Thursday, October 18, 2018
Mr Wong in Chinatown (1939)
Mr Wong lives in San Francisco and often helps the San Francisco Police on important and difficult cases. His relations with the police are exceptionally cordial. The movie starts with a murder committed in Mr Wong’s own home.
A Chinese woman has called at Wong’s house. By the time Wong makes his way from his laboratory to the sitting room the woman is dead, killed apparently by a fiendishly ingenious Chinese sleeve gun that fires poisoned darts. The woman was obviously a person of wealth and high social class and she has left a tantalising dying clue - the words ‘Captain J’ scrawled on a card.
Mr Wong will need assistance from San Francisco’s Chinese community and he obtains it, from one of the tongs.
Mr Wong is working closely with his old friend Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco PD. They are both also working closely with Feisty Girl Reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), not by choice but because there seems to be no way to prevent her from involving herself. As Feisty Girl Reporters go she is at least not overly annoying.
Comic relief has been kept to a minimum. There’s some mild comic interplay between Bobby Logan and Captain Street but it’s very low-key and quite amusing and it even advances the plot. Given the fact that ill-advised and painfully unfunny comic relief sank a lot of otherwise promising B-movies of the 30s (including quite a few Monogram pictures) this is quite refreshing.
Boris Karloff of course does not really look all that convincingly Chinese but for an actor of Karloff’s quality that’s a minor problem. He still manages to sell us on his performance.
What’s fascinating about the three very popular 1930s Hollywood B-movie series involving Asian detectives is that the detectives were all quite distinctive. The success of the Charlie Chan movies obviously made both the Mr Moto and Mr Wong series possible but Moto and Wong are in no sense mere Charlie Chan clones. In the original books Mr Moto was a Japanese spymaster. The films made him a detective working for an early incarnation of Interpol but it’s still clear that Moto has certain connections. And he’s much of an action hero than Charlie Chan. Mr Wong is much more upper-class than Chan. He is a man of considerable education and taste.
After a successful career as a silent director William Nigh found himself relegated to helming B-movies for Poverty Row studios, a task he accomplished with reasonable efficiency. He directed the first five Mr Wong movies.
The production values are roughly what you expect from Monogram with a fairly limited array of sets but the picture doesn’t really look cheap or shoddy.
Mr Wong in Chinatown is bright and breezy and it’s fine B-movie entertainment with Karloff impressive as always. Highly recommended.
The first movie in the Mr Wong cycle, Mr Wong, Detective, is also well worth seeing.