Thursday, July 11, 2013

DVD Review: Double Feature Mystery Thriller: The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) / Mr. Wong Detective (1938)

Double Feature Mystery Thriller:  The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)  /  Mr. Wong Detective (1938)

 Release Date: Unknown by

 Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary:  Two Wongs CAN make a right, especially if the price is right!

I’ve never won anything in my life… just ask the New York State Lottery Commission.  But, on Thursday June 27, 2013, I was awarded this DVD as a prize, by the instructor of a “History of Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema” course I’m attending. 

It was one of those “kids’ soccer team” moments where everyone in attendance gets SOMETHING and we all walk away feeling good but, to the instructor’s credit, he chose for me something he knew I’d like!  Something featuring both Bela Lugosi, in the first “Wong” film, and Boris Karloff in the second – in all the black-and-white (sometimes faded) glory that “Poverty Row” studio Monogram Pictures could offer! 

(Imagine getting so much “Public Domain Goodness” just for showing up and answering a question!  Life really does have its occasional rewards!) 

…And the real kicker is, the two Mr. Wong’s have nothing to do with one another – that is, unless you link them by the controversial notion that both of the films feature Asian characters played by Caucasian European Actors… and that’s a whole ‘nother subject outside the scope of this DVD review.  

Oh, and one Wong is evil, the other good!  On with the show(s): 

I'm the "evil one"!  Surprised?

The Mysterious Mr. Wong” (1934) Produced by Monogram Pictures:  (Runs 01:02:00) 

Unlike THIS FILM, that propelled us into its story with an “omniscient and philosophical ROLLING SCROLL OF TEXT,” “The Mysterious Mr. Wong” uses a NEWSPAPER to serve the same function – only this newspaper (…and is it CLEARLY a newspaper) presumes to double as an “International Encyclopedia” – or so says its section title. 

CONFUCIUS – Chinese sage and philosopher.  The most famous of all the sages in China.  He was born in the state of Lu, in the province which is now called Chantung, where his descendants of [ the text breaks here… and resumes as seen below] 

“…There is a tradition that TWELVE COINS, given by Confucius, on his deathbed to twelve trusted friends, will someday come into the possession of ONE MAN, and give him extraordinary powers in the province of Keelat.” 
Lugosi as Mr. Wong.

Bela Lugosi, here known to the outside world as humble shopkeeper “Li See”, but in reality the sinister and power-mad criminal mastermind “Mr. Wong”, intends to assemble the fabled “dispersed dozen” and rule Keelat Province.  

Lugosi as Li See
To that end, and in the opening moments of the film alone, three murders are committed by Wong’s three henchmen.  Each recovers a coin and leaves a mysterious note in Chinese pinned to the body.  Oddly, all three coins have been recovered from seemingly ordinary citizens (though they MAY have been descended from the “Twelve Trusted Friends of Confucius”) of an undisclosed American Chinatown – presumably San Francisco, but it could just as easily be New York, or somewhere else entirely. 

Through the efforts of his murderous minions, Wong has accumulated ELEVEN of the twelve coins needed to assume rule. 
I've got ELEVEN!  Do I hear TWELVE?
A law enforcement faction from Keelat, operating covertly in the United States, has come to stop Wong.  Their commander, “Tsi Tung”, addresses his forces thusly: 

We have been sent here to put an end to Wong’s [ …Actions?  …Crimes?  …War?  The soundtrack is too garbled to make a definite determination].  So far, we have failed.  The Mad Manchurian must be found – and the Coins of Confucius must be restored to Keelat.  In the hands of Wong, they mean DESTRUCTION!”  …And you thought YOU had a hard job! 

