For every Charlie Chan, there’s a Mr. Moto… and for every Mr. Moto, there’s a Mr. Wong.
Hollywood hasn’t changed much. Sure, nowadays it’s all remakes, rip-offs, and mash-ups, but even in the golden days of Tinseltown, it was the same story (literally). It didn’t matter how new or original the idea (or character) was or who starred in it — sooner of later, the idea would be recycled to death, the character would become a shell of its former self, and the film would eventually be remade with a newer, fresher face. Yes, even back when Hollywood was young and gay, plagiarism was already rampant.
Monogram Pictures, one of the “poverty row studios” is widely considered to be one of the biggest culprits in the Plagiarism Department. Personally, I tend to disagree (as a matter of fact, I’ll take a Monogram Bela Lugosi quickie over a Columbia Boris Karloff film any day), but when it comes to the Mr. Wong series, well… there isn’t a jury in the land that wouldn’t say “Umm, now hold on a minute here…”
Boris Karloff kind of hit it big when he appeared as The Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein in 1931 and Universal had found its new King of Horror (never mind that Lugosi guy) and continued to cast him in the lead of several more horror flicks. But, by 1936 the popularity of horror films had started to dwindle and nobody wanted to see scary movies anymore: critics, audiences, and outside markets alike (in particular Karloff’s native England) were fed up with monsters – they wanted mysteries.
Earl Derr Biggers’ popular Charlie Chan character had become a huge hit on the big screen with Warner Oland playing the ultra-smooth Chinese detective (Karloff himself appeared as a suspect in Charlie Chan At The Opera) that Fox (the company behind the Chan films) started up another Asian sleuth series in the guise of Mr. Moto. Based on the character created by J.P. Marquand and portrayed by Peter Lorre, Moto was a Japanese detective whose status as kosher would become somewhat limited when that whole World War II thing happened and the Japanese became “the enemy.”
Since horror films were no longer in demand, Karloff found his own popularity and career in question, and scribbled his signature on a six-picture contract with poverty row studio Monogram Pictures to play James Lee Wong, another fictional Asian detective that was printed in Collier’s magazine (and was the brainchild of writer Hugh Wiley).
Okay, so it wasn’t the most original series ever invented and many of the films were boring even by Monogram standards. The plots were often recycled from other mysteries and the lead actor was an even less-convincing Asian than the actors starring in the Chan or Moto series at the time …so what? It’s still fun! And with that, I present to you Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection.
Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), directed by William Nigh. An industrial chemical manufacturer shows up one evening, seeking Mr. Wong’s help. The next day, the man is dead and the police, led by Captain Street (series regular Grant Withers), are baffled (how typical). Wong focuses his attention on the shattered pieces of an odd little glass ball… which turns out to be the murder weapon. Spies enter into the play (naturally). Very slow, but amusing at times (and way better than Murder By Numbers).
Luigi’s Useless Information: The glass ball murder weapon technique was used in at least two other films (that I remember seeing at least – alas, the names of those films elude me) and this first installment in the Mr. Wong series was actually remade as a Charlie Chan vehicle in 1948 and called Docks Of New Orleans with Roland Winters (who was quite possibly the worst Chan ever).
The Mystery Of Mr. Wong (1939), directed by William Nigh. Better than the first Mr. Wong film. Gem dealer Brandon Edwards (Morgan Wallace, one of the original founders of the Screen Actors Guild) acquires the world’s largest sapphire, the “Eye of the Daughter of the Moon.” The whole legitimacy of his deal is questionable considering the jewel was stolen from China and naturally, Edwards is murdered and the sparkler disappears.
Luigi’s Useless Information: This film would prove to be pay dirt for Monogram — horror films had become popular again when Son Of Frankenstein hit the screen a few months earlier, bringing Karloff’s name back in the limelight and causing the public to check out anything with his name on it. Did the heads of Monogram predict a resurgence of horror films during Karloff’s two-year/six-picture deal or was it simply a case of sheer dumb luck? You make the call!
Mr. Wong In Chinatown (1939), directed by William Nigh. A poison dart finds its mark on a visiting Chinese princess in Wong’s own home (for being a Class-A sleuth, he sure misses a lot of assassins outside his front door) and she’s able to scribble out a clue shortly before she dies. Soon after, the princess's maid is murdered and the only witness is a mute dwarf (Angelo Rossitto). Much like the first film, Mr. Wong In Chinatown was actually remade by Monogram in 1947 as a Roland Winters Charlie Chan flick, The Chinese Ring. Marjorie Reynolds co-stars as Capt. Street’s feisty, prone-to-arguing reporter of a girlfriend, Bobbie Logan.
Luigi’s Useless Information: Grant Withers wasn’t the only one to show up in the Mr. Wong series regularly. Marjorie Reynolds, Lotus Long, Lee Tung Foo, Wilbur Mack, and I. Standford Jolley all played in at least three films each (usually in different roles, with the exception of Reynolds).
