Monday, September 15, 2014

Boris Karloff--Detective

Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong.
Let me start by addressing the most uncomfortable aspect of the Mr. Wong movies produced by Monogram Pictures from 1938 to 1940. Mr. Wong, who is Chinese, is played by Boris Karloff, a British actor, in five of the six films. This was neither the first nor the last time that a non-Oriental actor starred as an Oriental detective. There are numerous other instances. Swedish actor Warner Oland made a fine Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Hungarian Peter Lorre starred as Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a film series for Twentieth Century-Fox. Decades later, Ross Martin (The Wild, Wild West) and even Peter Sellers also appeared as Charlie Chan.

Karloff as Fu Manchu.
To his credit, Karloff does not try to impersonate a person of Chinese descent. He speaks deliberately, but there is no trace of an accent. His hair is dyed black and slicked down. He sports a mustache (which changes shape slightly from film to film) and sometimes glasses. He looks a little Oriental—if one knows that was the intended effect. It’s a stark contrast to his appearance as the title villain of 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Karloff made his first appearance as James Wong in Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). It’s an average “B” mystery in which the owners of a chemical company are murdered one by one. The prime suspect is a disgruntled inventor, who claims the company stole a valuable formula. However, as witnesses can testify, the inventor was somewhere else when each death occurred. The best part of the film is the ingenious way in which the murders are accomplished. All in all, it’s a decent introduction to Mr. Wong.

A death threat for the sapphire's new owner.
The first sequel, The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), is an upgrade. It’s an entertaining whodunit involving a stolen sapphire (the Eye of the Daughter of Moon—gotta love the name!) and another clever murder. This time, Wong is present when a homicide occurs in front of party guests, who are watching their hosts reenact a scene from a play. When a character is shot in the play—the person playing the character is really shot. The film features a brisk pace and veteran director Williams Nigh achieves some nice visual effects with framing and lighting.

Marjorie Reynolds.
Alas, the second Mr. Wong film is the series highlight. The third entry, Mr. Wong in Chinatown, is a lackluster, sluggish affair. Amazingly, the plot was recycled nine years later for the Charlie Chan film The Chinese Ring starring Roland Winters. In Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Marjorie Reynolds (Holiday Inn) joins Grant Withers as a series regular. Withers’ police Captain Sam Street continues to come across as thickheaded and dull while Reynolds overplays the energetic reporter trying to get a big scoop. Neither one adds any value to this film nor subsequent outings, leaving it up to Karloff to carry the Mr. Wong mysteries by himself.

He’s up to the task, though one wishes that Wong was more interesting. He lacks Charlie Chan’s memorable proverbs and Mr. Moto’s judo. Hugh Wiley created the Yale-educated Chinese sleuth for Collier’s magazine in 1934. James Lee Wong lived in San Francisco and worked on the “federal pay rolls.” He appeared in twelve short stories, which were republished in the 1951 collection Murder By the Dozen.

Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong.
After five Mr. Wong films, Karloff bowed out of the series and was replaced by Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940). Although some critics suggest Luke is playing James Wong’s son, the film seems more like a reboot. The affable Key Luke does well enough in his first lead role after playing Charlie Chan’s son opposite Warner Oland. Although Luke was signed for additional Mr. Wong films, the series came to an abrupt end. Still, Phantom of Chinatown was something of a landmark—Keye Luke became the first Chinese actor since the silent film era to headline a Hollywood film.


  1. BK didn't so much bow out of Wong, as Monogram took him off to catch the second wave of horror that started with Son of Frankenstein '39. After that, he never had to work on poverty row again, unless he did voluntarily.

  2. Technically, Peter Sellers didn't play Chan, but a Neil Simon scripted parody of same. Did play a version of Fu Manchu, tho.

  3. Bill is correct. Karloff had a six-film contract with Monogram and when the horror film boom began in 1939, Monogram realized what a prize they had with Karloff under contract. So Keye Luke became Mr. Wong and Monogram put Karloff in THE APE (1940).

    The first Mr. Wong film also was later re-made as a Chan, in 1948 as DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS.

    My least favorite of the big three Oriental detectives, but I'm glad I have copies of all these films. I think I like the first one the best...a most ingenious way of bumping someone off.

  4. I love, love, love the Mr. Wong films, and whatever anyone might say about the so-called "Yellowface", I though Keye Luke as the final Mr. Wong was inferior to Karloff. Boris was amazing. I think the only really credible Asian detective of this style was the one-off Judge Dee from the 70's TV special, played by Khigh Dhiegh (kenneth Dickerson)...which also had Keye Luke.

    I did an article about South Asian detectives in written fiction a while back, and it got me over to these great old faux-Asian guys...such a great time. ;) Great write-up!

    1. Clayton, we did a review of JUDGE DEE AND THE MONASTERY MURDERS at the Cafe. It was a nifty mystery and pilot for a TV series that should have been picked up.

  5. A few points here and there:

    - Warner Oland was Swedish, not Swiss ( born Johan Werner Ohlund ) .
    For those keeping score, Sidney Toler was a Midwesterner of mainly Scottish descent, Roland Winters was originally Winternitz, J.Carrol Naish was a New York Irishman, and Ross Martin was a Polish Jew (Martin Rosenblatt).

    - After Peter Lorre, Mr. Moto was played by Hispanic Henry Silva (once).

    - After the Judge Dee pilot, Khigh Dhiegh starred in a short-lived (four episodes aired) detective show called Khan! (the exclamation point was intentional). This got some notice because Mr. Dhiegh declined onscreen billing, although he did do some promotion for the show.
    Mr. Dhiegh gave as his reason that he didn't believe in "star billing" for himself as a "personal ethic"; an actress named Irene Yah-Ling Sun, who was cast as his daughter, tried to do the same, but Mr. Dhiegh talked her out of that.
    My own guess: the 'Kenneth Dickerson' story wasn't that well known in 1974, and 'Khigh Dhiegh' wanted it kept that way.
    As it was, TV GUIDE barely managed to get his true ethnicity into a very friendly profile a year or so earlier.

    - Finally, Mr. Wong:
    That Monogram turned the Wongs into Chans should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the work of W.Scott Darling, the common scenarist for both sets of films.

    1. Thanks, Mike, for catching the wrong nationality. It's fixed. Darn autocorrect!

  6. As long as we're completing circles, Keye Luke returned as Lee Chan for the final two Roland Winters Chans, Luke now a few months older than "Honorable Father".

  7. Because I love Boris I will watch the Wongs. Notice the murder method from the first one echoes that of "Charlie Chan in Egypt". I know I saw it in another B mystery as well, but the name escapes me. Perhaps your memory is working on all cylinders.

    I think much could have been done with the exploits of "young" Mr. Wong as portrayed by Keye Luke. He had a lot of good will built up because of Lee. It's a shame the series didn't continue.

  8. Last night TCM aired a great classic film titled The House of Rothschild starring Boris Karloff among others.
    I am disappointed that the app Watch
    TCM does not include this film for