Boris Karloff as James Lee Wong
When I think of Boris Karloff the first film that always comes to mind is Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) in which he played a version of himself as an aging horror icon who is forced to confront a real life monster. It's one of the few occasions in which Karloff got to play the hero rather than the villain and I decided that this was the Karloff I wanted to write about. This led me to a series of films in which Karloff consistently played the hero as Chinese detective James Lee Wong.
I originally intended to cover what I now know to be the final two films in the series, The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die, as I already owned them on DVD as part of a triple bill along with another Karloff film, The Ape. When I discovered Karloff played Wong in a total of five films and that all were available to watch at Internet Archive I decided to cover the whole series. If you are interested in seeing any of the films I've linked the titles to their IMDB pages and there is a link to the Internet Archive video at the top of each IMDB entry.
The character of James Lee Wong started life in a series of short stories written by journalist and author Hugh Wiley in the 1930s. They were first printed in Collier’s magazine and later collected in the book Murder by the Dozen. There is an excellent summary of the stories from thrillingdetective.com here. Karloff played Wong in five of the six Monogram films, with Asian-American actor Keye Luke taking over in the sixth film. I haven’t talked about that final film here as it’s not particularly relevant to Karloff but I’m intending to watch it for comparison’s sake and will post something about it here in the next couple of weeks.
What I’ve written below is a kind of review of each film while tracking the overall progress of the series and comparing the films to each other as I go along. It's not completely spoiler free although I’ve tried my best to avoid plot twists, but as mentioned above you can watch the films right now if you would rather see them first. Despite owning the final two films in the series I had never actually watched them until a couple of days ago so these are my thoughts having seen each one for the first time.
After setting up corruption in a chemical manufacturing company, the first film introduces us to Mr. Wong with a classic detective genre entrance – a soon to be murdered man comes to Wong to ask for help. It’s not clear from this introduction what Wong actually does for a living. He doesn’t appear to charge for his services and we later discover that the police know who he is and are happy to have him around but he’s not on their payroll. He seems to be of the Sherlock Holmes consulting detective variety rather than a Chandler-esque snooper for hire but this is not clarified (not until later in the series anyway).
When the man is eventually killed, Wong is presented with a puzzle. The victim was in his office at the time, the door was locked and several witnesses were outside. To make matters more confusing the police who arrived seconds before the incident was discovered saw the victim standing at the window, still alive. It’s an intriguing mystery and a good challenge to establish Wong’s detective skills.
Once the plot gets moving there is only one real glimpse into Wong’s past in the film – Wong visits an old friend at a university who mentions that they studied at Oxford together (which also helps explain Karloff’s accent). The friend also points out that he is always happy to help out with Wong’s ‘experiments’ which suggests he has done this a few times before. Other than that, very little is revealed about who Wong is and in fact he doesn’t really appear in the film all that much. The screen time is for the most part shared between the numerous plotting suspects and a representative of the police, the overworked Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers, shown here on the right).
The scene that best sums up Wong’s presence in the film is the one in which he arrives at the house of one of the suspects and waits around long enough to be invited to stay for drinks as one by one the other major suspects arrive. As the ensuing scene plays out, Wong lurks in the background watching events unfold almost from the same position as the audience.
Later he takes a more active role, sneaking into offices and apartments late at night, but his real skill seems to be more to do with scientific experimentation. There is an element of the film that is reminiscent of current police procedural dramas, such as a scene in which Wong reconstructs a gas grenade from a shard of glass, and a surreal scene in which a suspect is subjected to a formal ‘sanity’ test.
Although occasionally slow-moving the film does still hold up surprisingly well and when Wong finally reveals the murderer and the method it really is worth the wait. As for Karloff he plays Wong as a likable, dignified gentleman but also manages to inject the character with just enough mystery and eccentricity to make him interesting.
The second film opens with the acquisition of a rare and supposedly cursed Oriental jewel and the subsequent murder of its new owner. As a friend of the family Mr. Wong is called in to investigate.
William Nigh directed all five of the Karloff Wong films, but they were not all written by the same screenwriter. This goes someway to explaining the noticeable shift in tone between the first two films. Houston Branch’s screenplay for Mr Wong, Detective had a sense of playfulness that seems missing from this film, most evident in the change to the character of Captain Street. In Branch’s script Street was a stressed policeman convinced he was on the right track and exasperated when Wong was proven correct. He had a comedy sidekick and a feisty fiancée, both of whom provided an opportunity for some witty exchanges.
In Scott Darling’s screenplay for The Mystery of Mr. Wong, Street has been simplified to an all round basic lawman figure – coming in at the last moment to arrest whoever Wong tells him to arrest. Although played by the same actor he’s presented as a much less interesting character and the missing interplay with Wong from the first film leaves a big hole.
