American audiences in the 1930s sure loved white guys playing Asian detectives. You had Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto and perhaps the least beloved of the three, Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong.
MGM has released the first two Mr. Wong pictures on its burn-on-demand Limited Edition Collection. Both directed by William Nigh, the films are the first of six films based on the Chinese detective from stories in Collier’s Magazine. Running at just over an hour each, the films are barely average whodunits, buoyed slightly by Karloff’s charm.
Mr. Wong, Detective opens the series with a story of three chemical manufacturers who’ve just renegotiated their partnership to state that if one dies, the others split his shares. Naturally, one dies almost immediately alone in his office, with no signs of trauma, and the others follow suit shortly thereafter. While the police force is baffled, Wong looks for possible invisible killers.
In The Mystery of Mr. Wong, a wealthy collector gains possession of a stolen Chinese gem known as the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. He confesses to Wong that he fears the worst because of the gem, and he’s proved right during a game of charades that turns murderous. The gem is stolen and switches hands several times before Wong can pin down the culprit.
In both films, Wong’s patience and intelligence acts as the foil to the blustering but grateful Capt. Sam Street (Grant Withers, who would play the role throughout the series). We can be grateful that Karloff’s portrayal doesn’t rely on any offensive Asian stereotypes — we’re not talking Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s here — but there’s little in the characterization to make Wong all that interesting. Karloff is smooth, but this is not a very compelling character to build a series on.
The MGM DVDs of the films are passable, although both transfers are plagued with print damage and heavy grain that appears as digital noise. Both audio tracks are accompanied by persistent hissing.
For fans of the series, there’s absolutely no reason to pick these releases up, as you can snag the complete set of six films from VCI for less than the cost of one of these. Plus, you get actual pressed DVDs that way. While I can’t personally vouch for the quality of that set, reviews are pretty positive, and I highly doubt the MGM DVD-Rs represent a significant leap in quality, if any.