Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 1 - Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

The mystery genre was once surprisingly fertile, throughout the 1930s. Without even addressing one-offs, these are simply some of the franchises which adhered to this formula: Sherlock Holmes, The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond, Hildegarde Withers, Torchy Blaine, Philo Vance…There is even a remarkably peculiar further subgenre…the “white guy plays an Asian detective” movie.

That particular niche is best exemplified by the Charlie Chan films, which had their start with a series of novels by Earl Derr Biggers – serialized novels being the origin of so many of these mystery franchises, which goes a way towards explaining their sudden existence. (So does the mere fact of filmic serialization, as movie series were just being explored as an idea in the ‘30s – largely by the B-studios.) Produced under Fox, the Chan films were reasonably successful and hugely prolific – with thirty entries, and that’s before Monogram Studios got their grubby little hands on the franchise in 1944. But before they could do that, Monogram was already hungry to snatch up some of Chan’s nascent racist luster for themselves, and thus they created a copyChan – Mr. Wong.

This wasn’t the only Chan channeler, for there was also the Mr. Moto series, also produced by Fox – which begs the question. While I remain for now entirely unfamiliar with the Peter Lorre-starring Mr. Moto, we turn our attentions wholly to Mr. James Wong, the sole Asian detective without any evident literary origin. Rather, we can look to Chan as Wong’s major inspiration, and play comparison. Each is a Chinese private citizen, residing in San Francisco, forever called upon by the police to solve regularly occurring formula murder mysteries – though the cinematic Chan would only do some of this later, so in 1938 this wouldn’t seem entirely unoriginal. (Indeed, the Mono-Chans took on some of Wong’s characteristics, for want of even the remotest creativity in Monogram’s monotonous movie machine.)

There is very little effort made to distinguish Mr. Wong from his betters – forsooth, Monogram was the Asylum of Classical Hollywood. The lone unique factor is the casting: Wong is essayed by Boris Karloff! Karloff “the Uncanny,” monstrous star of Frankenstein and subsequently more Universal horror films than a sane man can ever hope to comprehend. A brilliant character actor, Karloff had already appeared in Charlie Chan at the Opera, for my money the absolute tiptop of the Chan clan – which is largely Karloff’s doing! (Karloff’s friend/rival Béla Lugosi has some connection to the “rinky-dink Chink dick” genre as well, even beyond Chan’s The Black Camel.)

So…Mr. Wong is an astoundingly dull character – as evidenced by his “most generic Chinese name possible.” Perhaps this is because he’s a legally distinct semi-Chan with the edges hewn off. Here are his non-Chan-tastic characteristics: He has a mustache, glasses, black greasy hair; basically, he’s a white guy’s misinterpretation of “Darkest Orient.” He is deductively calm, always one step ahead of the police in a way which seems more derivative of Sherlock Holmes, only without the faintest justification. He has, at least by Part One, neither family nor friends, excepting a “buck-toothed Chinaman” manservant (Lee Tung Foo). Wong’s intended catch phrase is “Just a cup of tea.” Scintillating! [Snore!]

To Karloff’s kredit, though he kannot make Wong interesting, at least his performance isn’t the remotest bit racist – something that cannot be said of Chan’s charges, saddled with their falsely slanted eyes and stereotypical “Ah-so, me rikee the flied lice” dialogue. (Honestly, these Chan movies are a real affront to modern sensibilities!) Apart from his bland name and butler, the only indication that Mr. Wong is of any ethnicity is the silk robe he’s seen wearing in one scene. Oh, and that inane tea fascination. Karloff’s Wong is bracingly neutral, which is perhaps all we could ask for in these conditions.

The Mr. Wong series as a whole amounted to a mere six pictures (hardly anything at all by the standards of ‘30s franchises) all made within a three-year window – this highlights Monogram’s quick-and-dirty turnaround assembly line. Their wholly serviceable approach is evident in every stage of Mr. Wong, Detective, the intro entry. At 68 minutes, there is absolutely no time for dilly-dallying, and hence none of the characters – not even Wong – can make the remotest impression except as a cog in a formulaic B-movie. The story itself is paint by numbers, either to best facilitate Wong’s introduction, or because that’s what Chan channeling looks like. It is very difficult to tell the assorted mustachioed, suited businessman suspects apart, a common genre pitfall – it’s only by knowing the genre’s archetypes that one can keep suspects straight, and even then it’s difficult.

The tale starts out at an unnamed chemical factory, where the three principals – Simon Dayton (John Hamilton), Theodore Meisel (William Gould) and Christian Wilk (Hooper Atchley) – fashion an agreement whereby upon the death of one, the survivors inherit his shares. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our potential motive! In fact, it’s rather obvious, and I picture mystery movie audiences of the ‘30s would be superhumanly fluent with the assorted ins and outs of the genre. Thus they can spot an obvious red herring when they see it, and immediately start looking for the least obvious possible killer.

Mr. Wong, Detective follows a very bizarre path towards the climactic revelation – accomplished, as in all such mysteries, through ten minutes of exposition on the top dick’s (Wong’s) part. For even now we’re aware of a cabal of saboteurs – it being 1938, wartime tension was already rife, and every contemporary B-movie concerned itself with sabotage or weapon invention or similar such MacGuffins (all without nationality ever getting dropped – except the Bavarians, which rather ties this all back to Germany after all). There is no question that these schemers – Baron Von Krantz (!) (Lucien Prival) and the Countess Olga Dubois (!) (Evelyn Brent), plus a third goon whose name I could not catch – are behind the inevitable murder(s). No – question!