Good thing for Tsi Tung he runs into movie-typical wise-guy newspaper reporter “Jason H. Barton” (Wallace Ford, better known as the “Sort-of-Quasi-Costello” to Dick Foran’s “Sort-of-Quasi-Abbott” in Universal’s 1940 classic “The Mummy’s Hand” and its 1942 sequel “The Mummy’s Tomb”) who takes up the case in the interests of getting The Big Scoop. 
Wallace Ford

Barton, in turn is backed by “Peg” (Arline Judge, as the gal he’s trying to impress) and generally clueless Irish Cop “Officer McGillicuddy”, played by the great Robert Emmet O’Connor – a key player in THIS SEMINAL FILM CLASSIC, and later as another Irish Cop in THIS FILM. 
O'Connor -- the quintessential Irish Cop
Ford plays Barton as something of a “very poor-man’s James Cagney”, and that WORKS for this film, as he comes into possession of a “Chinese Laundry Ticket” [JOE’S NOTE:  Of course, what else could it possibly have been!  Sigh!] that holds the key to the whereabouts of the final coin. 

Indeed, Reporter Barton needs to summon-up all the “Cagney-ness” he can muster to deal with Bela Lugosi’s maniacal Mr. Wong – who spouts such dialogue as A few hours with the RATS will loosen his tongue to tell the truth!” and kicks his prisoner in the shins (for good measure?) while torturing him on the rack!  Let alone the requisite villainous declaration: You may wish you had not meddled in the affairs of Wong!”  All spoken with an oddly-accented mixture of English, attempted pseudo-Chinese, and Lugosi’s native Hungarian! 

While on Wong’s trail, in a Chinese restaurant, Barton and Peg’s fortune cookie tells the pair You will experience great danger!” – and, lest they be disappointed, in short order a large stone flowerpot mysteriously drops from a balcony, followed by menacing knives, chloroform-soaked cloths, and more! 

All this leads to a climax at “The House of Wong”, a vast underground palace – reached through a secret passage behind “Li See’s” modest little shop!  (Do the city tax people know of his vast property improvements?)

Barton and Peg book "Passage" to the House of Wong!
I don’t know how clichéd such plot elements and characterizations might have been in 1934 – but, peering through the backward-focused lens of 2013, The Mysterious Mr. Wong” is a flawed production that ends up being “fun”, precisely because of its many flaws.  But, as they say, “Your mileage may vary!”

Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938) Produced by Monogram Pictures:  (Runs 01:10:24) 

Boris Karloff starred in a series of five “Mr. Wong” pictures (all between 1938 and 1940), in which the character was a DETECTIVE, rather than Bela Lugosi’s criminal conqueror.   The fact that both “Wong’s” sprang from 1930s-era Monogram Pictures may have led to some confusion between the two among period and genre enthusiasts, and may very well be the reason both the Bela and Boris versions are paired on this DVD.  …Or, maybe it just makes for a snappy cover – you decide! 

...Or a snappy BACK cover?

Karloff’s “Wong” outings consisted of:  Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938), “The Mystery of Mr. Wong” (1939), “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” (1939), “The Fatal Hour” (1940), and  Doomed to Die” (1940).  Perhaps if Bela Lugosi’s “Wong” had been more of a good guy, rather than a murderous villain, he might have gotten a five-picture run as well.  
If you'd only listened to ME, Bela!

Yes, Boris... It might have ALL been different... Alas! 

 And, from the “Better Late Than Never Department”, it must be noted that there was a SIXTH Detective Wong picture.  Phantom of Chinatown” (1940) followed the Karloff Wong series, with well-known Asian actor Keye Luke assuming the role of Wong!  Oddly, Luke may have been best known at the time for his superbly energetic role as Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son – Lee” over the course of that series at Fox.

Keye Luke

Keye Luke - much later on Star Trek TOS.
James Lee Wong, as played by Boris Karloff, is an Oxford-educated sleuth who speaks without the faintest trace of an accent, save the British intonations that naturally emanate from Karloff himself.  Wong is simultaneously a gentlemanly sophisticate (as was Karloff in real-life) and a pleasant sort, often resorting to seemingly self-synthesized aphorisms such as: 

 He rests well, who dines well!”  and  A request from a friend is virtually a command!”  

The character’s origins are revealed as part of the movie’s opening credits sequence: 

Based on the ‘James Lee Wong’ series in Collier’s Magazine.”  

