Daily Archives: June 1, 2022

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

*. There were six Mr. Wong movies all made by Monogram within a couple of years, which gives you some idea of how carefully they were turning them out.
*. Basically James Lee Wong (played by Boris Karloff in the first five films) is a stately and urbane Charlie Chan rip-off. But since Charlie moved to Monogram it was a case of share and share alike, as the script here was remade almost shot-for-shot eight years later in the Chan vehicle The Chinese Ring. They’d also re-use the bit about trying to blow Mr. Wong up in a cab that’s ditched in an alley in Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat. So they were ripping off the rip-offs by that point.
*. The story that was so nice they had to do it twice has a Chinese princess showing up on Mr. Wong’s doorstep. While she waits for Mr. Wong to finish dickering around with some experiment in his lab a hand sticks through a window and uses a “sleeve gun” to shoot her with a poisoned dart. Needless to say, killing someone in Mr. Wong’s own house is playing dirty pool indeed. “Now this is a payoff,” the police inspector says. “Murder in the house of Mr. Wong! Now we’ve seen everything.”
*. Before she dies, the princess is able to write a cryptic note for Mr. Wong about a “Captain J.” Alas, as things turn out there are two Captain J’s! No one saw that coming.
*. In fact, you’ll see most of this one coming (just as you’d see it coming again with Charlie Chan in the lead role). There are, however, a few nice touches. A lot of attention is given to the back-and-forth between dumb-as-a-brick but handy with the fisticuffs police inspector Bill Street (Grant Withers) and intrepid lady reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). Reynolds is great, though what she sees in Withers is beyond me. Our Bill isn’t much of a charmer. Mostly he keeps telling her to “beat it” or “be quiet.” Their best bit of repartee has him asking her “Do you know something I don’t know?” and her replying “That wouldn’t have to be much!” Otherwise he just fills the role of one of Charlie’s sons, jumping the gun in proclaiming every false lead proof of guilt.
*. Other bonuses include the exploding cab, which actually looks pretty good for Poverty Row, and the bizarre wrap-up at the end. Basically, Mr. Wong finds out who the killer is because he ties the disappearance of the dwarf witness together with the fact that the main villain had recently said he buried one of his giant guard dogs. He knows this is wrong because “one does not bury the body of a vicious dog in a pet cemetery under an expensive headstone.” To be fair, this was before Mondo Cane and Gates of Heaven, but why Wong would think it must have been the dwarf that was getting buried in the doggy grave is beyond me. Why would the bad guy think the dwarf needed an expensive headstone?
*. Not a bad entertainment of its kind and period, but by that I only mean that it’s cheap, stupid fun and Reynolds is a treat.