Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (Monogram, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Mr. Wong in Chinatown, one of two ultra-cheapie tapes I had picked up at Suncoast while we were in Horton Plaza (the other was D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, which I haven’t seen in years and look forward to seeing again —ironically, on the night John Gallagher and I saw a film featuring Anjelica Huston I had bought a tape of an old movie starring her grandfather, Walter Huston, who played Lincoln). Mr. Wong in Chinatown was a good “B” movie, hampered by the usual limitations — low budget, sets that looked like they were about to fall over, lousy and inappropriate “library” music, sluggish direction by William Nigh (the plot, by W. Scott Darling, could actually have been exciting and suspenseful in the hands of a better director — what was Edgar G. Ulmer doing that week, one wonders?) and a “Chinese” makeup on Boris Karloff which wouldn’t have fooled anybody (and it didn’t help that Karloff, unlike Warner Oland — whose Charlie Chan movies this one was obviously imitating — spoke in his normal British accent and speech patterns without even the slightest attempt to sound Chinese, either). But it also had a better-than-usual cast (a young Marjorie Reynolds as the hotshot reporter and Grant Withers as the police detective, who’s also Reynolds’ boyfriend, who gets tired of her getting in the way and trying to use every available telephone to call in her scoops), an unusually strong plot and some good atmospherics; also some nice stock shots of San Francisco (especially nostalgia-inducing for those of us who lived there once) showing what the city looked like in the late 1930’s. — 12/10/93


Anyway, the experience of watching Chan Is Missing inspired me to spend this morning running the two “Mr. Wong” movies, endearingly tacky in the Monogram manner but still well cast (especially Evelyn Brent as a villainess in Mr. Wong, Detective and Marjorie Reynolds as a sob-sister reporter in Mr. Wong in Chinatown — hard to believe that, within three years after making this “B” and two others in the Wong series, she was singing and dancing with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in a big-budget musical, Holiday Inn, with a score by Irving Berlin!) and well played by Boris Karloff in the lead, though coloring and greasing down his hair with black shoe polish and giving him a little eyeliner to suggest Asian eyes did not turn him, visually, into a credible Chinese. The Wong films suffer by comparison with the Charlie Chan vehicles at Fox on which they were obviously modeled, due not only to higher production values but also the characters of Charlie Chan’s children, which in their own 1930’s way dramatized the assimilation/native culture dilemma of the immigrant (though the Charlie Chan movies blew their chance to dramatize effectively the clash of Eastern and Western cultural values by abandoning the Hawai’ian setting of the Chan books, Hawai’i being a dramatically fascinating atmosphere in which American, Oriental and Polynesian cultures meet, mix and clash). Still, the mystery angles were well done (though the gimmick of Mr. Wong, Detective — that the murderer does indeed turn out to be the most likely suspect the police have been suspecting all along — is strictly from desperation). — 11/15/94


I went to Charles’ place and ran him the videotape of the film Mr. Wong in Chinatown. I’ve actually always liked this film, and for all its Monogramesque crudity it’s actually neatly done, with a good story (W. Scott Darling is the only author credited), atmospheric photography and a good performance by Karloff as a Chinese detective in San Francisco (with what looks like lacquer in his hair to paste it down and make him look suitably exotic) making up for William Nigh’s sluggish direction (where was Edgar G. Ulmer the week that Monogram needed him?). — 11/3/98


I screened one of the films I had had a copy of before: Mr. Wong in Chinatown, the third film in the series and the one that introduced Marjorie Reynolds as Roberta “Robby” Logan, reporter on the San Francisco Herald and in a love-hate relationship with another continuing series character, Captain Street of the San Francisco Police Department (Grant Withers, Loretta Young’s first husband and star of James Cagney’s and Joan Blondell’s first film, Sinners’ Holiday). Chinatown stands out in the series for having the strongest plot — Chinese princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long) is murdered in Wong’s living room via a poisoned dart fired by a Chinese blow gun, and it develops that she was in the country to buy airplanes for her warlord brother, only the “aviation company” she was dealing with was a scam outfit that was conning her out of her money — as well as some genuine action scenes (including a car explosion, a fistfight and a strong climax on a Chinese ship where Wong has been held after being kidnapped), more creative direction from Nigh than usual (including at least one of the Venetian-blind shots he loved), a better-than-usual sense of suspense and pace, and the obvious knockoff of the Torchy Blane series in the relationship between Logan and Street (and Reynolds, who’d later appear in the big musical Holiday Inn opposite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire after Mary Martin had to withdraw because she was pregnant with Larry Hagman, does a quite good job of channeling Glenda Farrell). This time the killer’s identity is a real surprise — though the primary suspects are Captain Jaime (William Royle) of the Maid of Orient vessel that brought the Princess to San Francisco and Captain Guy Jackson of the phony “Phelps Aviation Co.” and partner with Jaime in the scheme to defraud the Princess (who wrote the words “Captain J” on a notepad just before she died, expiring before she could finish the last name), the actual murderer turns out to be Davidson, the banker with the Exchange Bank of Hankow (which turns into the Specie Bank of Hankow midway through the film — just as the “Palace Hotel” becomes the “Palliser Hotel” before Chinatown ends and, as the American Film Institute Catalog notes, both Street’s rank in the police department and his first name changed from film to film in the series) who realized the deal was a scam and decided to scam the scammers by forging Lin Hwa’s signature and draining her account to cover up his own previous embezzlements. So far the only Wong I haven’t seen is entry number four, The Fatal Hour (after Karloff’s horror comeback with the re-release of the original Frankenstein on a double bill with Dracula in 1938, and Universal’s subsequent success with Son of Frankenstein in 1939, Monogram started giving the Wongs more “horrific” titles to draw in more of Karloff’s usual audience), but Chinatown seems to be the best of the other five and a quite worthwhile film to come from a usually chintzy company like second-iteration Monogram. — 6/23/05


