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
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.