The Fatal Hour (1940), directed by William Nigh. When Captain Street’s best friend (and fellow police officer) is found dead, Wong and Bobbie (Marjorie Reynolds again) enlist their individual talents to assist in solving the crime. Good thing, too – since the deceased detective was working on a smuggling case in that ol’ Chinese part of town and Wong always comes in handy then! Charles Trowbridge and Jason Robards (Sr.) co-star.
Luigi’s Useless Information: George Waggner co-wrote the screenplay (under an alias) along with Scott Darling. This was the third and final film that Darling wrote. In addition to a little directing, he worked on the writing end (in one way or another) of nearly two-hundred features during his 37-year career and, despite being credited for some truly memorable works (such as Charlie Chan At The Opera), he is generally considered to be the hack that screwed up the later Laurel & Hardy feature-length films, the man who botched Universal’s Frankenstein franchise, or the moron who couldn’t get him timelines right and pitted 19th century sleuth Sherlock Holmes against World War II Nazis in Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon. Darling, an early predecessor of Hollywood hack Akiva Goldsman, was found dead in 1951, floating in the Pacific Ocean (which is exactly how they discover the corpse in this film) — no doubt the victim of an angry filmgoer who had had enough of his ineptness. (Hear that, Goldsman? Yeah, the same could happen to you, buddy!)
Doomed To Die (1940), directed by William Nigh. A big shipping magnate is murdered. Wong and Bobbie investigate. Street and Bobbie argue a lot. This would be Boris Karloff’s final appearance as Mr. Wong. After Doomed To Die, Boris would only have one film remaining on his contract (which he didn’t renew) and, since Monogram executives decided that it would be better to cast Karloff in a horror film (as they were all the rage again), they cast him in The Ape instead (which came out the same year).
Luigi’s Useless Information: Tristram Coffin plays an insurance adjuster in this film (he also appeared as a hotel desk clerk in the previous film). Aside from being a regular face in Saturday matinee serials (he was cinema’s first Rocket Man in King Of The Rocketmen), the oddly-named Coffin was the focus of an embarrassing blunder on live TV during an episode of Climax in 1954. In the episode (entitled “The Long Goodbye”), Coffin played a corpse who at one point stood up and walked off the set while the other actors were performing (remember, this was live TV, folks), but this didn’t stop the bona fide “living” characters from solving his “murder” (Coffin thought the scene was over and that he was off-screen).
Phantom Of Chinatown (1940), directed by Phil Rosen. The only Mr. Wong film that A) didn’t star Boris Karloff, B) wasn’t directed by William Nigh, and C) starred an actual person of Chinese heritage as James Lee Wong. Yes, you read that right — in a time of yellowface in the movies, Monogram had the balls to say “Why not?” and cast Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, to play our sleuth (albeit a younger version). Worth it for that alone (plus Keye Luke kicked-ass… plus, he’s one of the first articulate Chinese characters onscreen that doesn't insult his heritage by saying things like "No ticky, no shirty"). The plot involves a professor returning from an expedition in the Orient, only to drop dead from a bad case of poisoning while delivering a presentation. Lotus Long co-stars (she played Bela Lugosi’s niece in The Mysterious Mr. Wong, an unrelated Monogram thriller from 1934).
Luigi’s Useless Information: Keye Luke’s extensive résumé also included the wise old shopkeeper in the Gremlins films and as Master Po in the original Kung Fu series. As far as anyone can tell, this is a prequel (seeing as how young Mr. Wong and Capt. Street don’t even know each other… yet Street is older… I’m confused now). The change in actors also meant that Wong could finally enjoy a little onscreen chemistry with a woman for once (it wouldn’t have been prudent for an Englishman to flirt with an Asian woman even though said Englishman was supposed to be Chinese himself — or for a Chinese character to cavort with a white woman when the actor playing the Chinese character is he himself white… now I’m really confused!) and Luke’s exchange of banter with Lee Tung Foo is classic.
Okay, onto the presentations/transfers of these films. I haven’t owned the older Roan Edition of these films, so I cannot make a definitive comparison, but a majority of these films look pretty good considering their age (and the fact that they were low budget to begin with) with Doomed To Die looking the worst by far. Each movie is presented in a full frame (1.33:1) ratio (there was no such thing as widescreen at this point, kids, so this was of the norm) with Mono Stereo sound. Some of the films included in VCI’s Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection appear to have been taken from television prints. No subtitles are offered.
Incidentally, the menu page featuring the title listings on disc two contains an error: the release years are wrong (they’re the same years for the first three films on disc one). The back cover includes another boo-boo: it erroneously lists William Witney as one of the series’ directors instead of William Nigh.
As far as special features are concerned, disc one offers us Chapter 1 of the 1938 Saturday matinee serial adaptation of comic strip Red Barry starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe (20:17). If you’re looking for top-notch quality, don’t watch this special feature. Disc two contains a photo gallery, two vintage cartoons (nothing special), and several Karloff trailers for Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), and The House Of Frankenstein (1944).
The bottom line here: if you’re a big fan of Poverty Row films, low budget mysteries, and can get past that whole English-guy-playing-a-Chinese-dude bit, you might as well pick this set up.