Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

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“My name is Wong. James Lee Wong.”
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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 Continue reading

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

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Boris Karloff stars in a triple locked-room mystery!
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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.

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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 Continue reading

Gambling Sex (1932)

vt Laughing at Luck
US / 59 minutes / bw / Monarch Dir: Fred Newmeyer Pr: Burton King Scr: F. McGrew Willis Cine: Edward Kull Cast: Ruth Hall, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maston Williams, Jean Porter, Jimmy Eagles, Murdock MacQuarrie.

Gambling Sex - 0 opener

In Miami, rich John Tracy (St. Polis) is losing heavily at the casino as he follows the system devised by his “friend” Ralph Jordan (Williams); what he doesn’t know is that the system’s a complete con and Jordan is harvesting from the casino a cool 20% of Tracy’s losses.

Some years ago, during the Crash, Tracy’s acquaintance Bill Foster (Withers) lost everything. Bill insisted that Tracy take his string of racehorses in payment for a debt; Tracy insisted on giving Bill paid employment as the manager of the string. Bill and jockey Sandy Lane (Eagles) feel guilty that Tracy’s not getting much of a return on his investment: the only horse they have that’s any good is Lightning, and Lightning—“the fastest thing on earth”—seems well-nigh untameable.

Gambling Sex - 1 John's photo of Sheila

John Tracy’s treasured photo of his daughter Sheila (Ruth Hall).

Foolishly, Tracy thinks that he might be the one to tame the beast, and lets himself into Lightning’s stall. A few noisy moments later he’s being helped away to what will prove to be his deathbed. Bill sends for Tracy’s extraordinarily toothsome daughter Sheila (Hall), a student at snooty school Stewart Hall, where the teachers are really, really strict (“I’d advise you not to get that bathing suit wet. It might shrink”) and the girls are really, really unbridled (“I know a place where they weaken the ginger ale so it doesn’t make us dizzy!”). She arrives in time to witness her father give Continue reading

Red-Haired Alibi (1932)

US / 68 minutes / bw / Tower Dir: Christy Cabanne Pr: Sig Neufeld Scr: Edward T. Lowe Jr. Story: The Red-Haired Alibi (1932) by Wilson Collison Cine: Harry Forbes Cast: Merna Kennedy, Theodore von Eltz, Grant Withers, Purnell Pratt, Huntley Gordon, Fred Kelsey, Arthur Hoyt, Paul Porcassi, John Vosburgh, Shirley Temple, Marion Lessing.

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Lynn Monith (Kennedy), a native of Columbus, Ohio, and perfume-counter girl at the Hotel Savoy there, allows herself to be taken out for dinner at a nearby biergarten after work one night by suave hotel guest Trent Travers (von Eltz)—although she makes it clear this is going to be a strictly hands-off appointment. He tells her that, if ever she comes to New York City, he has a job for her.

Red-Haired Alibi - 1 Travers sounds Lynn out

Travers (Theodore von Eltz) sounds Lynn out.

A few months later the Hotel Savoy closes down and Lynn is out of a job. She comes to NYC and puts herself up at a swanky hotel she can ill afford. However, when she phones Travers’s home, his Continue reading

HALLOWEEN DOUBLE BILL: Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1940) and The Girl who Dared (1944)

These two Old Dark House melodramas were based on novels by Medora Field, a novelist of whom I knew nothing until recently, when Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp posted an essay about her. She was a friend of Margaret Mitchell (who encouraged her to write) and produced just the two novels. Before the end of this year (2014) the two are to be reissued as a double volume by Coachwhip, with an introduction by Evans. For more, see his piece at The Passing Tramp.

UPDATE: Evans has just announced that the two novels are now indeed back in print — as individual volumes, it appears, rather than a double volume. Go check out the covers and other details Right Now.

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Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1940)

US / 70(?) minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Arthur Lubin Scr: Stuart Palmer, Frank Gill Jr, Hal Fimberg Story: Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1939) by Medora Field Cine: Reggie Lanning Cast: John Hubbard, Wendy Barrie, Edgar Kennedy, Elizabeth Patterson, Onslow Stevens, Joyce Compton, Walter Abel, Mona Barrie, Willie Best, Daisy Lee Mothershed, Milton Parsons.

Kirk Pierce (Hubbard) runs a company that produces radio shows for advertisers to endorse. The latest demo he’s listening to is The House with the Secret Room by Sally Ambler (Wendy Barrie), and Continue reading

Daughter of the Tong (1939)

US / 56 minutes / bw / Metropolitan Dir: Raymond K. Johnson Pr: Lester F. Scott Jr. Story: George H. Plympton Cine: Elmer Dyer Cast: Evelyn Brent, Grant Withers, Dorothy Short, Dave O’Brien, Richard Loo, Harry Harvey, Budd Buster.

It’s the early days of the FBI (“This organization is founded upon courage and faith,” according to the long opening screed, “and in many cases has exacted the lives of those federal agents whose ideals strongly embody liberty and the rights of their fellow men”), and an FBI man has been shot down in Chinatown because getting too close to the operations of the racketeer and people-smuggler Carney, aka The Illustrious One.

Carney has decided to hire recently escaped con Gallagher as resident hitman; the FBI, having recaptured Gallagher, opts to exploit the chance resemblance between him and their agent Ralph Dickson (Withers) to infiltrate the latter into Carney’s gang; what the FBI doesn’t know is that Carney’s not a grizzled male gangster but an attractive young Chinese woman (Brent).

Daughter of the Tong (1939) - Evelyn Brent as Carney, The Illustrious One -- look Real Chinese, yep

               Evelyn Brent as Carney, The Illustrious One — and looking so very Chinese.

En route to Carney’s HQ, Dickson meets Marion Morgan (Short), whose importer/exporter brother Jerry (O’Brien) was working with Carney until he realized Carney was using him as a front for her smuggling and human-trafficking business; Jerry’s in the process of discovering that the only way Carney allows people to resign is feet-first. Luckily for Dickson, whose infiltration attempt is very soon abortive, the organization already has an FBI mole, Lefty Macmillan (Buster, making the most of a small part). After a passel of extraordinarily poorly choreographed fistfights, the good guys prevail and Dickson pairs up with Marion, who heretofore has been primarily cute, spunky and, well, stupid.

This is a very bad but likeable movie. Carney is supposed to be Chinese, but there’s no attempt to make Brent look or seem oriental except to drape her in a wig that’s strongly reminiscent of the one Robert Wagner would later famously wear in Prince Valiant (1954). Among many plot hiccups the most noticeable is probably when Dickson manages to get a gun-toting, suspicious Carney out of the room by telling her that an incoming phonecall is “private business”; how mannerly these gangsters are.

Loo, who here plays Wong, the gang’s frontman in the hotel it uses as HQ and also its specialist torturer, had a long career playing similarly stereotyped parts; he’s perhaps best known as Hai Fat (geddit?) in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Harvey plays Carney’s dimwit goon Harold “Mugsy” Winthrop; there’s a moment of humor at the end when Dickson explains that, for Mugsy, “FBI” means “Free Board Indefinitely”.

On Amazon.com: Daughter Of The Tong