Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

Boris Karloff stars in a triple locked-room mystery!

US / 69 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: William Nigh Assoc pr: William Lackey Scr: Houston Branch Based on: characters created by Hugh Wiley in 12 stories published 1934–38 in Colliers Magazine Cine: Harry Neumann Cast: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, George Lloyd, Lucien Prival, John St. Polis, William Gould, Hooper Atchley, John Hamilton, Wilbur Mack, Lee Tong Foo, Lynton Brent, Grace Wood, Frank Bruno, Wheaton Chambers.


The first of a series of six movies about the San Francisco PI James Lee Wong, created in print by Hugh Wiley; the first five movies starred Boris Karloff as Wong, while the sixth starred an actual Chinese-American in the role, Keye Luke. Depressingly, that sixth movie, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), flopped and so the series came to abrupt end. (When I get a chance, I’ll add it to this site. But it seemed silly to start watching a series with its final entry.)

I confess that for years I’ve avoided the Mr. Wong movies—as I generally do the Charlie Chan ones—because I find it just as creepy to watch a white actor play what I suppose we have to call Yellow Face as I do watching white actors play Black Face. I have to report, though, that the experience wasn’t as grueling as I’d expected. There is no mockery at all of Chinese culture or mannerisms. To the contrary, Wong is the most respected character in the movie; at one point the romantic lead compares the elderly Wong so favorably to her police-detective boyfriend—“Mr. Wong, it’s been such a pleasure meeting a detective with such charming manners”—that the cop’s eyes narrow in jealousy.

The Dayton Chemical Co. is planning to ship a consignment of toxic chemicals to Europe aboard the good ship Orinoco. The operation is spied upon by Lescardi (Bruno), an enforcer working for a pair of activists embedded in European politics, Anton Mohl (Prival), who goes by the name Baron von Krantz, and Olga Petroff (Evelyn Brent), who goes by the name Countess Dubois. They’re eager to divert the shipment or block the deal in some way for fear that the toxic gases therein may be used by an unknown government against Anton’s and Olga’s people.


Lescardi (Frank Bruno) watches the chemicals being loaded.

(In my book this would make them goodies, but in the movie they’re regarded as baddies. A few years later, perhaps their roles would be rethought. Even by 1938 it would seem to have been a kind of foolish assumption that it was okay to ship poison gas to Europe.)

Simon Dayton (Hamilton), head of the Dayton Chemical Co., calls upon private eye James Lee Wong (Karloff) to beg for his help. His office has been rifled, he has the constant sensation that he’s being followed, a beautiful woman approached him seemingly intent on industrial espionage, and so on. Wong soothes him but, as Dayton leaves, there’s an attempt to abduct him.


Dayton (John Hamilton) pretends to be an upright citizen.

Next day Dayton’s partners in the business, Theodore Meisle (Gould) and Christian Wilk (Atchley), both of whom could give snake-oil salesmen a bad name, pressure him into signing a codicil to their mutual contract to the effect that, should any partner die, his share of the company goes to the surviving partners. Well, we can all tell where this is likely to go . . .


Lucien Prival and Evelyn Brent as Mohl and Olga.

We then discover Dayton is far from the upstanding pillar of society that he professed himself to be during his interview with Wong the previous evening. Despite the best efforts of office manager Russell (Mack) and secretary/PA Myra Ross (Jennings) to stop the intruder, chemical engineer Carl Roemer (St. Polis) bursts into Dayton’s office waving a gun and demanding the return of the formula that Dayton has effectively stolen from him. Once Roemer has been bundled out of the room, Dayton calls the cops.

A sidebar: If the poison gas has already been manufactured using Roemer’s formula, why on earth would he want that formula back? There must be copies of it all over the Dayton Chemical Co. and, besides, the horse has already bolted the stable.

Pausing only to reflect that Dayton is obviously a total bastard and deserves whatever’s coming to him, we witness the arrival of Captain Sam Street (Withers) and his sidekick, Devlin (Lloyd). It was a custom in Hollywood crime/mystery B movies of this vintage, perhaps the Monogram entries most of all, for the leading cop to be a dimwit, with his sidekick being a complete musclehead.


George Lloyd as Sam’s sidekick, Devlin.

Sam and Devlin fill these roles, and yet they’re by no means the braying stereotypes we’ve come to expect. Perhaps because he also has to be a plausible boyfriend/fiancé to Dayton’s secretary Myra, Sam, even as he follows the well worn course of such cop roles (I’ve solved the case, it was X; I’ve solved the case, it was Y; I’ve solved the case, it was . . .), does actually seem to be possessed of some smarts. He’s also possessed of some ruthlessness: “You’ll talk,” he tells Roemer during an interrogation. “If it’s a little persuasion you want, you’ll get it.”


Sam Street (Grant Withers), smarter than your average dimwit.

While the cops, Roemer, Russell and Myra are milling about in the outer office, Wong arrives for a ten o’clock appointment with Dayton. When they unlock and open the door to Dayton’s office, they find the man dead. The doc thinks it was a heart attack, but Sam wants it to be murder—Roemer shot him!—while Wong discovers some unusual glass shards on the floor . . .


