Monday, July 21, 2008

Thank You, Mr. Moto (20th Century-Fox, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Thank You, Mr. Moto is a 1937 20th Century-Fox production and the second film in the series starring Peter Lorre as Kentaro Moto, Japanese — detective? Secret-service agent? Spy? The writing never makes it quite clear which — created by John P. Marquand, a respectable writer of novels of manners “slumming” in the detective genre and apparently recruited to do so by a publisher that wanted more stories like the Charlie Chan novels now that Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, had died in 1933. The first film in the series, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, had also been based directly on a Marquand novel, but this was one detective-movie series that actually seemed to improve when they got away from the original character’s stories as sources and started cooking up their own.

It’s a lumbering tale in which the MacGuffin is a series of seven hand-painted scrolls that, when laid next to each other, become a map leading to the tomb of Genghis Khan and the location of the fabulous treasure that was buried with him. One of the scrolls was loaned by its owner, Princess Chung (the actress playing her isn’t listed either in the on-screen credits or in the American Film Institute Catalog but I suspect she was the real-life Mrs. Peter Lorre, Celia Lovsky, who 30 years later would play almost exactly this sort of dragon-lady character as Mr. Spock’s mother in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series), to a museum, and then stolen, and various baddies including Eric Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), Madame Tchernov (Nedda Harrigan, later Mrs. Joshua Logan) and a few others, are out to steal them and get the treasure.

Moto is also on the trail of the treasure, working for mysterious employers whom we presume are on the side of good, and he holds out the hope of financial compensation to the princess and her son (Philip Ahn, whose quiet dignity steals the movie out from under the rest of the principals, as usual), which they resist because they don’t want the tomb of the great conqueror to be despoiled and looted the way those of the Egyptian pharaohs were. Lorre doesn’t really look Asian but that rat-like voice is certainly believable as Japanese (as it was as German, Greek or all the other exotic nationalities he played), and this film has a lot more action than the Chan movies — though Lorre was clearly doubled in a lot of the fight scenes, at least Moto got to practice jiu-jitsu and subdue his enemies with physical force as well as cunning — but the film ultimately collapses under the creaky weight of Marquand’s plot as adapted by Willis Cooper and director Foster, with too many subplots and barely explained murders (including that of Madame Tchernov’s husband, played by the great character actor Sig Ruman surprisingly “straight,” which kicks off the movie) to be especially mysterious or thrilling.