That hole is partially filled by the introduction of a new ally, Professor Janney played by Holmes Herbert. Janney is an academic equal to Wong in intelligence and experience who later becomes integral to the story. It is even suggested that Wong, Janney and Street have a history of solving cases together and the relationship between Wong and Janney becomes the most interesting element of the film. However, it is Wong who does most of the detective work and this aspect expands on some of the sequences set up in the first film.
There is again some real policework on display with one scene going into an interesting amount of detail about the work of a ballistics specialist – a scene that would not look at all out of place in today's CSI. Wong does a certain amount of experimentation of his own and also a lot more prowling around at night, which almost costs him his life in one scene. ‘It’s perfectly alright,’ he says cheerfully after surviving being shot at, ‘He missed.’
As in the first film Wong manages to assemble the suspects in his own home for the big reveal and when the reveal comes it is a good one. The final moment between Wong and the murderer is surprisingly moving and gives Karloff a chance to add some real depth to the character.
In the third film in the series Mr. Wong is visited by a Chinese princess who comes to him for help only to be murdered in his home before he can talk to her. Wong again teams up with Captain Street and a new character, reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) to track down the murderer in an investigation that leads him to Chinatown. Interestingly, the princess is played by Lotus Long who played a maid in Mystery and was also killed in that film (she also plays a character in the sixth film, Phantom of Chinatown, and I’d like to think she makes it through that one alive although her track record would suggest otherwise).
The third film was again written by Scott Darling so it is surprising how similar the script is to that of Houston Branch’s first film in the series. There is much more to enjoy in the dialogue and characters in this film and while we learn nothing new about Wong he does seem more involved in the story this time. The investigation also takes place across several different locations and feels more complex and ambitious as a result.
Reynolds is a welcome addition to the cast and though the wise-cracking female reporter was an often used archetype at the time she still comes across as a refreshingly bold and proactive character. At one point she even saves Wong’s life, then rushes to the nearest phone to make sure that the fact is mentioned in the ensuing news coverage. Her character is made more likable by her witty and often antagonistic clashes with Captain Street that are reminiscent of his relationship with his fiancee in the first film. The advantage of this is that it adds some moments of lightness that the previous film badly needed and makes Street a much more rounded and interesting character. He even loses his temper with Wong at one point rather than going along with everything he says as he did in Mystery.
One thing that becomes apparent from watching the first three films is that the elements of Chinese culture present in the story become more prevalent with each entry. In the first film Wong is the only Chinese character except for his servant, but in the second film there are more secondary Chinese characters along with a plot that concerns the Chinese government. In the third film Wong spends much of the first half in Chinatown interviewing Chinese suspects and the local Tong leader (Tongs were secret societies formed by Chinese-American immigrants). It may be a coincidence but there does seem to be an increase in confidence about delving into Chinese culture and having more genuine Chinese performers onscreen over the course of the films.
On a side note the film also features a brief appearance from Angelo Rossitto – one of the most famous and prolific dwarf actors of the time who is probably most recognisable from Tod Browning’s Freaks. Here he is given little to do except sport a sinister moustache and mime a lot, but his role does become integral to the plot (he also turns up as a newsboy in the montage that opens the fifth film Doomed to Die).
The plot is perhaps the weakest element of Mr Wong in Chinatown. The previous two films were enhanced by the endings with the reveal coming as an unexpected but effectively crafted surprise both times. In this film the reveal is rather a let down and Wong’s admission that he made a wild guess at the last minute actually comes across as just that rather than the excuses of a modest genius. Tied up up in the back of a car Wong quite literally takes a back seat in the third act of the film and it is left to Street and Bobbie to save the day.
Overall there is much about the third film in the series that shows development and improvement over the previous two. It is clear that Nigh and Darling recognised the elements of the first film that worked as the restoration of Street’s forever frustrated personality and the addition of a female sidekick clearly demonstrate. But while the series does seem to have hit its stride where the characters, pace and structure are concerned the plot itself just isn’t strong enough to elevate this film above the level of the previous two.
This time Wong volunteers his services when a colleague and friend of Captain Street is murdered. Wong unravels a smuggling scheme involving a suspicious night-club owner, a cheap jewelry store holding some high-class stock and a hotel manager in his most complex mystery so far.
Scott Darling is again the writer on this film, although George Waggner is also credited for adapting the source material. The plot seems the most ambitious of the series in terms of the different suspects and subplots involved. Much of the film centres around the doomed relationship between the jewelry store owner’s son and one of the night-club’s employees which ends in an incredibly convoluted murder.
Aside from a brief visit to a jewelry expert in Chinatown the growing Chinese presence in the films comes to an end here. However there is an interesting bit of information about Wong’s involvement with the police. Street makes it clear to Wong that on this occasion he cannot involve him in an official capacity. Wong then explains, mostly for our benefit, that so far he has only been called in on cases where there has been an Oriental link. It seems odd that the filmmakers decided this exposition was required in the fourth film of the series, especially as Wong’s unofficial involvement never comes up again in the story. At the same time, it is nice to get some clarification on the matter.