Flanked by Myra (Maxine Jennings) and Sam (Grant Withers), Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) regards Dayton’s corpse.

It’s those glass shards that’ll very soon reveal to Wong the basic mechanism that has been used in the murder: a fragile glass globe, some 65mm in diameter and filled with the very same poison gas that the Dayton Chemical Co. is hoping to ship. But, if he’s quick on the uptake about the mechanism, Wong is alarmingly slow to work out how the mechanism is triggered. By the time he does so, both Wilk and Meisle have been offed using the same means—and this even though it seems to us, the audience, that Wong had suspicions as to the murderer’s identity really quite early on.


Roemer (John St. Polis) resists police interrogation.

The whole method of committing the three locked-room murders is actually quite clever, until you begin to think it through. The trouble is that there’s a very decent probability that, so to speak, a chance encounter might trigger the mechanism as you were on your way to plant your infernal device. And something else other than the intended trigger might produce the same effect—as Wong’s parrot proves. Either way, you’d be good and dead before you knew it.


Myra (Maxine Jennings) and Sam (Grant Withers) discuss datin’ and murder-investigatin’.

Another unexplained detail is how the murderer was able to plant his poison-filled glass spheres in the places where they needed to be. Wong does start thinking out loud about this, but thereafter the issue is ignored.


Evelyn Brent as Olga.

Boris Karloff is fine in his role, and Evelyn Brent is always a joy to watch; her part here doesn’t give her a huge amount to do, more’s the pity. Maxine Jennings easily holds her own as the other female lead; I don’t know why Jennings’s career was so short and so, well, peripheral. After this movie, which is more or less the pinnacle of her screen achievement, she had nothing until 1946, when she played a minor role in G.I. War Brides dir George Blair; a couple of bit TV series parts in the 1960s, and that was it.

Mr. Wong, Detective is perfectly watchable, but Nigh’s direction is dutifully formulaic rather than in any way interesting, and much the same could be said of Neumann’s cinematography.

The other movies in the Mr. Wong series were:

  • The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) dir William Nigh
  • Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) dir Nigh
  • The Fatal Hour (1940; vt Mr. Wong at Headquarters) dir Nigh
  • Doomed to Die (1940) dir Nigh
  • Phantom of Chinatown (1940) dir Phil Rosen



On Mr. Wong Detective [streamable movie] or Mr. Wong, Detective – The Complete Collection [2 DVD set]



9 thoughts on “Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

  1. This positive representation of a Chinese detective reminds me of the detective character Chang in Gilbert Collins’ Mystery in St. James’s Square, which I looked at a couple of weeks ago. I wonder to what extent forthcoming historical events would contribute to the regeression in how Chinese people were portrayed (perhaps best typified by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s)…though that’s proabbly one for brighter people than I!

    • I wouldn’t know where to start answering that question, Jim! In Hollywood movies of this era it’s relatively rare to find any respectful treatment of people who weren’t, basically, WASP, so the depiction of Wong here is very refreshing.

  2. Nice review. Because it was the only one on Netflix at the time, I watched and reviewed Karloff’s last outing as the detective in “Doomed to Die.” It was pretty dreadful. Karloff was good and respectable despite the racist makeup job, but the lazy direction and cinematography, not to mention it’s beyond slow pacing, let it down. (My full thoughts are in the link if you care to read it if you haven’t already. Queued in Fridays: Doomed to Die – )

    Anyway, glad to hear this might be a bit better than Doomed to Die, despite both appearing to have similar problems. I would actually be very interested to see the last entry in this series without Karloff. Would love to see how an actually Asian actor handles the detective, especially given that he was the first Asian actor to have this honor. Sad he didn’t get to do more.

    Are you planning to watch the rest in the series?

    • Thanks for the link to your review of Doomed to Die; as you say, the two movies have similar problems, although it does seem that Mr Wong, Detective might be quite a deal better than the later outing.

      I’m not planning to cover or even watch the rest of the series — I watched this one only as, so to speak, a personal challenge. I’m quite interested by Phantom of Chinatown, though, so it’s somewhere on the watch list.

  3. I love the image of the note you posted at the end. For such an alarming, urgent message, it still has beautiful, unhurried handwriting and proper punctuation.

    Also, I thought you had a very good tip for a lasting relationship: “datin’ and murder-investigatin’.”

  4. Ha! Yes, I hadn’t really thought about the note’s calligraphy and punctuation. Time was, of course, that (clears cobwebs out of throat) many of us tended automatically to punctuate things correctly whatever the circumstances. (Don’t get me started on the differences between UK and US punctuation.)

  5. We did buy the 6 dvd set of this years ago and watched them all. We had enjoyed the Mr. Moto movies so took a chance on these too. We must have liked them, although it has been 8 years since we watched them so my memory is rusty on that. Time to watch them again.

    • Fingers crossed they bear up when you watch them again, Tracy! From what thecinematicpackrat says in the comments here and in particular in the linked review, my guess is that the standard varied quite a lot.

  6. Pingback: Phantom of Chinatown (1940) | Noirish

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