Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Art of Keye Luke

Keye Luke, who is best known for his portrayal of Number One son Lee Chan in the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan series, was one of the first Asian film stars to have a successful career in Hollywood, a career which lasted for over 50 years. Becoming an actor, however, was something Keye Luke had not intended on doing. His ambition in life was to pursue a career as an artist. This he accomplished with great success and even when he was busy with film work he always found time to practice his artistic ability. 

Luke was born in Canton, China ( now known as Guangzhou ) in 1904 while his parents were on vacation in the capital city. Luke's father operated an art store in Seattle, Washington and while at a young age Keye decided that becoming an artist was something he wanted to do. 

He attended the Chouinard Institute, studying under Richard Munsell and Carl Beetz, and while in his early twenties became a commercial artist, receiving a large commission from Graumann's Chinese Theatre. It was Keye Luke who painted the fairy tale gardens and the massive ceiling mural inside the legendary Hollywood theatre. 

Illustrations for the Franklin High School yearbook

Private commissions like this led to Luke building a name for himself doing press work for newspapers promoting current and upcoming film releases, one of which was RKO's King Kong. Luke drew many of the ape drawings that appeared in the newspaper ads for the film. 

In 1934, Luke received a call from a good friend working in the publicity department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and before he knew what he was called for he was appearing in the Greta Garbo film The Painted Veil....not as an illustrator, but as an actor! Luke received positive reviews for his performance and this brief uncredited appearance led to a prominent role in Charlie Chan in Paris, released just a year later. 

One of the murals at Graumann's Chinese Theatre

Keye Luke was cast as Detective Chan's Number One Son "Lee" in this highly entertaining film. Luke brought his youthful American optimism to the role, making Lee an indispensable character in the series.  He got on admirably with Warner Oland, the actor who portrayed the honorable detective, and they teamed up for seven more Charlie Chan films within the next two years. 

Richard Munsell and Keye Luke

Luke was kept extremely busy at many of the studios appearing in just about any role that called for a Chinese man. In 1935 alone he appeared in nine different films. During the outbreak of war in the 1940s Luke was cast in not only Chinese roles, but that of Japanese as well. Some of these films included : The Good Earth, Mr. Moto's Gamble, Mr. and Mrs. North, Across the Pacific, and Lost City of the Jungle. He also co-starred as Kato in The Green Hornet serials of 1940. 

Sketches of Warner Oland and Mark Sandrich

During this time he continued to draw Hollywood caricatures for weekly newspapers and create artwork for books and private commissions. In 1938 he also had his own show and critics from the L.A Times raved that his artwork "formed a bridge between Asian and Western art"

Luke's style of art was very much influenced by ancient Asian art and philosophy as well as by the art of British painter Aubrey Beardsley. 

Illustrations for Blessed Mother Goose by Frank Scully

After the death of Warner Oland, Keye Luke was given a choice of continuing on with the Charlie Chan series as Lee or backing out. He had looked on Warner Oland as a father-figure and decided that no one could take his place. However, Luke did return to appear in two Charlie Chan films released in 1949. 

During the 1950s Keye Luke tried his hand at acting on Broadway and scored great success in Flower Drum Song. He also appeared in guest roles on television series such as The Ray Milland Show, My Little Margie and December Bride. 

Sheet music art for a 1923 song and Luke painting a swimsuit

Luke was quite a versatile talent and even his voice became as popular as his face : he was heard on many Hanna-Barbera productions of the 1960s and 1970s, one of which was The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan where he voiced Charlie Chan. At Disney World his voice was heard narrating the Wonders of China film.

Self-portraits from The Good Earth and Flower Drum Song

Another one of his more popular roles was that of Master Po in the 1972 Kung Fu television series starring David Carradine. Luke kept active with television guest appearances and movie parts up until his death in 1991. Just a year prior he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a star he justly deserved. 

Today, his artwork is quite scarce with only a handful of the books that he illustrated appearing on online auctions. Hopefully, in the near future someone will compile a printed biography spotlighting Keye Luke's varied talents. 


  1. "Hopefully, in the near future someone will compile a printed biography spotlighting Keye Luke's varied talents." Wouldn't that be wonderful?!

    Enjoying Keye Luke on screen I sometimes, but only briefly, forget about his career as an artist. People who do that sort of work impress me greatly.

    1. Multi talented stars such as he need to be shared with the public. So many are. It goes with the "artist" in them.

  2. I have recently purchased some beautiful pieces with Luke. How do I share the images with you?

    1. We would love to see them! Please use the Contact Us tab located at the top of the blog to find our email address.

  3. Yes, a biography is long overdue.

  4. http://www.blueheronblast.com/2016/03/keye-luke.html

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHq9gCaHccI

  6. I own a couple Key Luke prints thay I purchased many years ago. I will be happy to share them. Perhaps others know more about them.

  7. Hi I recently inherited 4 9x12 Keye luke woodprints of Lucille Ball etc. I can find no one to give me an estimate of worth so I can find "forever homes" for them. nhansen13@yahoo.com if you have interest or can give me names of a firm that might deal with them. Thanks

  8. How did they accomplish the eerie effect of Keye Luke's eyes on Kung Fu, did they use contact lens?