Usually, a mystery series only reverts to an obvious villain later on, as an anti-formula trick to throw off the audience – these stories then become about how the detective solves the case, with the outcome predestined. That’s not Wong’s tact. Instead, on top of these gimmes, there shall be the “surprise” culprit fingered at the end – and you can bet your shekels it’ll be the “least obvious” character…every time!

Actually – to jump to the conclusion way ahead of schedule, and spoil a third-rate film from 1938 none of you shall ever watch – that’s not it yet! There’s a fifth guilty party, making Mr. Wong, Detective practically the single most stuffed such mystery I’ve seen – nice it has at least one claim to non-Karloffian fame. On top of the saboteurs, and the non-obvious obvious suspect, the obvious obvious suspect is guilty too! Yup, look back up to those three business partners the story started with. One of them is to blame for the murder of the other two, in an amazingly rare instance where a mystery film plays 100% straight. (Though I’ve indeed seen movies where the butler does do it, which is even more subversive by not being subversive at all.)

Oh yes, a murder mystery needs murder, and Dayton is more than happy to oblige narrative formula by dying. Mr. Wong, despite being a private citizen, assists the SFPD in the case, and no reason is given for this except it’s his right as the headliner. The case follows perfectly perfunctory notes, as Wong examines the assorted suspects (many of whom I haven’t laid out, but they include the standard Woman, Lover, Shyster, Hateful Foreigner, and so forth). By around midpoint a second murder is committed (of Wilk, meaning logically Meisel is the meanie) – This second murder happens only because it does in all mystery movies, and is thus treated with ceremonial disregard. (There’s a third murder too – of Meisel, though it turns out he’s just a fantastically shitty murderer instead – which is only slightly less common.) You know, none of these fictional shamuses is any good, since over 50% of fatalities occur mid-investigation.

And I haven’t even gotten to the (obvious, obvious, obvious) clues yet. Perhaps it’s too many years raised by “CSI” (which I’ve never watched, for all the archaic potboilers I ravenously consume), or the ubiquity of mysteries in general, but when a story concerns a chemical manufacturer killed without any wounds, it should take seconds to figure out that poisonous chemicals were the murder weapon. I mean, come on! Mr. Wong plays that like a surprise revelation late in the game.

So naturally all viewers have correctly placed the means of death ahead of even Wong. Keep in mind all the guns present haven’t been fired (in that they have no empty chambers, and the victims have no bullet wounds), yet still the movie plays the “gun as weapon” angle endlessly. When Mr. Wong discovers broken glass on a corpse’s former person, here is my immediate reaction: “Oh, so the chemical was in a glass container, which was broken in some means.” Nailed it! That’s another “revelation” Monogram’s typewriter monkeys won’t make public until the denouement.

Plus, when we see Mr. Wong (having silently deduced stuff ahead of time) playing musical instruments before glass baubles, it doesn’t take a Holmes to deduce the glass was shattered by noise frequency. Honestly, this is the least effective mystery qua mystery I know of – ignoring at least the parody mysteries, and sometime even they fashion cleverer whodunits.

Granted all that, but the superior (though more offensive) Charlie Chans didn’t always have the world’s most airtight plots. That wasn’t to their detriment, because the joy was in seeing Chan solve the crime – or rather, seeing him flummox the latest suspects. In this task, Mr. Wong falls short, as a total cipher. As I’ve said, he functions solely as a plot device, nothing more.

“Aiding” Wong are the police – Captain Sam Spade, er, Sam Street (Grant Withers) and the even doofier Detective Devlin (George Lloyd). Any ostensible entertainment value comes from them. They are not competent. Because Wong is stoically boring, and fated to solve the case at the 66th minute, he can only be amusing in contrast to the cops. Thus they are painted as the mightiest batch of nincompoops possible – men so pre-inclined to leap wholeheartedly at the world’s most obvious red herrings (which, to their credit, sometimes turn out to be true – see Meisel), they’re barely credible as law officers. As straw men and foils to Wong (mystery cops can never catch a break), they’re too obvious. It’s as though Monogram’s filmmakers didn’t trust audiences to pick up on subtlety, so they created the brashest grotesques they could. I have a sneaky suspicion Street will become a recurring character. I am not pleased.

Because Mr. Wong, Detective is a Monogram product, it never had very much chance for greatness. There are too many handicaps in Monogram’s approach. Director William Nigh, nigh prepared to helm the majority of the series, is limited to a few sets – a house, a different house, an office, a different office, and Monogram’s patented Crime Lab™ (which shall be burned into my retinas in five days’ time). Add a roster of actors without the ability to stand out…except for Karloff, who simply doesn’t try, and the police performers, who stand out too much (they’re assholes!). Plus, time and limited resources conspire to limit Nigh’s blocking, so the film is nothing but assorted static shots of people standing around.

At least, to the benefit of the entire ‘30s mystery genre, what we have here are the nascent components of film noir. Almost without Nigh’s knowing, there is the faintest suggestion of urban ennui. At the very least, the black and white cinematography cannot help but be moody, in a smoky, shadowy way. That’s good enough, and future Wongs have the opportunity (thanks be to Karloff) to be at least slightly better than this. As a derivative bit of Poverty Row formula, nope, not brilliant, but…well, something.

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