’s theme song, “The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)”, actually hit the Billboard charts. In the 70s, some of the HB shows featuring bands and songs included Josie and the Pussycats, the near-forgotten Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, and Jabberjaw.
A lot of these shows remain popular today with bubblegum/power pop/sunshine pop connoisseurs who still collect this ultra-gummy music, much of which actually was released on albums in the era. Sadly, despite its quality and pedigree, the soundtrack for The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan was never released.
Although it has to be said — and anybody who’s heard the complete soundtrack to The Banana Splits Show knows — HB songs are either brilliant (or catchy) or “What in hell am I listening to?” (aka “Two-Ton Tessie”). The Chan Clan soundtrack is no exception, from great pop songs to what sounds like things that didn’t make the cut for the show’s theme song. (Which is amazing considering how bad the actual theme song is.) Dante and Greenfield took their job pretty seriously (and they didn’t write all the Chan Clan songs), not knowing that the show was kind of a stiff. Here’s the theme song and opening credits:
(For more information, as well as an incredible read, check out the book Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay. This book is never far from my stereo, and I frequently re-read huge sections of it. If you were watching these 60s or 70s shows, it’s the ultimate guide to your childhood soundtrack — and it’s filled with stuff you never knew!)
Back to Basics
The animated series is loosely based on the Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers originally published from 1925-1932. They featured the quick-witted and heroic detective Chan and were set in Hawaii (as is the cartoon, but that’s not immediately apparent unless you look carefully). Numerous movies were based on the books, and actor Keye Luke (who voices Chan in the animated series) originally played Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son”, Lee Chan, in a number of 1930s films. He also played Kato in the original Green Hornet serials in the early 1940s and Master Po in the TV series Kung Fu. Considering my love of unusual cartoon characters, perhaps my favorite role he played of his many, many film and TV appearances was that of the original Brak on Space Ghost.
Luke had an amazingly long Hollywood career. He was the first Chinese-American contract player signed to RKO Studios, and he was one of the most prominent Asian actors in American films in the twentieth century. Amazingly, with his role of “Mr. Chan” in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, he was the first (and only) actor of Chinese descent to portray the Chinese detective. (The most popular Chan films starred either Swedish actor Warner Oland or American actor Sidney Toler, after Oland’s death.)
Interestingly, in the animated series, the lead character is always (with one exception — and that’s in a story title) referred to as “Mr. Chan” or “Dad”, but not as “Charlie” Chan.
I Hear “Extra” Voices?
It’s been occasionally reported that the show was originally cast with Chinese or Asian actors portraying the Chan children, and that they were quickly replaced by American actors because it was decided that the original accents were too thick. Animation and comic book historian Mark Evanier says that it was more likley a financial issue. Traditionally, most voice actors double (or triple) up on doing incidental, minor voices, beyond their main role. The Asian actors couldn’t really provide additional voices for the primarily American villains and supporting characters, which meant hiring more voice actors on top of an already huge cast — a big no-no for cost-conscious Hanna Barbera. Mark has more on this in the link, including the history and production of the series and how he came to write the first issue of The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan comic book — an important milestone for his writing career.
Among the American actors hired to voice the Chan Clan, besides the aforementioned Jodie Foster, were Lisa Gerritsen (various voices), best known as Phyllis’ daughter on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis. (But I remember her from the before-its-time series My World and Welcome To It (1969), which was loosely based on the work of author James Thurber.) Robert Ito (Henry Chan) worked extensively in animation, as well as playing Professor Hikita in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and as Sam Fujiyama on six seasons of Quincy. Brian Tochi (Alan Chan) has had extensive careers in both episodic TV and animation as Master Hama on Johnny Bravo and Shiv on Static Shock. HB regular Lennie Weinrub (Stanley Chan) has a long animation and television resume, including being the original voice of Scrappy-Doo, H. R. Pufnstuf, and Inch High, Private Eye. I just saw him in a great early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where he hysterically scams Mel to get Buddy’s job back.
Here’s a rare clip with all of the kids getting involved:
The Legacy of the Clan
The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan hasn’t exactly faded quietly away over the years. The band showed up in an episode of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law (as did many of the HB stars of this era), as a Japanese band called “Shoyu Weenie” suing the Jabberjaw band, the Neptunes, for plagiarism. Some of the Chan kids have cameoed in group shots in such shows as Krypto, the Superdog (Mimi) and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated (Suzie).
There’s a Hanna-Barbera legend that for most every season during their prime years, HB had a “problem” series. In 1972, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan was that year’s problem show. The scripts were so poor that Fred Silverman threatened to never buy another HB show (a threat quickly forgotten). Joe Barbera described the pre-rant situation as “ … when Fred reads it, the shit’s really gonna hit the Chan.” The early recasting of many of the voice talents was only one of the production nightmares and cost overruns stemming from the extra-large cast.
The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan was also produced during some of Hanna-Barbera’s notorious cutbacks in animation, making it even more “limited” than usual. Even casual viewers of this set will notice that there’s basically only one version of the animation to accompany the frequent musical segments of the show, where the family’s pop band is performing, although they try to disguise this with editing tricks. Watch carefully in one episode — guitarist/singer Stanley’s head completely disappears for a few frames! What I found amusing were that several backgrounds were painted with main characters directly on them so that they don’t move at all! Some characters go for minutes without blinking, and some never move their heads at all — other than their mouths. Each character had their own unique walk-cycle, but when three or more of the characters walk together it often looks like crazy dancing! This show could be the ultimate HB drinking game for hardcore animation fans. (No head – drink!)
Here’s a clip showing how limited the animation could be. The parrot moves more than some of the lead characters!
But We Love it Anyway…
Despite all of this, it’s actually a charming show if you concentrate on the interesting character interrelations (and design work) and on the (mostly) high-quality music. Try to ignore the super-limited animation and the really corny jokes — although I have a theory that some of those are deliberately so. As with all of Warner Archive’s animation sets, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan episodes have not been restored, but overall the show looks (and sounds) at least as good as the prints occasionally shown on Boomerang. You’ll see some specks and dirt, but what do you expect from a show that’s now (gasp!) 40 years old.
I’m really happy to be able to hold this set in my hands — especially as I’m beginning to wonder if some of my favorite HB shows (including Quick Draw McGraw and the Banana Splits) will ever be recovered enough to be properly released. Even if The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan wasn’t HB’s best show, it has its fans, and it’s truly wonderful that it even still exists at all. Fans should rejoice! Warner Archive’s animation rocks! Bring on more!
(The studio provided a review copy.)