Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Review: How Can Something So Wong Be So White?

By Philip Schweier

In the 1930s, the Monogram motion picture studio attempted to capitalize on the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movie series with its own stories of a benevolent and wise Chinese detective. And like Fox, Monogram chose a non-Asian actor to assume the role of Mr. Wong, created by Hugh Wiley for a series of stories published in Colliers magazine. He is an intelligent and cultured man of Chinese heritage in San Francisco, and a de facto consultant to the police

While Boris Karloff is today regarded as a major horror star, it may be somewhat dismaying to see him “slumming” in B movies (the B stands for basement). But the truth is Karloff, as a “serious” thespian, was rarely provided very ambitious material.

However, in my opinion what elevates an actor above his station is not the material he is provided but what he chooses to do with it. Karloff was a professional actor, so he acted, and did so well enough to raise the quality of the films in which he appeared. Granted, many were pretty low-budget (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, anyone?), but after achieving fame as Frankenstein’s monster, it gave him the opportunity to do more than grunt and look menacing.

Maybe he had a mortgage payment due, or maybe he saw it a means to keep his name in front of the audience’s – and studio executives – collective eyes. Either way, it’s certainly more appealing than sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring.

In Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), Simon Dayton (Superman’s Perry White, John Hamilton) shows up on Wong’s doorstep pleading for help. His life has been threatened and the amiable Mr. Wong is only too happy to help. Unfortunately, their 10 a.m. appointment the next day is about five minutes too late, as Dayton dies within the proverbial locked room.

Among the suspects are Dayton’s two business partners, who only moments prior to his demise convinced him to sign an added clause to their contract, making each the recipient of the others’ share of the company in the event of death. But when they also are done in, it leaves fewer options for whoever the guilty party might be.

As a mystery, it’s a fun little romp, with ample misdirection as well as red herrings provided by a cabal of foreign spies. As I said, Karloff presents Wong with intelligence and dignity, but if there is a downside, it would only be that the Asian aspect of the character seems superfluous. The plot was later recycled by Monogram for Docks of New Orleans (1948), one of the last of the Charlie Chan movies.

The Mystery of Mr.Wong (1939) followed a year later, in which Wong is invited to a party by Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace), whose life has been threatened over his possession of the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, a magnificent gem. Edwards is killed during the party, but Wong is quickly on the case, investigating the Edwards household. It includes Valerie Edwards (Dorothy Tree), the long-suffering wife, and her devoted secretary, Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds), as well as Michael Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff), a parasitic musician whom the Edwards are sponsoring. A handful of Chinese servants are also among the suspects.

Unfortunately, this is not a “play fair” mystery, in that there are details to which the audience is not privy until the very end, as Wong reveals the killer. Still, Karloff is in top form and may account for the overall appeal of the film.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) was the next entry in the series. Wong is paid a late night visit the Princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long), a high mucky-muck with a Chinese tea company, who arrived a few weeks back. She is assassinated before he can speak with her and Wong and police captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) go to investigate the ship she rode in on. Why they seem to feel Captain Jaime (William Royle) should know anything about one passenger’s personal beeswax isn’t fully explained, though unbeknownst to them, he’s clearly involved in something shady. Kibitzing the investigation is snoopy reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds).

Wong looks into the princess’s finances, courtesy of her bank’s president, Mr. David (Huntley Gordon). The detective must be on the right trail somewhere, because an attempt is made on his life. He discovers the princess was in the States to buy arms on behalf of her brother, a general in China. Captain Jackson (George Lynn) of the Phelps Aviation Company was to sell her some planes but the company is revealed to be a sham.

Wong is led into a trap, only to be rescued by Street. Wong then reveals all for the benefit of the authorities and the criminals, to convince them that he knows their game better than they do. Like Mr. Wong, Detective, it also provided fodder for the Charlie Chan series, remade as The Chinese Ring (1947).

When a police buddy of Capt. Street’s is killed in The Fatal Hour (1940), Wong leaps in to help with the investigation. The dead cop’s last known location, the Neptune Club, leads them to Harry “Hardway” Lockett (Frank Puglia). Not only is he a gambler and smuggler, he’s sicced Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret) on Frank Belden Jr. (Craig Reynolds), whose father has gotten sucked into Hardway’s smuggling operation. It seems dear old dad – soon to be dead old dad – is in over his head and has been letting Hardway use his jewelry store as a front for his smuggled goods.

