Mr. Wong, Detective

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) - 5.0

During the 1930's and 40's there was a constant barrage of crime series' being produced. Some are still well known today - The Saint, The Falcon, Charlie Chan, the Thin Man, Perry Mason, Bulldog Drummond, Philo Vance, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes while others have basically been forgotten by all but a few fans like me - Torchy Blane, Hildegarde Withers, Boston Blackie, Crime Doctor, the Lone Wolf, Michael Shayne and others even less so. This explosion of crime films was largely due to the rise of the double feature - an A film combined with a planned B film. These series occasionally began as A films but soon moved into B film territory as their budgets were reduced. Mr. Wong was B from the get-go.

Of the three series that featured an Asian (played by a Caucasian) detective Mr. Wong is clearly much less known than both Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. Mainly I expect due to Moto and Chan being produced by a major studio while Wong was produced by Monogram, one of the better Poverty Row film studios. But also due to the Chan and Moto characters being in very popular books written by Earl Derr Biggers and John Marquand - two very respected authors. Mr. Wong on the other hand is based on a dozen short stories written by Hugh Wiley published in Colliers magazine in the 1930's. Kindle has all these stories in a collection for a small price and they are quite enjoyable. His Mr. Wong is an agent for the US Treasury Dept. and is a youthful, fast thinking character.

The Mr. Wong of the films not so much. He is played by the great middle-aged Karloff in very low-key sedate fashion. The series was six films in total but Karloff was only in the first five. In the sixth Wong was actually played by an Asian! None other than Keye Luke, number One (or was it Two?) son of the Charlie Chan series. Monogram had initially planned another six films with Luke but the distributors pushed back and the idea was dropped. So much for an Asian star emerging.

This first film in the series is a bit of a slog though the locked room murders are reasonably clever and the killer a bit of a surprise. A business man named Dayton (John Hamilton - Perry White in the Superman TV series) comes to Wong saying that someone is trying to kill him and he wants Wong to look into it. But before he can, the man is dead - killed by a mysterious gas. Turns out Dayton was not such a nice guy producing chemical gas and trying to ship it to a customer. A group of agents of a foreign country (most likely German by their names) are trying to stop it. Weirdly, no one in the film seems concerned with poison gas being shipped overseas.

So we have yet another Asian being played by a white man though Karloff does so very respectfully - no accent other than his own and no fortune cookie sayings. Like Chan and Moto he is the smartest guy in the room with the usual clueless cop (Grant Withers - who is in all six films). So audiences back then enjoyed these Asian detective films - as well as the books which were big deals - but not if an Asian was actually playing an Asian. Strange people.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) – 6/10

This is the second in the six film Mr. Wong film series starring Boris Karloff in the first five. They are produced by Monogram which was sort of near the top of the Poverty Row filmmakers - cranking out all sorts of films quickly on a low budget. When you see an actor or director appearing in one of these it usually means they are at the beginning of their career or going through a rough patch. This was true to some degree with Karloff as the height of the Universal horror films that made him famous were over and Karloff was jumping from studio to studio to make films.

The Mr. Wong character is based on the enjoyable short stories of Hugh Wiley in which Wong is an investigator for a Federal agency based in San Francisco. In the films Wong is much older and a renaissance man in which he is an erudite expert in many fields with crime detection being one of them. Unlike the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto films, Karloff's portrayal of Wong has none of the Asian stereotype about them - no accent, no wise sayings, no humble posturing - but of course it was a white man as was the custom of the day playing an Asian. Something Karloff had already done a few times.

It is a solid enough mystery with many suspects and a couple dead bodies with Wong and his policeman friend Captain Street (portrayed by Grant Withers in all six films as well as appearing in well over a 100 other B films) investigating. A wealthy man has illegally acquired The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, an extremely valuable jewel from China that was looted during the Rape of Nanking. At a party he is killed during a neat game of Indications which is a cousin to charades but you put on a mini-play to hint at the answer. As Wong says "His first appearance and his last".

