Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

“My name is Wong. James Lee Wong.”

US / 62 minutes / bw / Monarch Dir: Phil Rosen Pr: Paul Malvern Scr: Joseph West Story: Ralph Bettinson Based on: characters created by Hugh Wiley in 12 stories published 1934–38 in Collier’s Magazine Cine: Fred Jackman Jr Cast: Keye Luke, Lotus Long, Grant Withers, Charles Miller, Huntley Gordon, Virginia Carpenter, John H. Dilson, Paul McVey, John Holland, Dick Terry, Robert Kellard, William Castello, Lee Tung Foo.

Not long after his return from a field trip to Mongolia, Dr. John Benton (Miller)—clearly labeled “Cyrus Benton” in a newspaper that we see—is giving a lecture at San Francisco’s Southern University about his expedition and the discovery he made in the Gobi Desert of the long-lost tomb of a powerful Ming emperor. He illustrates the lecture with the movie footage taken during the trip by photographer Charlie Frasier (Dilson), the very same guy as who’s now operating the projector for the lecture. Sitting in the front row are two further members of the expedition, Benton’s daughter Louise (Carpenter) and the pilot Tommy Dean (Kellard); the two are evidently sweet on each other. Helping the archaeologist is his secretary, Win Len (Long).

Tommy (Robert Kellard) and Louise (Virginia Carpenter), so much in love.

But one member of the expedition didn’t return, Benton explains to his audience. The backup pilot, Mason (Holland), was lost during a wild dust-storm and, although the party hunted for him, in the end they had to abandon the search.

Frasier (John H. Dilson) films everything.

Suddenly Benton grabs his throat and collapses. Soon the homicide cop Captain Sam Street (Withers) and his sidekick Detective Grady (McVey) are on the scene, but it looks as if the man died from natural causes. Less certain of that is audience member James Lee “Jimmy” Wong (Luke), an ex-student of Benton’s and apparently, although they try to hide it, an old acquaintance of the lovely Win Len.

Lotus Long as Win Len.

Since he introduces himself with “My name is Wong. James Lee Wong,” since he’s universally addressed as Jimmy rather than James, and since Keye Luke was a fairly slight man, I found it too tempting to think of the character here in terms of Woody Allen’s character in the 1967 parodic version of Casino Royale: Little Jimmy Bond.

Little Jimmy, despite being warned off by Street, starts snooping. In two photographs illustrating a newspaper article about the death he notices that the pitcher of water that was on Benton’s lecture table later disappeared. Surely, he reasons, the water must have been poisoned. While prowling around the lecture theater in the dark, he’s beaten over the head but still manages to lay hands on the glass, which, like the pitcher, was thrown out the window—presumably by the perpetrator.

Benton (Charles Miller) sneakily extracts the scroll from the sarcophagus.

Benton purloined a scroll from the sarcophagus of the Ming emperor, and now it’s gone missing from his safe. Apparently the scroll contains a clue to the location of the Temple of Eternal Fire, which is why everyone wants to lay hands on it. As Jimmy explains,

“A group of influential Chinese think the secret of Eternal Fire is vital to the defense of China.”

This seems to be stretching plausibility a bit, but in fact there’s a rationalized explanation late in the movie of why this should be so. (Okay, so it’s a good idea not to think too hard about that rationalized explanation, but at least it’s there.)

Can Sam Street (Grant Withers) crack the case unaided? Of course not!

Benton’s butler Jonas (Castello) is acting decidedly funny, and it doesn’t take too much deduction to realize that he’s one of the parties on the hunt for the scroll. It’s also no great surprise to learn that the pilot Mason in fact survived that windstorm and made his way to San Francisco, where he and his thuggish buddy Toreno (Terry) are hiding in a Chinese takeaway and working in league with Jonas to get their mitts on the scroll.

Benton’s butler Jonas (William Castello) is sure being a tad shifty.

Then Jonas ends up dead in the Ming emperor’s sarcophagus with a ceremonial dagger sticking out of his chest. Stranger than that, he was already dead when stabbed—poisoned by the same arcane poison that accounted for Benton: “Some kind of an alkaloidal poison nobody knows a thing about,” as Street puts it.