Two nights ago Charles and I watched the 1939 Monogram (second iteration) detective “B” Mr. Wong in Chinatown, third of the six-film series Monogram produced between 1938 and 1940 based on the character of James Lee Wong, a Chinese detective created by author Hugh Wiley for a series of stories in Collier’s magazine. To play Wong, Monogram signed Boris Karloff, who’d just been let go by Universal after the contract he’d signed after his star-making turn in the 1931 Frankenstein expired with the quite charming but decidedly non-horrific 1937 film Night Key. It wasn’t that Karloff was hurting for work — being British and therefore a native English speaker, he wasn’t handicapped the way Bela Lugosi was by having to learn his parts phonetically, and he was a good enough actor to play ordinary character villains as well as monsters and mad scientists. Indeed, in 1939 Karloff was defying the studio system by maintaining non-exclusive contracts with four studios simultaneously: Universal (which re-signed him to do Son of Frankenstein, his third and last performance as Frankenstein’s monster unless you count a 1960’s TV episode of Route 66 he and Lon Chaney, Jr. did as the Monster and the Wolf-Man, respectively), Columbia (which gave him a series of roles in which he plays a scientist anxious to help humanity who goes off the rails and becomes an obsessed murderer), Warner Bros. (which after making a classic-style horror film, The Walking Dead, in 1936 thereafter used Karloff in action melodramas, mostly remakes), and Monogram.

Monogram obviously wanted to make movies about James Lee Wong in hopes he’d be their answer to Charlie Chan — whose own series was on hiatus because of the fatal illness of actor Warner Oland; 20th Century-Fox made the last Oland Chan, Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, in late 1937 before Oland became too ill to work, and after Oland died they didn’t make another Chan film until nearly two years later, after they recruited Sidney Toler to take over the role. So there was a “Chinese detective gap” in Hollywood that Monogram planned to fill, and with horror films considered out of fashion in 1936-38 Karloff was eager to sign for the series because it meant more work. Then in 1938 an independent theatre owner in Los Angeles decided to dredge up the 1930 Dracula and 1931 Frankenstein and show them as a double bill, drawing audiences in with the usual see-them-if-you-dare publicity hype — and he got lines stretching two blocks from his theatre. Universal noticed and did a double-bill reissue of the films nationwide, and all of a sudden horror films were back “in” again and Karloff was, as William K. Everson politely put it, “a much bigger name than Monogram could have afforded if he were not already contracted.” The first three Wong films had titles featuring the character’s name — Mr. Wong, Detective; The Mystery of Mr. Wong and Mr. Wong in Chinatown — but then Monogram slapped horror-sounding titles on Wongs four and five (The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die, respectively), and for the sixth, Phantom of Chinatown, they pulled Karloff out of the series, made a mad-scientist movie with him (The Ape) similar to the ones he’d been doing at Columbia, and recast Wong with … Keye Luke. What a concept: a Chinese detective in an American movie actually being played by a Chinese actor! The only other example I can think of in the classic era is the Paramount 1937 “B” Daughter of Shanghai, in which Philip Ahn (who would have been a perfect choice for Charlie Chan if Fox and/or Monogram had been interested in using a real Chinese) played a Chinese-American FBI agent who teams up with Anna May Wong to catch a sinister band of human smugglers sneaking undocumented immigrants from China into the U.S.