Is it his wife who is being written out of his will or the male secretary who is in love with the wife or the Russian pianist émigré who wormed his way into America or the Chinese maid who is in love with the Russian. The maid is played by Lotus Long who I have come across in two Mr. Moto films and is in three of the Mr. Wong films (all as different characters) as well as being Tokyo Rose in Tokyo Rose (1946). So she gets her own film . . . as a traitor. Only Mr. Wong knows! Admittedly, there are a few holes that a giraffe could walk through - why was a murder reported to the police 20-minutes before the murder took place; how was the jewel stolen, how was the Chinese manservant conked out when everyone had an alibi - no answers were ever forthcoming but we tend to be much more forgiving of B films.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) – 5/10

The third in the Mr. Wong series is a bit of a mess even though director William Nigh is back (he directs all but the final one) and scriptwriter Scott Darling who wrote three of these and also a bunch of the Charlie Chan films. Asian detectives must have been his expertise. As far as I can tell none of the Mr. Wong films are derived directly from a Hugh Wiley short story - just the character itself though they change that around. His stories had appeared in Colliers and I expect with the popularity of Chan and Mr. Moto, Monogram saw an opportunity for another.

Returning also of course is Boris Karloff and his cop buddy Street played by Grant Withers. Withers is a bit of a sad story - married to Loretta Young in 1928 but it was annulled in 1931. He was to marry four more times all ending in divorce. John Wayne was a friend and his best man for his fifth and last marriage and Withers got small parts in a number of Wayne's films. By the late 1950's his roles were not coming, his health was getting worse and in 1959 at the age of 55 he committed suicide.

In this third film - and for the next two as well - the producers throw in a Torchy Blaine type news woman character in the form of Marjorie Reynolds and like Torchy she has something going with Street and they spend most of the film snarling at one another. Ain't love grand. The plot is a bit convoluted - and doesn't make all that much sense really. A Chinese princess comes to Wong to ask for his help but before she can talk to him she is killed by a poison dart. She is played by Lotus Long who had a much bigger role in the previous film - I had been looking forward to her performance and before I can blink she is dead and written out of the script. Sadly, that was often the fate of Asian actors back then - so many of them wanted to get into show business and all they could find are roles as extras or bit players - with a few exceptions like Anna May Wong or Keye Luke. It seems that the Princess has come to America with a bucket full of money to buy airplanes for the war effort back home. Now she is dead and the money is missing. A few more bodies pile up until Wong magically arrives at the solution even though the how or why of the murders is given short shrift. Hopefully this isn't a sign that the series is going downhill but I will not be surprised.

One other character in the film - though for no discernable reason - is the Chinese dwarf played by Angelo Rossitto, who is clearly not Chinese. He was just a touch over two feet tall and has nearly 100 acting credits from the silent days to Todd Browning's Freaks, March of the Wooden Soldiers to a bunch of TV shows including 11 episodes on Baretta. He also doubled for Shirley Temple when she was young!

The Fatal Hour (1940) – 5/10

Mr. Wong is not in the film's title of this fourth entry in the series, but he is still on the screen looking for clues and murderers. Occasionally when some of these B film series began to lose their popularity they made the title less obvious that it was a part of the series. The last three films of this series make no mention of Mr. Wong in the title. The same thing happened with the Charlie Chan films as the last 16 movies in the franchise did not mention his name in the title.

Karloff is back as the bemused Mr. Wong as well as the squabbling reporter/cop couple portrayed by Grant Withers and Marjorie Reynolds. Reynolds had a lengthy career in B films but is best known as the wife in the TV show Life with Riley in the 1950s. Her character seems to be inspired by the Torchy Blane series as the intrepid reporter who because of her personal relationship with Captain Street beats all the other reporters to crime stories. In fact, she often is on the murder scene before the cops though how is rather murky. But for some reason - ok because she is a woman - she goes into hysterics when she sees a body in one film and faints in another. Torchy would never have done that.

