Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mr Wong, Detective (1938)

Mr Wong, Detective was released in 1938, at the height of the American craze for Asian detectives. This started of course in 1925 with the publication of the first of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels, The House Without a Key. Charlie Chan became even more successful on the silver screen. Inevitably he had imitators, the most notable being Mr Moto and Mr Wong. Mr Wong, Detective would be the first of six B-movies featuring Mr Wong, with Boris Karloff as the star of the first five.

Private detective James Lee Wong investigates the murder of chemical manufacturer Sam Dayton. There are multiple suspects. The most obvious would seem to be Carl Roemer who was picked up by the police in the victim’s office, with a gun on him. There’s just one problem. Dayton wasn’t shot. He was killed by poison gas! Captain Street (Grant Withers) is perplexed. He soon has reason to be glad that Mr Wong just happens to turn up at the right moment and find a clue. Unfortunately the clue seems unlikely to give any useful information but Captain Street is forgetting that chemistry is a hobby of Mr Wong’s. Mr Wong also has some helpful friends at the university and that clue may give up its secrets after all.

Meanwhile the police are faced by a plethora of suspects with very strong motives indeed. So many suspects, but so little hard evidence. It’s also by no means certain that the murderer will not kill again.

There are obvious similarities between the three great movie Asian detectives. All are brilliant and all mask their penetrating intelligences behind a veneer of self-effacing politeness. The differences are possibly more interesting. Charlie Chan is a Honolulu-born Chinese-American and a working police detective. Mr Moto is Japanese and in the books (by John P. Marquand) he’s a Japanese secret agent. In the movies he becomes a private detective although there are still hints of an interest, if not necessarily an involvement, in espionage. Mr Wong is an Oxford-educated private detective with an English accent, impeccable manners and an air of urbane benevolence.

Apparently the Mr Wong of Hugh Wiley’s short stories was a Yale man and an agent of the US Treasury Department. With Boris Karloff cast in the role it was obviously a sensible decision to make him an Oxford man instead, which allows Karloff to use his own natural speaking voice. It’s also worth noting that Mr Wong does not speak in the kind of broken English so familiar from the Charlie Chan movies - Mr Wong’s English is quite perfect. It’s also clear that Mr Wong is a man of wealth, culture and taste. In fact in some ways he’s very similar to such popular upper-class amateur detectives as Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance.

The other striking thing about all these Hollywood B-movies featuring Asian detectives is that the detectives are portrayed in an incredibly favourable light. The accusations of racism periodically directed at such movies are both irritating and absurd. Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and Mr Wong were very much heroes and were immensely popular with audiences at the time.

The Mr Wong movies were made by Monogram but don’t be put off by their Poverty Row origins. Mr Wong, Detective boasts perfectly acceptable (by B-movie standards) production values. Veteran director William Nigh helmed an extraordinary number of B-movies. He knew his business and he keeps the pacing tight. Houston Branch’s screenplay is quite competent. In general this is for Monogram a pretty well-made little movie.

A definite bonus is the very ingenious murder method, and the even more ingenious techniques Wong uses to prove his case and extract confessions. Mr Wong doesn’t seem to go in very much for intuition, relying instead on careful observation and scientific methods of investigation.

A major strength of this movie is that there is very little in the way of comic relief. It’s a murder mystery and it gets on with the job. Captain Street is obviously no match for Mr Wong as a detective but he’s not a complete fool. He’s certainly not fool enough to refuse Mr Wong’s assistance and he accepts this help with a fairly good grace.

It has to be said that Mr Wong does not seem very Chinese. On the other hand if we assume that he is a very anglicised Oxford-educated Chinese man then it’s probably quite logical that he comes across as more English than Chinese.

I found this movie in one of Mill Creek’s multi-movie collections. The transfer is better than the usual Mill Creek standard. Picture quality is quite good. Sound quality is more dubious with some hisses and crackles but the dialogue is always understandable. Given that the movies in this set average out at around 40 cents a movie I certainly have no cause for complaints!

B-movie fans will enjoy comparing Karloff’s performance with those of Warner Oland in Charlie Chan in Paris and Sidney Toler in Charlie Chan in Reno, and Peter Lorre in Think Fast, Mr. Moto

Mr Wong, Detective is a thoroughly competent and very entertaining mystery B-movie, enlivened by Karloff’s charming and sparkling performance. Highly recommended.


  1. Wiley's stories, those that I've read, are pretty good. His Wong is a younger man and as thoroughly Americanized, despite an interest in Oriental archaeology, as Karloff's Wong is anglicized, which makes you wonder why Monogram didn't just cast Keye Luke in the first place instead of turning to him at the end after Karloff left the series.

  2. Good point about Keye Luke, but exhibitors preferred Karloff.

  3. And Karloff was a star with a marquee name. Keye Luke (about whom I'm also currently writing a book, along with Sen Yung and Benson Fong) was an excellent actor but not a star. His WONG film would become his first top-billed credit.

  4. Very clever little film - I did actually get thrown for quite a while about who the killer was.

    Actually, I found that there was a fair amount of comic relief in this movie, mostly in the dialogue and interactions rather than pratfalls and so on; I laughed quite a few times - in the right places!

    Thanks for the recommendation!