Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 2 - The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)

First up, some corrections:

To fix yesterday’s strange, baseless musing about Béla Lugosi, it turns out he was never in a “white ‘Asian’ detective” series. Rather, director William Nigh’s earlier filmography includes a 1935 film called The Mysterious Mr. Wong. It is entirely distinct from Nigh’s later “Mr. Wong” series, with Lugosi’s titular Mr. Wong a Faux Manchu rather than a Sham Chan. The more you know…)

More damningly, I yesterday claimed that Mr. Wong, Detective was, unlike Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto or so many others, not based on a preexisting print series. I was dead wrong on Wong. Monogram’s Wongs (the Wong-ograms) are based on the “James Lee Wong” series in Colliers Magazine, by Hugh Wiley, of which I can find no more information. That doesn’t change the fact that this is mostly a low budget 1930s Asylum variation on Fox’s Charlie Chan movies.

That being said, having serialized magazine stories to adapt takes a lot of pressure off of Monogram’s jabbering, quasi-literate screenwriters to devise new stories. These are adaptations, and the sequel – The Mystery of Mr. Wong – followed under a year after Part One. I wish I knew more specifically what the timeline was, since two more sequels follow in that same year (1939) – obviously, Monogram was a very efficient filmmaking factory, even if they sacrifice little things like thrills or sets or budget or characterization or drama or general quality.

Boris Karloff returns as Mr. James Wong, with no noticeable variation in his Wong interpretation – i.e. he’s still surprisingly bland (a very unusual thing for Karloff). William Nigh returns as director, likewise not varying his approach one significant bit. If anything, The Mystery of Mr. Wong (and mind you, Mr. Wong himself is all but mysterious) is less cinematic than Mr. Wong, Detective. It takes the classic Monogram approach of simply arranging its cast by their marks, filmed at mid-range, and that is that [dusting off hands]. These sorts of films would work just as well as radio dramas, but considering it probably took Nigh only slightly longer to film it than it’ll take me to write this blog entry, one’s expectations diminish accordingly.

The Mr. Wong series was already highly prescribed, formulaic, long before Part Two. So it goes, when conforming to a highly regimented genre (the 1930s murder mystery), plus ripping off Charlie Chan. If the potential for variation did exist, Nigh would shoot it down in an instant, for that is not in the Mono-Wongs’ interest. Thus now, as both before and since, it’s the same Sisyphean struggle, with people reduced to stock types: A big house in San Francisco, intrigue abounds, one person is murdered, Mr. Wong investigates along with the SFPD, a couple more people die in due course, and the murderer is discovered. Case closed, let’s go get some delicious, steaming hot tea.

Within these limitations, a viewer learns to appreciate the tiniest details. Character names change, but their central roles remain the same…

The respected businessman who fears for his life, and is destined to jumpstart the plot by dying: Brandon Edwards (Morgan Wallace)

His shady business partner of dubious ethnicity: Michael Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff – a Russian)

His wife: Valerie Edwards (Dorothy Tree – not a Russian, yet somehow SHE’s the communist)

Her extramarital lover, because these mystery films often assume a lover couple to provide the emotional underpinning (something the titular master detective cannot bring). Also, affairs (though patently immoral, says Hays) are an easy way to increase motives: Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds)

The manservant and maid, each to arouse suspicions in the most genre-naïve viewers, then possibly die at midway to deflect same suspicions: Sing (Chester Gan, for all your outdated stereotypical Asian needs) and Drina (Lotus Long)

An extra guy, who seems to have no reason for being here (read: is probably the murderer): Prof. Ed Janney (Holmes Herbert)

This isn’t exactly the interpersonal situation found in Part One, but it’s close enough – I couldn’t’ give you a mathematical formula for 1930s mystery suspects, but I’m certain it could be done.

Similarly, there must be a MacGuffin, to either drive the motive, or be a red herring. Switching out Detective’s chemical weapons, Mystery goes for a gem, jewel or sapphire, to go by its various designations: the “Eye of the Daughter of the Moon,” the world’s largest MacGuffin, and one recently stolen from China by Edwards – hence he’s crooked enough for us to not be terribly bothered when he’s shot dead in full view of everybody. Keep in mind this big rock isn’t the only motive, for it’s a mystery’s duty early on to pile on as many arguments as possible, to cultivate potential plot threads – the rest of the film is then an act of Mr. Wong discovering which possible narrative is real, and which isn’t. Until the end, and the actual clues and motives are highlighted – and no, I shan’t be revealing what they are.

