Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mr. Wong, No. 6 - Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Losing the lead actor isn’t necessarily the death knell for a franchise. But with Boris Karloff’s departure from the Mr. Wong series, there was no more need for Wongs – not that Karloff particularly brought anything to the series, except his mere presence. Oddly, Karloff proved the universe wrong and found a role he could be boring in, but that name on the marquee was enough to fuel five movies entirely on its own. With Karloff off, there is now no reason for Monogram to wring Wongs for long – to say nothing that the Wong “creative” team (director: William Nigh, writer: some guys). So, freed from the expectation that the final Wong is anything but a one-off, new director Phil Rosen (familiar from many an East Side Kids film, notably Spooks Run Wild) does something wholly unprecedented for a series about an Asian detective:

He hires an Asian actor!

Between the sixty-one shared films of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong (the curiously prolific “Chinese detective” sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subgenre of mystery movies), only one film goes beyond the white race when casting its hero, and that’d be this movie, the final Wong – Phantom of Chinatown. Amazing to think that there was a time in Hollywood when slapping some yellowface and falsely slanty eyes on a Caucasian was the preferable alternative to providing minority actors with employment…which goes to show how progressive the overall Mr. Wong series has been to simply respect its Mr. Wong character, and not characterize him as an archaic and unsubtle stereotype. And when you’re casting a legitimate Asian lead in 1940 Hollywood, there is literally only one name on that list: Keye Luke

Keye Luke kicks ass! (Ignore the white guy on the right.) Luke was America’s sole Asian leading man of his generation – arguably, things wouldn’t evolve beyond that until Bruce Lee crossed over in Enter the Dragon. (Luke anticipated Lee even by playing Cato, the Green Hornet’s inarguably more competent sidekick.) Hell, by 1961, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hollywood was still allowing its noble Caucasians run condescending rampage over a whole continent’s people!

Anyway, Keye Luke is awesome, and totally comfortable in the Asian mystery format, having long played Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son” Lee. It is an example of Luke’s never-tested acting skill that his one-film interpretation of Wong is nothing like his more naïve, enthusiastic Lee. In Phantom of Chinatown, Luke channels some degree of Karloff’s flat, almost nonexistent performance, but makes it interesting. Consider it: Karloff’s seeming intent with Wong was to be inoffensive – a damned hard thing to do when the costumer has given you prosthetic buckteeth. Karloff’s solution was to make Wong completely without personality – unless the world’s blandest stoicism counts – as an effort to avoid anything which might be construed as anti-Asian. This was his defining trait, to be not stereotypical, and yet Wong remained defined by his Asianness – a thankless paradox, in light of Karloff’s unmistakable English background.

Luke avoids the pitfalls of Karloff’s interpretation by being Asian. Thus he needn’t worry about demeaning an “other,” and must only be concerned with not appearing like the Chinese equivalent of Stepin Fetchit – a role which series regular (or as he’d say, “legural”) Lee Tung Foo has inhabited ever since Mr. Wong, Detective. Instead, Luke plays Wong as a normal person – a completely radical interpretation of race circa 1940, to be sure! To maintain continuity, Luke channels Karloff’s uncharacteristic blandness, but turns it into a straight-faced, deadpan irony. Actually, there’s a bit more to Luke’s surprisingly subtle, varied Wong, which leads to another way in which Phantom of Chinatown is a shockingly atypical movie:

It is a prequel!

Prequels weren’t yet common in the film franchise vernacular by 1940, and Phantom of Chinatown doesn’t advertise this fact, but it remains evident that Luke’s Wong is a younger, less experienced version who would eventually morph into Karloff – race-bending and all!

To prove this is a prequel, and not just typical 1940 half-assed discontinuity (a commonplace occurrence among Poverty Row franchises), Luke’s Wong has only just arrived in San Francisco. He lives out of a hotel with Foo. He first meets Police Captain Street (Grant Withers, officially becoming the sole actor to weather the entire six-film series...eh, he and Foo), and solves his first murder mystery – drawn into it because of a coincidental Oriental connection (and no accidental Occidental!). There are even subtler details, such as the presence of a cop named Grady, whose unseen murder would eventually fuel Part Four, The Fatal Hour.

Sadly, this unofficial prequel status negates the possibility of Marjorie Reynolds’ fantastic Bobbie Logan returning, but Luke more than makes up for that deficiency.

So…prequel when they weren’t made, starring a Chinese actor in a leading role…it’s as though Rosen & Co. knew there was no need to perpetuate the series, and were simply shattering some well-shattered taboos. The result is, to be contrarian with average internet opinion (which holds, predicably, that Part One is always the best), I think the very best film in the Wong throng, made that way by the freedom of being the last.

