Watching 1939: Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)

Release date: 
Aug. 1, 1939

Cast: 
Boris Karloff, Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, Huntley Gordon, George Lynn (billed as Peter George Lynn), William Royle, James Flaven, Lotus Long, Lee Tung Foo, Bessie Loo, Richard Loo, Angelo Rossitto (uncredited)

Studio: 
Monogram Pictures

Director: 
William Nigh

Plot:
Chinese Princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long) is killed in the San Francisco home of detective James Lee Wong (Karloff). Wong helps Inspector Bill Street (Withers) determine why the princess was killed, with reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds) also trying to crack the case. Their only clue is the note “Captain J” written on a slip of paper by the princess before she died.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Boris Karloff was in six films released in 1939.
– William Nigh directed four pictures in 1939, including two Mr. Wong films.
– Lotus Long was in three films released in 1939. Two of these films were Mr. Wong films, though she played different characters in both.
– Marjorie Reynolds was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Grant Withers was in six films released in 1939.
– Angelo Rossitto was in two films in 1939. The other was as a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz.”
– Richard Loo was in nine films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• One of two Mr. Wong films released in 1939. There were a total of five Mr. Wong films made between 1938 and 1940.
• The story was remade as a Charlie Chan movie in 1947 under the title “The Chinese Ring” (1947). Screenwriter Scott Darling worked on both films.
• The character of detective James Lee Wong was created by Hugh Wiley. The character was featured in stories published in Colliers Magazine from 1934 to 1938.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Today, Asian actors in Hollywood are still having to fight for better roles and recognition. Films like “Crazy, Rich Asians” (2018) were a rarity; featuring Asian actors as the main characters rather than comedic sidekicks.

Throughout Hollywood’s history, this has been a struggle for Asian actors … particularly when white actors were cast as Asian characters.

During the 1930s in particular, several Asian detective films with white actors in yellowface were popular. These included:
– Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective, starring American actors Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Chan
– Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective, starring white Hungarian actor, Peter Lorre.
– James Lee Wong, a Chinese detective, played by white English actor, Boris Karloff. Chinese-American actor Keye Luke played Mr. Wong in one film in 1940, but exhibitors lost interest in the film series when Karloff was replaced.

For this post, we will focus on Karloff’s James Lee Wong. Originating from a series of short stories in Colliers Magazine, writer Hugh Wiley created Mr. Wong as a U.S. Treasury Department agent based in San Francisco. Jumping to the screen in 1938, Boris Karloff starred as Mr. Wong in five films with Keye Luke starring in the sixth and last Mr. Wong film in 1940.

Compared to Sidney Toler’s Charlie Chan, who was characterized by Chinese makeup and clipped, choppy English, Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong adaptation is much better … though still ridiculous.

While in yellowface makeup, Boris Karloff speaks in his usual, velvet-smooth voice and doesn’t put on a phony accent. The Asian character is at least portrayed with dignity and intelligence, compared to other caricatures.

Nevertheless, the characterization is still offensive. Historian Karla Rae Fuller notes that in films like Mr. Wong, he never fraternizes with other Asians and is sort of a loner. When he does interact with other Asians, they are usually criminals and he is at a higher status. The character also faces slurs from other white criminals.

In the third Mr. Wong film, “Mr. Wong in Chinatown,” a Chinese princess is murdered and San Francisco police and Mr. Wong attempt to solve the murder, with a Torchy Blane-like reporter following close behind to solve the case.

As a film and story itself, “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” is just okay. I was excited at the beginning with Lotus Long entered as the princess, hoping she would be a focal point of the story. It turns out she was the focal point … just not while her character was living – she’s killed within the first few minutes of the film. The mystery has so many twists and turns, that it lost me a bit – or maybe I wasn’t interested enough to pay close attention.

But I did feel like there were some loose ends. For example, in the start of the film, Wong and the police question man with dwarfism who is unable to speak, played by Angelo Rossitto. Rossitto’s character disappears, but I don’t think that is ever resolved.

Grant Withers, Angelo Rossitto, and Boris Karloff

Earlier this year, I reviewed a 1939 Charlie Chan film. While considering Charlie Chan and Mr. Wong, it’s a toss up. I didn’t really love either film, but I preferred the mystery in Charlie Chan and preferred Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong to Sidney Toler’s Chan. This also could be because Chan was released by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, and Mr. Wong was released by the poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures.

A year after “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” was released, Karloff left the series and Keye Luke replaced him as a younger version, Jimmy Lee Wong. This was a rare instance of an Asian actor in a lead role in the 1930s. Unfortunately, continuing the series with Luke didn’t pan out. This is disappointing, because I would have loved to see a mystery series of with an Asian actor in the lead, especially a high-quality actor like Keye Luke.

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