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

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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