Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 3 - Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

A desperate Chinese woman (a returning Lotus Long in a new role, because Asian actresses were a rarity in 1939 Hollywood) seeks Mr. Wong’s help. While the butler goes to collect Mr. James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff), an assassin gathers. A dart strikes her the neck! Mr. Wong arrives only to find her dead, the lone clue a hastily scribbled message:


So begins Mr. Wong in Chinatown. That’s a propulsive opening, giving Wong a murder to solve with greatest efficiency – only to be one-upped if a cadaver simply splatted in, “Flying Circus” style. We don’t even have suspects yet! Instead, Wong wends his way along a chronological trail of clues, Hangover style, making Mr. Wong in Chinatown structurally a very different beast.

And in the Wong series’ mania to imitate the Charlie Chan movies as much as possible, it’s done the impossible, and ripped off Chan’s The Chinese Ring…which wasn’t released until 1947…Hold up! Did Chan rip off Wong?!?!...Indeed he did, though I didn’t know it at the time! But that was when Chan had Wong, er, long been banished to Monogram Pictures, fulfilling Monogram’s desire to have the true Chan series, thus negating them of the need to create any more Mr. Wongs. So it goes, that on top of recycling sets, props, actors, footage and musical cues, Monogram also recycles scripts. But with an eight-year gap, one World War and no internet, who would’ve noticed? Seriously, we bloggers today are perhaps a far more demanding lot.

The similarities between Mr. Wong in Chinatown and The Chinese Ring are extreme! Like, I could probably just repost my old Chan write-up, and trade out Chan puns for Wong puns. Let’s explore the similarities.

The Chinese Ring likewise opens with a Chinese gal – I now reveal in each case she’s a Chinese princess (!) – killed in Wong-Chan’s San Francisco home (for Chan, this means an awkward relocation away from Honolulu, which only now becomes clear – it’s plagiary). The only difference is in name – Princess Lin Hwa here, Mei Ling there. And her note in that one concerns a Captain K. …Oh, and the Chan princess abbreviates: “Capt.,” not “Captain,” which seems more efficient when death is upon you, only now I’m really splitting hairs.

In either case, J or K (or Rowling?), it’s a pretty useless clue, once Wong-Chan discovers the Princess’ ship has two Captains J/K upon it. Today, that’s Jackson (George Lynn) and Jaime (William Royle). To spoil (thou hast been warned!), it turns out the Princess didn’t specify further, because they’re both culpable – not for murder, however, but something far more boring (i.e. more appropriate for the rather draggy Mr. Wong franchise)…

The Js (or Ks) are committing – bank fraud! That bored me to tears previously, and it’s no better in original form. Chinese check chat, Chan or Wong, does not belong. It’s all bank account this, forged signature that, assorted unrelated airplane nonsense this…

Back to the parallels! Wong-Chan’s investigation(s) leads him-them to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where big trouble evidently is afoot. Our Chinese detective hero, by either name, discovers the Princess’ maid in an apartment. After some brief dialogue, enough to justify the hiring of a second Asian-American actress, Wong-Chan leaves, then returns just as quickly, to find the woman now dead. That’s rather soon to get the formula-dictated second murder, but oh well.

As this is going on, there’s also a small, mute “Chinaman” for Charlie Wong to play charades with. Soon the mute is also dead – okay, we learn this much sooner in The Chinese Ring, because here the movies begin to part ways, though they follow the same broad plot structure. As an example of where they diverge, the earlier Mr. Wong in Chinatown makes its mute a midget, a bizarre choice which cannot help but get your attention. This midget choice is also essential for a future clue – it’s no arbitrary bit of oddity. The Chinese Ring, meanwhile, employs a mute child, and child murder is far worse than midget murder (see In Bruges).

I’ll now relate, for the second halves, the broader details where the two pictures remain of a piece: Either way, Captains J/K lure Wong-Chan to an ambush, and take him hostage down to the docks. Then the police arrive (coincidentally in Chan’s case, due to careful scripting in Wong’s), and the day is saved. In the Chan entry, the Ks are the ultimate criminals, as for Wong the Js are just there as a distraction from the real murderer who is then surprisingly revealed. Odd how the earlier film is more intricate.