Marjorie Reynolds returns as Bobbie Logan and her heated exchanges with Street are some of the highlights of the film. She also saves the day again at the end of the film - Wong has a habit of unmasking the criminal when there is no one else around which often results in the murderer pointing a gun at him. But it’s Grant Withers as Captain Street who steals the show as (with the exception of Mystery) his general anger seems to increase at least 100% with each entry in the series leading to some amusing outbursts.
Sadly missing from The Fatal Hour are any of the procedural moments that seemed to characterise the first film but become less and less prevalent. The main focus here seems to be the partnership of Wong and Street who work together as a team more effectively than in the previous films.
While the plot is not as strong as that of the first film and the twist nowhere near as thrilling as that of the second, The Fatal Hour is certainly the most accomplished of the series. The trio of Wong, Street and Bobbie seems so perfectly suited to the series that it’s hard to imagine all three not being present in the previous films. The only drawback of this is that Wong’s character seems to have been sidelined with none of the mystery and eccentricity that Karloff played on so successfully in the first two films.
This time the case comes from Bobbie who calls Wong in to help clear the name of her friend’s fiancé when he is arrested for murder. Street is convinced the young man is the culprit but Wong has other ideas and unravels a mystery involving rival shipping firms, a smuggling operation (again) and an alcoholic chauffeur, taking a bullet in the process.
It comes as a surprise to find the two writers of this film are completely new to the series with Michel Jacoby taking the main credit based on a story from Ralph Gilbert Bettinson. Despite the new talent onboard there is no great shift in the style of film which was certainly noticeable in the change of writers between the first two films. Instead, Doomed to Die manages to include all the elements that have come to characterise the series and is perhaps the best of the films overall as a result.
By this point the pattern seems to be that Wong will be fairly proactive in the first two thirds of the film, then disappear in the last third only to turn up right at the end to deliver his verdict. There is certainly more action in those first two thirds this time than in previous films – there is even a thrilling car chase at one point although it’s hard to be sure whether the footage was specifically shot for this film or borrowed from something else. Wong is shot in the arm and there is a good scene with him complaining about having to have the wound seen to – a nice callback to his cheerful reaction at being shot at in Mystery.
Otherwise it’s business as usual – Bobbie and Street spend the film getting on each others' nerves and steal every scene they’re in together, Wong gets a few scenes prowling around in dark rooms, and there is a welcome return for the police procedural scene when Wong requests an infrared photograph be taken of a burnt note. Also, the plot lives up to the quality of the first two films and comes to a satisfying conclusion.
If there’s a problem with Doomed to Die, it’s that Wong is again sidelined and becomes almost a secondary character to Bobbie and Street. Although this is a classic formula (the eccentric detective and his bickering assistants) that is still often used today the casualty here is Karloff’s character. In the first film in the series Wong’s character seemed just as much of a mystery as the murders he was investigating, but this element is never really explored after the second film thus limiting the character and Karloff's performance.
That said, Doomed to Die is the most accomplished film in the series and shows that with the combination of Wong, Bobbie and Street along with the best of the mystery elements of the previous films the filmmakers hit upon a winning formula. Unfortunately of the three actors playing those characters only Grant Withers would go on to appear in the final film of the series.
There is a clear division in the series between the first two films and the last three, when Marjorie Reynolds becomes a regular as Bobbie Logan. What is probably clear from the above is that it is the chemistry between Reynolds and Withers along with the dialogue between their characters that really makes those later films work. The problem is that Wong as a character fades into the background as a result. He may be referred to throughout, he always comes up with the answers at the end of the film but ultimately that's all he seems to be there for.
The transition is clear in the stories themselves - in the first three films the cases are either brought to Wong directly or in the case of the second film it relates personally to him. By Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die the cases relate to friends of Captain Street and Bobbie Logan respectively. In story structure terms, these later films treat Wong more as an ally to the protagonist, rather than being the actual protagonist himself. He becomes a secondary character.
The key to understanding this is the second film in the series, The Mystery of Mr Wong. While it is in some ways the most limited film in terms of the plot, it is also the one that shows the most potential for the character and most easily demonstrates Karloff's versatility and professionalism. This is partly because Captain Street is genuinely a secondary character in this film (and oddly seems to have had his personality removed) but mostly it works because of Karloff's take on a detective investigating a case that he is perhaps too close to. When the killer is unveiled at the end of the film the sorrow in Karloff's performance is, just for a moment, profoundly moving. It is that moment that makes the film work and it is the same glint of humanity that he allowed to peek through the make-up of so many of his monsters.
Ultimately that was Karloff's great talent - that no matter the layers of make-up and madness in the characters he portrayed he would always allow that glimmer of humanity to shine through. With Mr Wong he shows us that the principle is not limited to monsters and even when the mask is made of eccentricity and caricature there is still someone just like us behind it all.