Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Overlooked Films: Boris Karloff in MR. WONG, DETECTIVE (1938)

Mr. Wong, Detective was the first of a six-film series featuring a Charlie Chan-wannabe created by Hugh Wiley for Collier’s magazine. I have to assume the movies got a little better as they went along, because it’s hard to see how this one justified five sequels.

It’s not a bad film. It’s just undistinguished, with nothing going for it but the personality of Boris Karloff. And in this case, the personality factor is negligible, because he shows so little of it.

The story takes place in San Francisco (we know because it opens with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge) and Wong is apparently a detective, but aside from the title no one says so.

We know Karloff is supposed to be Chinese because his name is Wong and he wears silk Chinese pajamas at home. Other than that he looks like Karloff, except that his hair is slicked back, he sports a pair of Mr. Moto glasses, and he holds his cigarettes backwards. In a couple of scenes his eyes might be slightly slanted, but it’s hard to be certain. Thankfully, he makes no attempt at a Chinese accent.

The plot centers around a deadly chemical about to be shipped out of the country, and the attempts of several people to interfere with the plan. One of those is a suspected Austrian-Hungarian agent provocateur with two equally suspicious companions.

The story boasts a medium-clever murder method, but the viewer figures it out long before Wong, making him seem a little thick.

Wong functions as sort of a sidekick to hardboiled police Capt. Street, played by Grant Withers. Other than Withers, the only cast member of interest is John Hamilton (TV's future Perry White) as the first murder victim. Karloff’s Wong is always polite and subdued, rarely cracking a smile, and making only a couple of subtle attempts at fortune cookie wisdom. There are occasional very subtle attempts at humor, but there’s never a sense that Wong - or anyone else - is really having fun.

Karloff sleepwalks through the first hour of the film, coming alive only near the end, when the foreign agents have him seemingly at their mercy. For about two minutes he displays more brains and charm than he had in the entire first sixty. Maybe that’s what earned him his sequels.

More Overlooked Films & Stuff at SWEET FREEDOM.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Just got hold of one of the box sets and am looking forward to getting into these but I always assumed I would have to lower my expectations if nothing else in terms of Monogram productions values!

Anonymous said...

The Wong series was obviously Monogram's attempt to emulate Fox's successful Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto films. Years later, Fox dropped the Chan series and Monogram picked it up, so they got to produce the real thing instead of the imitation. But then, the late 1940's Chan movies, with Roland Winters, re-used old Wong plots, so they were really remakes.

Anonymous said...

And the old tradition of anglo's playing oriental's continued with this series. My how times have changed.

Anonymous said...

The last Mr. Wong film, "Phantom of Chinatown" (1940), actually cast a real Asian (Keye Luke) in the lead. It must have been a prequel or a reboot; Wong and Street seemed to be meeting for the first time. Maybe they decided they could not just do it as the latest sequel, since Luke was noticeably younger than Karloff.


The Karloff Mr. Wong films are great. We have watched them over and over. Karloff was a greatly undervalued actor.