With Frank Belden Sr. dead, the smuggling trail now leads to John T. Forbes (Charles Trowbridge). Conveniently, he lives in the apartment directly below Ms. Serova, who also gets bumped off. Even though she’d been playing Belden Jr., she was starting to appreciate his naïve ideas of matrimony, if only as an out from under Hardway’s thumb. But it couldn’t be Hardway who killed her; he was in Street’s office at the time of the murder.

When a radio writer named Griswold (Jason Robards Sr.) claims to have vital information regarding the case, he is murdered right in the police station. It provides Wong with the vital clue to how Ms. Serova was murdered and who might be responsible. All the murders share common ballistics, so the whole mystery gets tied up in a neat little package.

Doomed to Die (1940) – aka “Mystery of the Wentworth Castle” – opens with stock footage of an ocean liner burning at sea, followed by stock footage of newspaper presses and newsboys touting the disaster of the SS Wentworth Castle. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvyn Lang), owner of the ship line, has a lot on his mind, not the least of which is that Dick Fleming (William Stelling), the son of his business rival, wants to marry his daughter. The two argue and Wentworth ends up dead. This is followed by more stock footage of cops on their radios and in patrol cars as the manhunt for Fleming ensues.

Wong is called in at the behest of reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), a close friend of Cynthia Wentworth (Catherine Craig). Using his Chinatown connections, he learns one of the passengers aboard the Wentworth Castle was Kai Lin, a Chinese smuggling tong funds into America. It turns out Kai Lin is also Lem Hou, the Wentworth family servant. Wentworth knew of the tong’s plan and the belief is he was murdered for his trouble. Slowly, the pieces begin to fall together.

Bobbie helps Dick escape from police custody, but when the police find him at his father’s home, Pops attempts to confess in order to save his son, but Wong won’t have it. He knows the real killer and all the whys and hows. Unfortunately, he declines to share most of them with the audience, as the culprit is hustled off to jail in short order.

This would prove to be Karloff’s final foray as the Chinese sleuth, as clearly the bloom was off the cherry blossom. No doubt the budget for the series had dropped below Monogram’s middling standards, given the ubiquitous stock footage and the obviously recycled footage from Mr. Wong in Chinatown.

Phantom of Chinatown (1940) starred Keye Luke, who until recently had been featured in the Charlie Chan movies as #1 son Lee Chan. This serves as a sort of prequel to the Boris Karloff films, as it depicts his first meeting with Capt. Street, and Wong is noticeably younger and more energetic. Rather that the sophisticated James Lee Wong, he is referred to as “Jimmy.”

Dr. Cyrus Benton (Charles Miller) has just returned from the Mongolian desert where he has discovered the “Tomb of Eternal Fire,” but at the cost of the expedition’s co-pilot Mason (John Holland), who was lost in Mongolia, his body never recovered. As he presents his findings, he collapses, poisoned. The police, led by Capt. Street (Grant Withers) arrive at the Benton home to investigate the man’s death.

Wong (Keye Luke), a family friend, is already on the scene and dopes out that the water glass Benton drank from contained poison. This scores points with Capt. Street, and the two decide to combine their efforts to solve the murder.

An artifact Benton brought back from China turns out to be missing, and holds the key to the whys of the murder. By laying a trap a trap the murderer can’t resist, Wong and Street hope to expose the culprit.

The story is much better than previous Wong outings, but Keye Luke brings very little to the role other than authentic Asian street cred. By this time, the series had run its course at Monogram. Perhaps when Fox ended its production of Charlie Chan movies in 1942, Monogram saw an opportunity to continue the “honorable Chinese detective” concept by picking up a more successful property. Chan’s first film under the Monogram banner was Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944).

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Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks for this really handy and thorough guide to these films - I have yet to see any of them but as a fan of the Chan and Moto films I hope they will be just up my street - so I have just ordered them on Amazon - the power of the press in action!

Thanks again,

ClassicBecky said...

I very much enjoyed your article about Mr. Wong. I know it was technically a B series, but I thought they were really good movies. Despite being non-Asian, Karloff played his Chinese detective with dignity, no silly stereotypical stuff, and I thought that was unusual for that era. He was really good, and the movies were lots of fun. Thanks for an entertaining look at one of my favorite little series of movies.

ClassicBecky said...

P.S. How could I forget to say this? Your title is HILARIOUS!

Rick29 said...

Very nice article on the Mr. Wong series! I agree about Keye Luke. I always liked him as an actor (especially later in his career when he got better parts). However, his Mr. Wong was a completely different character. Of course, as much I love Karloff, it's too bad Monogram couldn't cast an Asian actor.