Exactly how and where they evolved, however, remains a bit of a mystery. (Imagine that?) Anyone who’s done a bit of reading on their evolution will easily point to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The Murders In The Rue Morgue” and any one of the Sherlock Holmes tales, respectively – as the likely literary foundation for the craze. A quick search of Google.com suggests that the first theatrically popular incarnation gets credited to 1945’s And Then There Were None – a big screen adaptation of the Agatha Christie work – but I know for a fact that there were smaller features that likely led into that big success, including such film series as Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and even Boris Karloff headlining as the detective sleuth, Mr. Wong.
Recently, the good people at Kino Lorber released Karloff’s run in the role on home video, and I’ve been making my way through the five film mysteries. Today’s delight: Mr. Wong In Chinatown, the second of two Wong pictures to hit silver screens in 1939. The film was directed by William Nigh, and screenwriter Scott Darling is credited with adapting the work of author Hugh Wiley for the screen. It stars Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Marjorie Reynolds, Huntley Gordon, and George Lyn.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A pretty Chinese woman, seeking help from San Francisco detective James Lee Wong, is killed by a poisoned dart in his front hall, having time only to scrawl ‘Captain J’ on a sheet of paper. She proves to be Princess Lin Hwa.”
Screenwriters from time-to-time have been known to fall back on conventions and/or gimmicks to make a story sizzle, and I suspect – to a small degree – that may’ve been part of what fueled scripter Scott Darling’s efforts in Mr. Wong In Chinatown. While the first two screen outings were marginally free of the usual theatrical trappings that put the screen detective’s investigations into motion, this one brings the first dead body right into Mr. Wong’s home – killed by a rare dart-gun that conveniently Wong has in his private collection, along with the victim’s seminal written clue found at the scene – and it all feels a bit contrived. Granted, I think what transpires throughout the course of the film’s 71 minutes is still a bit better-than-average, but there’s no mistaking a bit of an invented set-up to the whole criminal affair.
In fact, there’s a single sequence involving Wong’s stop in Chinatown – he has a meeting with a few important-looking characters around a table – and it’s all played out as if these scenes are of high importance to the case, if not all of filmdom. However, I think Wong only has a single line of dialogue amongst these supposed key players, and then he rises and leaves, going about his intended business. But because it was all handled, staged, and delivered as if a truly big deal, I ended up chuckling at how casually all of it ended up being so obviously a staged event ended far too quickly to be of any legitimate concern.
Though Chinatown does feel more than a bit contrived in a few spots, it’s also a bit hard to follow in a few places, partially because the narrative misdirects are all a bit flat. There are too few teeth to this story – in fact, methinks putting Wong in greater jeopardy than ever before might’ve been intended to gloss over an otherwise predictable affair – but Karloff perseveres, still showing audiences that he was vastly capable of stretching his legs comfortably into this role of the gentleman sleuth. Grant Withers is back in reasonably good form as Captain Street, and a perfectly fetching Marjorie Reynolds joins the franchise as crack reporter Bobbie Logan, the gal pal who’ll stop at nothing to break a major story especially if it puts her on the cops’ bad side. She’s got that whip-crack moxie fairly common to films of the 1930’s and 1940’s that works wonderfully opposite the male voice of authority (i.e. Street), and Reynolds hits her marks with some well-earned relish. It’s a character that manages to make a middling film into something a bit more special simply by being there.
Mr. Wong In Chinatown (1939) was produced by Monogram Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good people at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I can say that for my perspective there was a noticeable marked improvement in most of the transfer quality in this release. The black-and-white is mostly crisp throughout the film, with only the occasional grainy sequences in between the reel switching.
Yes, yes, and yes: there’s a fair amount of predictability to this screen outing of Mr. Wong In Chinatown, and that never bodes quite well for mysteries, in particular. In fact, there’s a single subplot involving a mute short person that abruptly disappears from the film, only to rear its head in the last reel as a kinda/sorta gotcha moment for Wong’s behind-the-scenes investigative work. Still, Reynolds steals a few scenes as a comely reporter who gets caught up in the action almost at the expense of her own safety! A good film, just a bit easy here and there.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of their Boris Karloff: Mr. Wong Collection – which included the picture Mr. Wong In Chinatown (1939) – by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.