Hell, even the desultory murder mystery angle is a little fresher this time around! Luke aside, the movie as a whole is a damn lot clearer under Rosen than any of Nigh’s efforts. (Because complex mysteries were never the Wong forte.) Recall, the cases formerly have involved such scintillating non-issues as check fraud, bank statements, multiple unofficial drafts of wills, radio contracts, shipping manifests, and other such effluvia I’ve struggled to give half a shit about. Phantom of Chinatown is instead about archeology! This is awesome!

The opening seems hardly to belong in the Wong swan song. Stock footage unspools about an archeological expedition into Darkest Mongolia, but here it’s legitimately presented as footage – that is, part of a post-trek lecture, so we needn’t play the game of pretending it fits in with Monogram’s rather less grainy original film stock. And in an era where newsreels were one’s window into the world, showing genuine footage of Mongolia has worth. Then, in the midst of this, we randomly flashback to a portion of the archeologists’ journey, simply because Monogram had a temple set lying around.

Cutting to the chase, lecturer Dr. Benton (Charles F. Miller) dies in full audience view when he sips some poisoned water. The suspect roster is comprised of his expedition partners, filling the usual roles – including Lover Couple and Random Crusty Old Dude. As Street and Wong separately look into the matter, for their separate reasons, the motive underlying all this becomes welcomely clear: The killer seeks a scroll. A scroll detailing the whereabouts of the Temple of Eternal Fire (!), and its treasure – which isn’t ancient relics, but oil deposits. Ooh, timely!

You know, phrasing a murder mystery in the genre trappings of an old Republic serial – i.e. if Indiana Jones did more detection, and less Nazi-punching – makes things so much easier to follow. Simply as a common movie motif, pulpy tomb raiding carries rules and connotations, whereas check fraud does not. What follows, for the rest of the film, is remarkably clear, all because “wants a scroll” is as simple as “wants the Ark,” or “the Maltese Falcon,” or “the microfilm.”

Such simplicity is in keeping with Phantom’s prequel status, since Luke’s Wong is just getting a feel for this whole gumshoe thing. He teams up quickly enough with Street. As an example of Phantom’s unique take on the mystery genre, Street and Wong even acknowledge how formulaic the story they’ve found themselves in appears. Each admits – this is the first time an old mystery film has copped to this standard – that the most obvious suspect is never the killer, at least in fiction. This attitude never gets too smarmily “meta,” partly because that wasn’t really an option circa 1940, but it shows Rosen approached Wong more critically than Nigh ever did.

The entire Wong series has distinguished itself by being racially progressive, at least for its time, underplaying or thumbing its nose at then-common notions of “Oriental exoticism.” Phantom of Chinatown takes this idea the furthest, beyond its casting of Luke, by populating a massive amount of the supporting cast with other Asians. The tradeoff of this spontaneous affirmative action is that there were hardly any other Asian actors then available. Lotus Long, long-time (heh?) regular series victim, is promoted to leading lady status, which seems a little beyond her acting abilities, though I’m glad they gave her the chance. Most other Asian actors appear to be complete amateurs. Overall, however, this is a minor problem.

Keye Luke is really the lucky key to Phantom of Chinatown – the mystery, though clear, is mostly disposable, and many other elements on hand aren’t distinct enough from the regular Wong throng (or any Monogram effort, for that matter). Wong is clearly learning his chops (suey – sorry, that’s a joke these films would make), like an incredibly minor variation on Casino Royale’s chief pleasures. That self-aware attitude serves Wong through the end, since he’s not a master detective, not in this version, but just a guy copying what the movies show him. So to finally catch the killer, Wong uses a Charlie Chan Special™ - without actual knowledge or clues, instead he fakes the appearance of such, and instead lays an ambush. The crook(s) is/are arrested, and Wong doesn’t even deign to conclude with a know-it-all expository lecture to fill us all it. That isn’t needed, for things are clear enough already. Events are fast paced, which more than offsets the procedural structure. The characters, especially Wong, are more engaging than usual, proving that is a mystery film’s true bread and butter.

Keye Luke never enjoyed another role nearly as prominent as this one, though he worked prolifically for the rest of a fruitful career, well into the 1980s. Most of Luke’s credits remain in the B-movie miasma of Monogram and their competitors, which is no slight to what he might’ve achieved in a later generation. Phantom of Chinatown, though generic, stands as an example of what might’ve been, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

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