This is because, as a series, Mr. Wong has certain regular elements to rely upon, which the Chan entry didn’t, despite being Part Forty-Two (long series!). Basically, Mr. Wong has his recurring ally, Captain (J? no) Street (Grant Withers) of the SFPD. (In Mr. Wong in Chinatown, his first name inexplicably switches from Sam to Bill – something else audiences of the past wouldn’t dwell upon at quite the same length.) Street helps investigate, and is a foil for Wong’s Chan-like cleverness. The Chinese Ring, meanwhile, was something of a Chan reboot (a new lead actor, for one), and thus ditched much of what Mr. Wong in Chinatown could build upon.

So Bill Street follows the same set of clues as Wong does, usually a few steps behind him. Thus it makes perfect sense for Street to barge in on the Js’ thuggishness towards the end, when in Chan the anonymous cops’ intrusion was much more left field. Plus, there are a few more interim pieces in the Wong version, such as an extra suspect (a thrilling and captivating suited banker named Davidson – Huntley Gordon) to give Wong just that little extra oomph.

All this gives me something to talk about, which is nice because on its own Mr. Wong in Chinatown isn’t hugely distinctive from the former Wongs. It loses that drawing room mystery element of Mr. Wong, Detective and The Mysterious Mr. Wong, in favor of something just the slightest bit more adventurous. It also ends with a clear cut climax, involving the pseudo-villainous Js, which nicely distracts before Wong whips out the “surprise” extra bad guy revelation. There’s also a little more focus upon Chinese elements, giving Mr. Wong in Chinatown the flavor it desperately needs.

Yes, the series is boring, but they’ve solved that…sort of…at least for one entry. Mr. Wong is, sadly, a lost cause, for in Karloff’s aim to not be racist (i.e. overtly Asian), his Wong is a non-entity. That leaves Street, who regains a little of his Mr. Wong, Detective surliness, without crossing back over into “asshole” (don’t cross Street – uh hyuck hyuck!). And with Wong wrong, Street instead intersects with a new character, to better bounce off of him: reporteress “Bobbie” Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). That character name would suggest, circa 1939, Torchie Blaine – or, in terms we might still understand, Lois Lane – Either way, Bobbie is a rip-off of another popular character, a tabloid newswoman full of spunk and gumption and sticktoitiveness and whatever, prone to creeping around, uncovering clues, and screwballing it up. And in Bobbie’s case, rather than needing rescue by Superman, she herself occasionally rescues Wong (from a taxicab explosion, e.g.), as Wong is starting to actively embrace uselessness by now.

Actually, Bobbie is what saves Mr. Wong in Chinatown, so I’m glad that I peaked ahead to learn she’ll become a franchise regular. She sort of steals the thunder from Wong, but so be it. More importantly, she enjoys a love-hate relationship with Street, who hates her but also somehow loves her. This has, from a certain skewed perspective, the makings of a typical 1930s screwball comedy, ala His Girl Friday, married to a generic murder mystery. This is element is, I’d wager, what will set the remaining Wongs apart from the general morass of mis-mustered Monogram murder.

There isn’t much more to say about Mr. Wong in Chinatown – lo, even with a couple of distinct angles, this is a rather anemic little flick. I’ll just fulfill my brief promise that the midget’s very midgetness comes into play later. One learns, by watching mysteries, that the most randomly extraneous, B.S. little factoids often come back to bite. Either I’m getting better at locating these hidden hints (such as the mattress in The Hangover, which is honestly the mystery movie most of us know best nowadays), or the Mr. Wong movies are that lousy at hiding them – I’d wager the latter.

Anyway, while Wong is engaging a certain character in the old “five minute chat because here’s this set we must use” routine, that character for no reason discusses burying a ferocious Great Dane (Scooby?) in the pet cemetery. Wong, ever a fount of totally obscure and arcane trivialities as the plot demands, knows enough of pet cemetery politics (!) to deduce, from that, that it’s actually the midget buried there. In a grave most folk couldn’t fit in. And this is the key which determines the whole denouement! Pretty neato little bunch of clues there, Mr. Wong in Chinatown. Too bad The Chinese Ring couldn’t’ve copied those.

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