Friday, July 27, 2012

On DVD: Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

I suppose you all assume that Boris Karloff is famous for 1) Frankenstein's monster and 2) narrating How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and not much else. Think again.

In 1938, Karloff was cast as Oriental detective James Lee Wong in a series of short features produced by Monogram Pictures. Karloff starred in 5 of the 6 movies in the series. The last, a prequel, "Phantom of Chinatown", had Keye Luke in the title role (and was previously reviewed in this space).

The opener, "Mr. Wong, Detective", finds Wong, an Oxford-educated investigator, hired by chemical magnate Simon Dayton (John Hamilton, better known for his later work as Perry White on Adventures of Superman), arriving in Dayton's office for an appointment, only for his client to have been murdered through curious means.

Monogram wanted their own inscrutable Oriental sleuth in opposition to the more well known Charlie Chan, whose rights were held by Fox at the time. A few years later, Monogram would take over the Chan license, finding it necessary to add comic relief (Mantan Moreland) where it wasn't really needed. Wong, thankfully, doesn't need comedy relief. However, Capt. Street (Grant Withers, who appeared in all 6 movies), was used as a sort of foil for Wong, befuddled by the detective's findings and theories.

Without further ado, Thevideocellar presents "Mr. Wong, Detective". Mind you, the Alpha Video DVD I have edited off the Monogram logo which appears at the beginning of this film........

I am not sure why Karloff left the series after 5 films, prompting the last to be reformatted as a prequel. One theory might be money and/or creative differences might have gotten in the way. In no way, shape, or form was Karloff used as a stereotype, as Wong speaks perfect English, the product of his Oxford training, which is the only advantage he'd have on Chan. It's too bad Wong is remembered by so few.......

Rating: B.


magicdog said...

My dad and I are fans of both Charlie Chan and Mr. Wong. We have the entire DVD collections.

I thought it odd that Keye Luke was cast in the final film, though I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a prequel, as there was a line in which Wong's butler mentions the man's father was out of town. Perhaps they wanted to create a "Son of Wong" sort of deal.

Perhaps the Oriental detective to have been given the greatest shaft was "Mr. Moto" (whose films we also collected). His films abruptly ended when Pearl Harbor was bombed and having a Japanese hero wasn't going to fly at the US box office.

hobbyfan said...

It is my understanding, and I stressed this when I reviewed "Phantom of Chinatown", that it was indeed a prequel, with Keye Luke as a younger James Lee Wong.

I see what you're saying re: Mr. Moto, but note also that the Green Hornet's radio show soldiered on during WWII. All they did was change Kato's nationality from Japanese to something else for four years. Weird but true.