As with many a mystery, there’s a lot of exposition to get out of the way, and a lot of that to cover even before the inciting murder. This requires Mr. Wong be present in advance, so even if the “Eye” is a functionally useless MacGuffin (in other words, a proper MacGuffin), its Chinese origin is enough to draw in our protagonist. Because Mr. Wong is among the world’s foremost experts on ancient gemstones, which embroils him in eventual mystery successfully enough that we hardly question why he (a nonprofessional civilian) has jurisdiction over the police throughout this series.

The police are back, and as ignorant as ever! I was correct in predicting that Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) would become a series regular, the perennial foil for the all-wise Wong. Though Street remains by necessity a straw man, forever following the wrong clues to make Wong look better. Still, he (Street) is far better served by this entry. The Mystery of Mr. Wong drops the cops’ more annoying jerkass tendencies. Street is kinda boring now, which is the tradeoff for not being irritating. And that trade characterizes what this series means to me…boredom.

Recall that conceptually, Mr. Wong is an Asian detective – that’s an entire subgenre! As exemplified by Charlie Chan, the form is helplessly racist, fueled by the vestiges of Yellow Peril, even if it seeks to correct the greater problems of Fu Manchu stories. This means Chan’s Asianness was always played as his defining personality trait; Mr. Wong, as exemplified by Karloff’s inescapable whiteness, isn’t even remotely Asian. He’s even less “Chinese” in Mystery, dropping even his former tea mania.

(The supporting characters, when required to be Asian, are still played by Asian actors, who mostly eschew “Hong Chong Chew” caricatures – I say “mostly” because that precise phrase gets uttered in Mystery, as the name of a Chinese emperor. Sounds like baseball tobacco to me.)

So anyway, these Mr. Wong movies are (against all 1939 odds) not very racist, and so instead they are, yes, a little boring. Mr. Wong is an amazingly flat persona, and mystery films (where the actual plots are mostly interchangeable) live or die by their detective’s personae. What a shame that Boris Karloff’s skills were then wasted in multiple 1939 movies, when he could’ve played a few more brooding mad scientist types, to everyone’s benefit. For a franchise starring Karloff the Uncanny, I expected more!

However, for all that Mr. Wong’s race is a complete non-issue, tying the MacGuffin back in to China makes it an issue again – but in a completely agreeable way. To jump to the chase, The Mystery of Mr. Wong takes a surprisingly progressive stance about China’s sovereignty, at a time when other films basically portrayed the country as full of capuchin monkeys. Mr. Wong knows, while barely saying so, that the gem should be returned to its rightful ancestral owners, removed from grabby Americans. To quote Indy: “This belongs in a museum!”

When Mystery is over, there has been your bog-standard parlor assembly, missing only an extra “darkened lights murder” to reach full-on cliché. Mr. Wong even collects the remaining suspects with that most cliché of detective statements: “I submit we are all here for one purpose: to identify the murderer of the late Mr. Edwards.” (Eh, the “Mr. Edwards” part is a little more specific.) And he proceeds to frighten the murderer enough for him to reveal himself, in the absence of genuine clues – a very common movie detective ploy, known as the Charlie Chan Special™.

That’s not what I mean to highlight. Rather, more impressively, throughout all this Mr. Wong has secretly rediscovered and stolen the gemerald away from the baddies. The film ends – its final lines – with Wong tasking Sing the Chinese butler with returning the rock to China. More than just fooling a killer, Wong has fooled everyone (that includes Street’s somewhat imperialistic policemen)! So The Mystery of Mr. Wong is ultimately respectful towards China, which makes me rather like this movie, even if it is otherwise tedium in extract form.

It only remains to point out those rare moments when Mystery isn’t simply boring us silly. The most entertaining scene is actually Edwards’ murder. It happens during a rather glorified game of charades, with a gathering of what the Marx Bros. would call “snobs.” Edwards acts out these little pastiches with some of his potential murderers – and he knows someone is out to kill him. Given that, why would you agree to be the “victim” in a fictionalized stage shooting?! Especially considering it’s precisely this pretend death which ends up being Edwards’ real death – It’s really quite funny how conversation continues for minutes more before anyone (even Wong) realizes Edwards is a rotting corpse in a tuxedo.

The other random note involves what is, I swear for the life of me, an actually swear word! In 1939, the year that Gone with the Wind popularized the word “damn,” this Poverty Row production actually managed to sneak in the word “fuck” – with no contextual justification! At least, I think that’s what’s going on; see so for yourself (damn thing is unembeddable – sounds like a description of the girls I date), around 57:35 (that’s the whole movie there, by the way). Did Janney not just ask “Wong, what the fuck is this?” Am I hearing things?!


And…that’s about all I have to say. The Mystery of Mr. Wong respects the Chinese, and includes the f-word. In these subtle ways, it is a very unexpected movie.

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