There is a larger body count than usual as it begins with the murder of a cop friend of Street. Street asks Wong for his help and they suspect that a smuggling ring is behind it working out of the Neptune Club. There isn't much to say good or really bad about the film - basic B film filler - other than a murder which is rather clever if unbelievable in how it happened using the advanced technology of the . . . remote control. As a note of perhaps little interest, the actor who plays the radio man is Jason Robards - father of Jason Robards Jr.

Doomed to Die (1940) – 5/10

The fifth film in the Mr. Wong series has its share of stupid but ignoring that for the sake of B film expectations it is going along fine until the ending which falls apart like a hard boiled egg dropped from the 10th floor. The whole film leads up to the suspenseful denouement which makes absolutely no sense at all. No wonder Boris Karloff left the series after that.

A ship owner is killed and the lover of his daughter seems the likely suspect as he was in the room and ran off but Wong in his estimable wisdom knows differently somehow. He even magically knows where the gun is hidden and decides to hold on to it rather than hand it over to Captain Street. Street (Grant Withers) is having his own problems fighting with his reporter girlfriend (Marjorie Reynolds) but then decides to take her along with him when he goes to look for the possible murderer in a dark house and then uses her to entrap someone. At one point she faints and both Street and Wong just leave her on the floor. Yes, she faints in this one too.

Still there are some good parts here - when Wong visits the Tong leaders in their secret meeting room as he had in a previous film - the search through the house in the dark and the dialogue is surprisingly punchy with some wit surprisingly shown on occasion. The sarcastic chauffer played by Kenneth Harlan, another steady B actor, is a highlight. But the screenwriter Michael Jacoby (The Charge of the Light Brigade, They Came to Blow Up America) clearly painted himself into a corner and had nowhere to go. So its like he picked the killer out of a line-up though as far as we can tell he has zero motive and they don't even bother to pin one on him. The person confesses and the film is over. Maybe the lowlight is Reynolds coming across the body of a dead Chinese man stabbed in the back says maybe it was suicide "you know that hari-hari thing they do". Yikes.

Phantom of Chinatown (1940) – 6/10

Watching this sixth and as it turned out final film in the Mr. Wong series takes a mental readjustment. First of all Boris Karloff has jumped ship (he fulfilled his six picture contract with Monogram with The Ape) and is soon back to making horror films - Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, House of Frankenstein, Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead. So Monogram makes an interesting decision that unfortunately didn't work out. They amazingly gave the role of the Chinese detective to a Chinese person! This was pretty much a first. And the role went to Keye Luke who was a very familiar face to audiences back then for his ongoing role in the Charlie Chan films (11 of them) as his son. Luke went on to a very lengthy career - next in a bunch of the Dr. Gillespie films and of course in the Kung Fu TV series. He even played Kato in two Green Hornet serials in 1940 that I would love to see.

They add a moustache to Luke's face to make him look just a bit older but in truth his Dr. Wong is much closer to the age of Wong in the books - but much less so than Karloff's Wong. So the filmmakers without saying so make this a prequel. In it he meets Captain Street (Grant Withers) for the first time and we see how their relationship begins. Being a prequel they have to write out Street's journalist girlfriend which is a relief as their constant arguing was getting annoying. Wong isn't really a detective in this one yet - he is a researcher who gets involved because of Chinese interests. And he gains a romantic interest - none other than actress Lotus Long who as different characters was in two previous Wong films - and is around a lot longer than in those.

The mystery itself is only so-so - an expedition to Mongolia (in 1940 seems a stretch) discovers a tomb of an Emperor and the head of it brings back a scroll that is of interest to many people. He gets poisoned and Street and Wong investigate. Much of the small pleasure is simply watching the friendship grow between Wong and Street and Wong and Lotus Long. The outcome of the crime is pretty predictable.

Monogram had planned to make four more of these with Keye but the exhibitioners told them that there was no interest in having a Chinese person as the lead and so Monogram shut it down. Too bad.