Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

*. It’s easy to deride the Charlie Chan movies today, if we think of them at all, but in the 1930s they were a pretty big deal and did, after all, constitute a studio-hopping franchise that resulted in over forty pictures spanning three decades. Not only that, there were also two spin-off — or really rip-off — franchises in the Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong movies.
*. Mr. Wong was another Chinese-American detective, this time created by the author Hugh Wiley. His first appearance was in a story in 1934. Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures bought the rights to Mr. Wong and would put out six movies starring the character before buying the rights to the Chan franchise from 20th Century Fox in 1943, thus obviating the need for continuing the series.
*. In what Leonard Maltin says was considered a casting coup at the time, Boris Karloff was signed to play Mr. Wong. Karloff, of course, doesn’t look Asian, and certainly doesn’t sound Asian. Thankfully, the movies don’t try very hard to conceal this. He has a bit of eye make-up and what looks to be a layer of shellac on his head but that’s it, and he speaks with his usual urbane accent. But this is at least partly in keeping with the stories, where James Lee Wong is described as being Yale educated and looking like a Yankee. He’s not Fu Manchu.
*. Trivia: Karloff had appeared in Charlie Chan at the Opera just a couple of years earlier, and when he left the Mr. Wong series after five pictures he was replaced by Keye Luke, who had been Charlie’s Number One Son in the Warner Oland films.
*. As Maltin says, it’s Karloff’s presence “that lends these films what meager distinction they have.” I would say he’s the only thing that makes them watchable today. Mr. Wong, Detective was the first, and may be the best of the bunch, but it’s not very good. Then again, the Monogram Chans were terrible too. But I do think they were trying. I just think this was the best they could do.
*. Every great detective needs a sidekick, and even not-so-great ones need second bananas. For Mr. Wong it’s Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) who is just as inept and eager to jump the gun as any of Charlie’s sons but less ingratiating.
*. The plot here is typical of the Chan series, involving a complex murder scheme making use of glass balls of poison gas that explode with the right sonic cue. This is actually rather clever, but there are too many suspects crowded together into too small a room and it’s hard to keep straight what all is going on. The production values are dismal. You get Karloff sniffing his boutonnière, but the rest is dross.

12 thoughts on “Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s actually quite a good idea. Spoiler alert! though I’m pretty sure you’re not going to bother with this.

      What puzzles Mr. Wong is the exact pitch required to detonate the gas bomb (that’s what he’s trying to do in the bottom pic). It turns out that the killer sends threatening letters to the victims which then leads them to call the police. When the police arrive, always with their sirens on, it’s the sound of the siren that detonates the bomb that the killer left in the room where the victim telephones. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But it’s clever too.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t think they were trying to be funny. There’s none of the by-play between Charlie and his sons, or the humour of Charlie’s aphorisms.

      2. Bookstooge

        So more of a Sherlock Holmes vibe then.
        That can be hard to pull off, especially with a no-name character based on another character.
        and I’ve always assumed Charlie Chan was humor, so to skip that part in going to another character seems risky.

        But like you noted, these really weren’t good anyway.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The first film is indeed a key part of the Canadian film canon. It’s widely considered to be our Citizen Kane. I will try to cover it at some point, though it’s hard to do it full justice. The subsequent entries in the series are, however, less essential.


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