Thursday, October 10, 2019
The Mystery of Mr Wong (1939)
The subject of Hollywood attitudes towards Asia and Asians from the 1920s to the 1950s is a fascinating one. There was a considerable interest in Asian subjects on the part of the American public and Hollywood saw those subjects as being good box office. In particular there was a huge vogue for Asian detectives. There was the immensely successful series of Charlie Chan films. 20th Century-Fox enjoyed comparable success with their Mr Moto crime/spy thrillers. And then there were Monogram’s Mr Wong movies.
All of these movies featured Chinese (or in the case of Mr Moto Japanese) characters as heroes. They were characters who were brilliant, brave, resourceful and noble. The other Asian characters who appeared in subsidiary rôles ran the gamut from the heroic to the entirely villainous.
The reality was that these B-movie series rely a great deal on the charisma and star quality of the lead actors, and there was at that time no Chinese actor in Hollywood with both the ability and the box office clout to carry it off. When Karloff departed after the first five films Keye Luke took over the part but sadly he lacked the star appeal of Karloff (and he was also hampered by the fact that Karloff had stablished the character as a rather stately middle-aged man).
So how does it stack up simply as a murder mystery? It has an incredibly convoluted plot generously littered with red herrings, and it’s entertaining enough without being anything wildly sensational. A wealthy American collector named Edwards has obtained possession of a fabulously valuable jewel known as The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. This jewel was looted during the Japanese sack of Nanking, it has considerable cultural significance, and both the Chinese government and many Chinese-Americans are distinctly unhappy that it has been taken out of China. When the collector is murdered this could well be the motive, but it’s not by any means the sole possible motive. And to make things more interesting, the collector predicted his own slaying and left behind a letter naming his future murderer!
There are other possible motives, apart from The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. Edwards was an insanely jealous man and had quarrelled with a number of men he suspected of taking an excessive interest in his wife. He had also changed his will, providing another very strong motive. The plot is complex but satisfying.
Karloff is excellent, naturally. Grant Withers is in all the Wong movies, playing Wong’s policeman friend Captain Street. Street is a sympathetic character, a cop who does his best and is smart enough to know that it’s always a good thing to have Mr Wong’s help on a case. Dorothy Tree plays Edwards’ wife with perhaps a bit too much hysteria.
here). Wiley’s version of the character is also an educated man but he’s a Yale man rather than an Oxford man. He’s also a youngish man and he’s a special agent with the Treasury Department. The stories themselves are also much more hardboiled compared to the movies.
The Mr Wong movies have all fallen into the public domain and have had some very dubious DVD releases. All six movies have recently been released in a two-disc set from VCI and the transfers are really very good.
The Mystery of Mr Wong is a B-movie but it’s a quality B-movie, and it’s extremely enjoyable. Highly recommended.
You might also want to read my review of the next movie in the series, Mr Wong in Chinatown.