Is he calling Mr. Wong?
Our story is a classic “Locked-Room Mystery” in the literal sense. 

Late at night, chemical firm executive Simon Dayton (played by John Hamilton, best known as “Perry White” on the ‘50s TV classic THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) turns-up at Wong’s ornate San Francisco home and declares his life is in danger.  Calming his visitor, Wong agrees to see the frantic fellow at 10 AM the following day, at Dayton’s office. 

Great Caesar's Ghost!  WHO'S Frantic?!
By the time Wong arrives, Dayton is found dead in that very same locked office.  No sign of a wound – and the police, who’d arrived on the scene moments before (in response to a call by Dayton), saw him waving to them from his office window, as the prowl car pulled up.  

So, who dunnit? 

Was it Dayton’s partners, Christian Wilk and Theodore Meisle, who, mere moments ago, had mutually signed an amendment to their partnership – declaring that, if any partner should die, the surviving partner(s) will assume all aspects and assets of the business?  

Or, was it chemist Carl Roemer, whose angry claims that Dayton cheated him out of a valuable chemical formula, may have driven him to attempted murder? 

It could be ANY ONE OF THESE GUYS, except Karloff!

It could be three shady characters (a bogus Baron, a phony Countess, and a plain old thug) working in the service of a foreign government, with an interest in poison chemicals.  Though, it’s difficult to discern if they want the poisons for their own employer-nation, or if they’re just trying to keep them out of the hands of a rival government.  Either way, they’re up to no good!   

Then, there was the ubiquitous and oft-underfoot Office Manager Mr. Russell, or Myra the receptionist…

...Or, perhaps *I* did it!

…Or, did Bela Lugosi’s “Mr Wong” mistakenly believe that Dayton had one of the “Twelve Coins of Confucius” and make this a REAL “crossover-event”? 

Oh, and lest we forget, other, similarly unsolvable deaths come in short order – eliminating the occasional suspect as they go.   

Grant Withers co-stars as the blustery and impatient “Police Captain Sam Street”, and serves as a nice counterpoint, or foil, for the clever and controlled Wong.  The character of Street appears to run throughout the Wong series. 

Once revealed by Wong, “death’s delivery method” is a nice touch to cap an interesting film that I’m glad to have experienced!  

Did they take comfort in knowing the director was always "NIGH"?

Both Wong pictures on this disc were directed by William Nigh, who helmed all five of the Karloff Wong efforts. 

OVERALL:Double Feature Mystery Thriller:  The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)  /  Mr. Wong Detective (1938)” certainly has its flaws, but one expects as much from Public Domain DVDs. 

The sound quality is poor at times (more “times” than not on the Lugosi pic), but they are 70-nearly 80 year-old films, that have not undergone the restoration techniques of a major studio release.  Some slack can be cut here. 

Needless to say, no subtitles – which WOULD have come in handy, as I watched this with the background hum of my living room air conditioner in full force to further obscure the soundtrack.  Though, under the same (air) conditions, I was able to hear the Karloff film without any difficulty – the audio issues seemed more or less confined to the Lugosi film.  Indeed, the Karloff film fares far better overall, in terms of both sound and picture quality. 

The initial menu does not automatically display (at least on my particular player), launching directly into the Lugosi film – unless I press the “MENU” button on my remote. 

There is actually an “Extras” option on the menu, that I HOPED might be “Theatrical Trailers” for the films.  (You KNOW how I love those!)  But, no… it’s just a silent, illustrated ad for the manufacturer’s catalogue of other DVD products. 

Still in all, it’s a fun experience that I’ll recommend, in full consideration of its expected flaws – both technical and in the area of social enlightenment.   With “Bela and Boris”, you can’t lose, regardless of the material.  And, at least in my case, you can’t beat the price! 

BONUS FEATURE:  Since the DVD had no actual “Bonus Features”, I’m going to give you one right here. 

The reviewer is grossly dismissive of the Karloff film (he admits to watching only three minutes of it), but has some fun with Lugosi’s “Wong”.  But, the more interesting part is that there might actually be a (for lack of a better term) “cult following” for the product of “East West DVD” which, alas, is out of business.   