Anyway, Mr. Wong in Chinatown was the third Wong and for a long time I thought it was the best in the series — I first saw it in the 1980’s on a cheap VHS tape from an outfit called Goodtimes Video (which also gave me my first glimpse of The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy and for their issue of Ghosts on the Loose, combining the East Side Kids with Bela Lugosi and Ava Gardner, they repeated the next-to-last reel so the film lasted 72 instead of 62 minutes and one wondered why we were re-seeing scenes we’d just seen) and I was impressed with the legitimately complicated plot and some genuine visual atmosphere from the usually ultra-hacky director William Nigh. The plot: Princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long, who was actually something of a star so it’s a bit of a surprise to see her play a part in which she’s dispatched in the first few minutes) comes to see Mr. Wong and gets intercepted by his houseboy Willie (Lee Tong Foo — yeah, right, the star is literally Anglo but his servant is played by an actual Chinese) because Wong is hunched over a chemistry table doing an experiment (I know what you’re thinking, but this is a perfectly normal chemical reaction and not the more sinister type of “science” Karloff’s characters usually performed). Alas, while she’s waiting to see Wong, an unseen assailant aims through Wong’s open window and kills her with a poisoned dart from a spring-loaded Chinese weapon that’s noiseless, easily concealed on one’s forearm and — though this wouldn’t have been a consideration in 1939 — wouldn’t be detected by airport security because it’s made of bamboo. Ironically, though Wong recognizes her ring as being from a particular Chinese family clan, he doesn’t have any idea who the victim was — nor does police captain Bill Street (Grant Withers, reduced to “B” work after his star buildup at Warner Bros. in the early 1930’s didn’t take and neither did his marriage to Loretta Young — she had it annulled), the typical dumb-cop foil for the brilliant private detective. Fortunately, nosy reporter Roberta “Bobbie” Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), introduced to the series in this episode and obviously patterned on the Torchy Blane character Warner Bros. had been doing as a series (including the tempestuous relationship between her and Capt. Street — they date by night but by day he’s trying to keep her out of his crime scenes, at one point handcuffing her to a chair in Wong’s living room — she escapes by pulling apart the chair and walking around with one arm from it dangling from her own wrist) covered her arrival in the U.S. and therefore knew exactly who she was.

It turns out that Lin Hwa had come to San Francisco (where the Wongs were set) with $1 million in bank drafts to buy a fleet of airplanes for her brother, a Chinese warlord, and to do that she was meeting with Captain Jaime (William Royle) of the Maid of the Orient, a cargo ship with a few passenger spaces on which she made the crossing and planned to take back with the planes on board. She was also in touch with Captain Jackson (Peter George Lynn), San Francisco sales representative of the Phelps Aviation Company in Los Angeles (noting the last name, Charles inevitably joked, “God hates planes”), who was also on the ship. Indeed, when she was dying she scrawled “Captain J” on a piece of paper on Wong’s desk, leading both Wong and the police to suspect both Jaime and Jackson — who are indeed in on a scheme to defraud Lin Hwa, since it turns out the “Phelps Aviation Company” is a scam, renting a hangar and a couple of ancient biplanes in L.A. to make it look like they manufacture aircraft when in reality they do nothing. Alas, the two Captains “J” are pissed off because they can’t steal Lin Hwa’s money — her banker, Mr. Davidson (Huntley Gordon) of the Specie Bank of Hankow, has already drained her bank account and forged her signature in both English and Chinese (which he learned how to write while working at the bank’s home office in Hankow), and he killed Lin Hwa and her maid as well as his own hired assassin, a part played by little-person actor Angelo Rossitto. A little person sneaking up the sides of buildings and knocking people off with a blow gun — you don’t suppose writer W. Scott Darling had read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, do you? The three baddies have a massive falling-out which ends with a reasonably exciting climax on the Maid of the Orient as it’s about to sail — and the two “J”’s are going to take Wong, whom they’ve kidnapped, out to sea and dump him. Of course both the police and our intrepid reporter Bobble Logan (whom I imagined saying to the other cast members, “Have some respect for me! In three years I’ll be doing a big musical with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire!”) find out what’s going on in time, Davidson gets killed and the two “J”’s are captured.

I had long thought Mr. Wong in Chinatown was the best of the series until I saw episode four, The Fatal Hour, which began with a marvelous plotline involving the murder of Captain Street’s best friend on the police force, Dan Grady, killed while investigating a ring of criminals illegally excavating and smuggling ancient Chinese artifacts. When I saw The Fatal Hour I wrote about it, “The most convincing aspect of the early reels is — surprise! — Grant Withers’ genuine pathos in expressing his character’s grief for the man he started with in the police department. For once Withers actually expresses deep emotion instead of just playing the irascible screamer he was through most of the series — indeed, [writer Scott] Darling’s script and Withers’ performance puts the grief so much front and center that when Boris Karloff enters as Mr. Wong he seems like an extra in his own vehicle. Had the film focused on Bill Street and his determination to avenge the murder of his friend and fellow cop, The Fatal Hour could have been a fine movie and an important proto-noir; instead, after a quite impressive start the usual Monogram formulae take over and the film assumes the stately talkiness of the first two Wongs (relieved a bit in Mr. Wong in Chinatown simply because on that go-round Darling actually got some real action in his script).” The basic problems with all the Mr. Wong movies are that “stately talkiness” and the fact that Mr. Wong himself simply isn’t that interesting a character: he’s living alone (except for that annoying houseboy) and the charm of Charlie Chan’s family relationships is sorely missed. As Wong, Boris Karloff is practically immobile, wrapped up in almost as much facial makeup as he was wearing in Frankenstein or The Mummy, including a bit of “tweaking” around the eyes to make him look Asian, and his hair plastered onto his scalp with shoe polish (Karloff was nearly 50 when he made this film and his real hair had already gone grey). Karloff tries his best, as always, but the part really offered him nothing in particular to work with; he just steers himself through the scene, delivers his lines but doesn’t have the material with which to create the quirkily charming characters Oland and Toler both made of Charlie Chan (Oland more so, at least in my opinion). He’s just Boris Karloff in odd makeup playing a good guy, for a change. — 10/7/15