Although Street was aggressively skeptical of Jimmy’s intervention to begin with, by now the two are working amicably together—have become great pals, in fact. So Street goes along with Jimmy’s suggestion that they announce to the newspapers that Mason has been discovered to be alive but is now dangerously ill in the hospital. Jimmy, in the guise of Mason, is bedded down in a hospital room wired for sound—“This is station W-O-N-G signing off. We’ll be back later with some interesting disclosures. I hope”—and awaits the arrival of the bad guys. Of course, it never occurs to him or Street that someone could cut the wires . . .

Mason (John Holland, left) and Toreno (Dick Terry) plot mischief.

This was the sixth and last of the Mr. Wong movies, a series that began with Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), to which it can be considered a prequel. The character had previously been played by Boris Karloff in makeup. Keye Luke’s arrival marked the first time in a Hollywood movie that a Chinese detective had actually been played by an actor of Chinese extraction. Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series. Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.

Jimmy (Keye Luke), Frasier (John H. Dilson) and Street (Grant Withers) compare notes.

Or perhaps it was the fact that there are some pretty tart reminders in the screenplay of the foolishness of both racism and the idea that one’s own culture is automatically superior to all others. The first of these occurs during Benton’s lecture, when his audience breaks into patronizing laughter at the cavortings on the screen behind him of Mongolian dancers in Charlie Frasier’s movie:

Benton: “As you laugh at these people, ladies and gentlemen, bear in mind that at one time in history, under Genghis Khan, they ruled the world.”

Not long afterwards, when Street makes a mildly racist comment about Win Len—“What did she have [for lunch]? Chop suey?” nyuk nyuk—he’s treated with utter and deliberately ill concealed contempt by the butler Jonas while the rest of the cast in the room stare coldly at the cop.

Perhaps most effective of all is this exchange:

Street: “What’s all this?”
Jonas: “The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.”
Jimmy: “They tell me that a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.”
Jonas: “Sir?”
Jimmy: “Well, that gives you a rough idea.”

Keye Luke had an almost bewilderingly long filmography, but is almost certainly best known for playing Lee Chan, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, in eight of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies between 1935 and 1937, the year of Oland’s death. After the last of these movies, Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), he resurfaced as the character in Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938)—using some previously shot Chan footage for what would have been Charlie Chan at the Ringside plus new footage done alongside Peter Lorre, playing Moto—and then, a decade or so later, opposite a new Charlie Chan, Roland Winters, in The Feathered Serpent (1948) and The Sky Dragon (1949). He played no part in the Sidney Toler Chan movies, where his role was replaced by Chan’s Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan, played by Sen Yung, but he voiced Charlie Chan, the man himself, in the short-lived Hanna–Barbera animated TV series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (1972).

James Lee Wong (Keye Luke) engaged in sleuthery.

Jimmy Wong’s supposedly Chinese opposite number in Phantom of Chinatown, Win Len, was played by an actress, Lotus Long, who was in fact an American (born Lotus Pearl Shibata in Atlantic City, NJ), daughter of a Japanese father and a Hawaiian mother. Because most people assumed she was of Chinese rather than Japanese descent, she escaped the USA’s internment camps during World War II. What a charming period of history this was.

The only other Wong movie I’ve seen is Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), the first in the series; it’s safe to say that Phantom of Chinatown is by far the superior offering—and not just because the detective is actually of the right ethnic origin. The movie that’s shown during the initial scene of the lecture—the rough and ready record of Benton’s field trip—is an example of why this B-movie is so well worth the time to watch: it would have been easy for director Phil Rosen to have made the footage look professional, but instead he created (or borrowed, or stole!) something that looks completely authentic.


8 thoughts on “Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

  1. The only one in the series I have have seen (like you) is MR. WONG DETECTIVE, but you’ve forged ahead now with this offering, which admittedly has me intrigued in view of your high praise. The Karloff portrayal is a campy favorite for sure. Good to see that they finally employed Luke of Chinese extraction and congrats on a fabulous review here John!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam. I’d certainly much recommend this over the earlier one.

      Knackered: we’re just home from I-Con (sf convention in Long Island), where I did more panels that is sane. Pam has already opted for a nap, while I’m typing increasingly error-prone emails.

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