And, I must admit, for a public domain DVD, it DOES have pretty attractive packaging art! 

Consider just how stunningly bad some Public Domain packaging can be!


Anonymous said...

The Karloff series was an obvious attempt by Monogram to emulate Fox's popular Charlie Chan movies. Years later, Fox dropped the Chan series and Monogram picked it up, so they got to produce the real thing as well as the imitation. But they re-used scripts from their Wong films, remaking them with Roland Winters as Chan. The sixth Wong movie might be considered a reboot or maybe a prequel; not only was Keye Luke younger than Karloff, Wong and Street seemed to be meeting for the first time. It's a routine B mystery, but deserves some credit for casting an Asian actor in the lead. BTW, Luke played Charlie Chan's #1 son in "Mr. Moto's Gamble," which may be the first time a character from one movie series crossed over into another.

Joe Torcivia said...

Great background stuff, Anon!

I’m guessing that the Chan films that were not part of the FOX Charlie Chan DVD collections would have been the Monogram ones. I think they’re also collected, and I’ll look into that someday. Though I could be wrong, I thought Sidney Toler continued on as Chan for those. Perhaps he was replaced by Winters over the course of the Monogram series.

I haven’t seen it, but my guess would also be that the Keye Luke “Wong” film would have been a prequel or an attempt at a reboot. Given Luke’s youthful physical appearance at the time, there’s no way he could have believably carried on for Karloff, as Sidney Toler did for Warner Oland’s “Chan”. It’s too bad the series didn’t continue with Luke in the role, just on general principles.

And “Lee Chan” crossed over into a Mr. Moto film? How ‘bout that! I guess it was easy to do, as both series were produced by FOX. …Kinda like that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea / Time Tunnel crossover, that I’d always hoped to see.

Anonymous said...

The Moto film with Lee Chan as a sort of guest star was originally planned as a Charlie Chan movie. When Warner Oland died, the studio changed the script slightly and made it into a Mr. Moto movie, rather than delay production. Before too long, though, they did find a replacement, Sidney Toler, to play Charlie Chan. He continued in the role after Monogram inherited the series from Fox. Toler died in the late 1940's, and Roland Winters starred in the last few Monogram Chan movies. Some of those were remakes of old "Mr. Wong" scripts, and one (IIRC, "The Feathered Serpent") used a script from an old Three Mesquiteers B Western, "Riders of the Whistling Skull." That one is notable mainly for being the only one to have both #1 son (Lee) and #2 son (Jimmy or Tommy) in it. And, to this day, I've never seen the Lugosi Wong movie. I did see a DVD of it in a store once, and the description on the back of the case dutifully explained that this character was not the same as Karloff's detective hero. -TC

Anonymous said...

BTW, I, too, would have liked to have seen Admiral Nelson visit Project Tick Tock. Maybe he could have figured out a way to bring Tony and Doug back to their own time. Or, alternatively, they could have landed aboard the SSRN Seaview, where, given their track record, they probably would have been suspected of being enemy spies. -TC

Joe Torcivia said...

That’s great info, and much appreciated toward sorting out our classic cinematic Asian detectives, Anon / TC.

Despite its faults, the Lugosi “Wong” film is worth seeing, if you enjoy stuff like this.

As for Voyage / Time Tunnel, I’d opt for the latter scenario. Maybe this time, Nelson would even arrest his “strange visitors” BEFORE giving them free-reign to wander about the ship! …Or, I’d like to have seen our lost travelers get “time-tangled” up with Mr. Pem, as it would have allowed for Tony and Doug to be revived for the 1967-68 season, a year after their own series was cancelled -- but they’d still be lost in time.

Then again, landing on the Seaview would be in Tony and Doug’s “future” – no matter which season of Voyage they tumbled into. So, unless “Project Tick-Tock’s” failure was masked by a hugely effective government cover-up, Nelson would probably be aware of the lost travelers. That would make for an interesting story element.