By Ed Garea
You’ve never heard of Mr. Wong? That isn’t surprising, as his name is known today only to dedicated mystery fans and diehard fans of B-movies.
Chinese detectives were the rage in the ‘30s, what with the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan series. So, Monogram Studios figured that if Fox could do it, they could do it, too.
It’s always easier for a studio, especially a Poverty Row studio such as Monogram (Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite American studio) with resources next to nil, to adapt a film character from an already established literary effort. So the studio turned to the Collier’s stories of Hugh Wiley featuring a Chinese treasury agent named James Lee Wong who worked the docks of San Francisco. The stories were typical for their time, with lots of police brutality, rough treatment of women, Chinese gangs, corrupt businessmen, drugs galore, and the required grisly murders. But they were well-written and gained quite a following. In the stories Wong is described as a Yale graduate, about six feet tall, 165 lbs. with a solid knowledge of chemistry. He lives in an apartment in San Francisco, and the other tenants are subordinates under his command.
To star as Mr. Wong, Monogram chose Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff? Why he looks as Chinese as . . . Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu. At first, viewers may be surprised that Karloff doesn’t attempt a Chinese accent in the films. But then, why should he? Was not Mr. Wong Yale educated? Wouldn’t such a character speak with a dignified voice rather than a heavily-accented Pidgin English?
At any rate, I doubt that Monogram would have cared if Karloff played the role with a German accent. They had signed him to a six-picture deal and he still was a name at the box office. For “buddy support” the studio brought in Grant Withers, a former reporter turned silent screen star turned supporting player, as Police Capt. Sam (later changed to Bill) Street. His role was to look and act flustered and yell a lot when the police fouled up. Given the success of the first film – Mr. Wong, Detective (1939) – the studio added Marjorie Reynolds as nosy reporter Bobbie Logan. Besides being Street’s girlfriend, her job was to make the mystery even worse and a bigger task for Wong.
Five films followed Mr. Wong, Detective: The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), Doomed to Die (1940), and The Phantom of Chinatown (1940). The last was made without Karloff in the title role, as he completed his contract with Monogram by starring in the preposterous horror film. The Ape (1940). Sans Karloff, the studio instead cast Keye Luke as Jimmy Lee Wong and actually made a better film. It was the first time an Asian was to play the lead as an Asian character. As for Karloff, he drifted around, starring for RKO, Universal and Columbia in a few B’s playing mad scientists and villains. Seeing that the future in Hollywood didn’t look exactly rosy, he left for Broadway to play a part in a play titled Arsenic and Old Lace that was written especially for him by playwright Joseph Kesselring. He would return to Broadway four more times. And as for Hollywood, he returned to steady work as a supporting player and sometimes star.
Here are summaries of two Mr. Wong films:
DOOMED TO DIE (aka The Mystery of Wentworth Castle, 1940): Shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth is depressed over a disaster to his ocean liner “Wentworth Castle” (which was carrying an illegal shipment of Chinese bonds). He is shot in his office during the very act of kicking out Dick Fleming, his daughter’s fiancée. Capt. Street arrests Fleming, but Bobbie Logan is convinced of Fleming’s innocence and enlists the help of Mr. Wong to find the true killer. It’s a routine plot that moves like a snail, containing more red herrings than the Fulton Fish Market. That, coupled with Monogram’s typical dark photography and the recycling of footage from previous Mr. Wong films, makes it a little hard for the viewer to follow or want to follow. It is only the performances alone, particularly Karloff and Reynolds (Bobbie Logan) that keep the viewer interested.
THE FATAL HOUR (1940): This is one of the better entries in the series. Capt. Street’s best friend, Dan O’Grady, is murdered while in the middle of an investigation of a smuggling ring. Distraught, Street enlists the help of Mr. Wong. Wong discovers that it’s jade that is being smuggled, and after several deaths he tracks down the criminal mastermind, only to be confronted with his own death. But he is saved in the nick of time by Bobbie Logan. It looks like Monogram actually spent a few bucks on this one and the film is helped by a tight script, which makes it more of a crime thriller than a straight mystery, with plenty of clues for Wong to winkle out. There is also a large cast of victims and suspects to keep us occupied, which alleviates some of the cheapness in the Monogram production. They may have spent more money from the look of it, but it still looks cheap.