Mr. Wong Collection

by Charlie Largent Jul 01, 2023

Mr. Wong Collection
Kino Lorber
1938-1940 / 1.37:1
Starring Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Marjorie Reynolds
Written by Scott Darling, Houston Branch
Directed by William Nigh

Judge Dee may not be a household name in America, but in his homeland the Chinese magistrate was revered as a formidable sleuth as well as statesman, a major player in Gong’an or “crime-case” stories, thrillers whose popularity soared during the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese were such avid fans of the genre that beginning in 1896, the Sherlock Holmes stories were translated into Mandarin. It took an Ohio-born police reporter named Earl Derr Biggers to introduce the Chinese-American alternative to Judge Dee; a monkish problem solver named Charlie Chan who spoke broken English while remaining infinitely wiser than his Caucasian colleagues.

The first film to feature Biggers’ creation was a ten-part cliffhanger released in 1926, The House Without a Key starring the Japanese actor George Kuwa. The Swedish-American actor Warner Oland took over the role in 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On—the beginning of a long and prosperous movie life for the great detective, even if a steady parade of white folks in oriental drag would deny the opportunity to a legion of Asian actors (as late as 1965 the Italian-Spanish actor Henry Silva was cast as the Japanese sleuth Mr. Moto).

When Earl Biggers passed away in 1933, Hugh Wiley was already a successful novelist and short story writer for Collier’s Magazine. In the wake of Biggers’ death, the magazine went looking for a crime buster in the mode of Chan, and Wiley invented him—a treasury agent named James Lee Wong. Wong’s first adventure, Medium Well Done, appeared in the March 10, 1934 issue of Collier’s. Nineteen stories followed. In 1938 Monogram signed Boris Karloff to star in a series of five films featuring Wiley’s creation. Though Monogram labored in the shadows of most other studios, their offer came at an opportune time for Mr. Karloff—the horror films he was famous for had—for the moment—fallen out of favor.

Directed by William Nigh, the Wong series was produced between 1938 and 1940 with Grant Withers cast in a recurring role as a comically short-tempered police captain named Street. In 1939 apple-cheeked Marjorie Reynolds signed on as Bobbie Logan, a nosy newspaper reporter and Street’s sometime-girl friend. The films were distinguished by their rushed shooting schedules, spare trappings and Nigh’s meandering direction—but they have their charms and are, as some forgiving movie fans are prone to say, “watchable.”

Screenwriter Houston Branch sets the stage for Karloff and company in Mr. Wong, Detective, released in October of 1938. Wong himself is the calm at the center of every storm, a supernaturally intelligent man who lives in a stylish (for Monogram) mansion with an ethereal atmosphere that suggests the presence of incense—or something stronger. Wong is also, at least in his cinematic incarnation, a very one note character, a solitary figure without the boisterous family life Chan enjoyed or the parade of disguises that sparked Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto adventures.

Wong is working against an invisible enemy in this first installment, a silent killer that can choke the life out of a man even in a safely locked room. The suspects are many and Wong is alone among the scatterbrained cops to notice the clue at the scene of each crime: small shards of broken glass.

Scott Darling, the screenwriter who energized Universal’s most famous monster in the surprisingly inventive The Ghost of Frankenstein, wrote the next two entries, The Mystery of Mr. Wong and Mr. Wong in Chinatown. The Mystery of Mr. Wong is the series’ most carefully constructed entry, the story of a legendary gem and the star-crossed souls who covet it. Holmes Herbert, a familiar face in Universal horror and Rathbone’s Holmes series, is a classy counterpart to Karloff, Nigh’s direction is more robust, and there’s no dead air in the dialog (it seems the actors had a little time to rehearse)—of all the Wong films, this one feels like a movie.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown begins in B-movie heaven; a shadowy figure appears at an open window with a “sleeve gun”—an arcane device that shoots poisoned darts at its victims. The peculiar weapon is at the heart of the mystery and it gets a workout in this story of Tong wars and crooked money lenders.

This was the film that introduced Marjorie Reynolds as Bobbie Logan, a thorn in Street’s side but a bright spot in Wong’s world. Reynolds has a thankless role as the sterotypically sassy reporter but her high spirits are welcome, especially in contrast to Karloff’s near stationary performance—it may be his overly Zen attitude but sometimes the actor seems to be sleepwalking.

Darling and Universal stablemate George Waggner (director of The Wolf Man) collaborated on the script for 1940’s The Fatal Hour, a mystery with personal significance for Street and a chance for Withers to flex whatever acting skills he’d been suppressing in the other films: Street’s childhood friend and fellow investigator has been murdered and Wong steps in to console his ally and corner the killer. The plot is triggered by a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that allows the murderer to be nowhere near the scene of the crime.

Michel Jacoby, a writer notable for epics (The Charge of the Light Brigade) and gothic creature features (The Undying Monster), brought Karloff’s reign as Mr. Wong to an end with the cheerily titled Doomed to Die. The mystery revolves around a rancorous family feud, a smuggling ring and a dead shipping magnate. Wong’s only clue is a pile of ashes which he deciphers with modern science and time-honored wisdom.

Mr. Wong was popular enough to appear alongside Tarzan and Tailspin Tommy in four issues of Popular Comics but it was time for Karloff to get back to the monsters that made him: once again horror films were asserting their dominance at the box office. The same year he was appearing as Wong Karloff was reviving the monster in Son of Frankenstein and starring as Dr. Henryk Savaard in The Man They Could Not Hang for Columbia.

Kino Lorber’s set features all five Wong films spread over two discs. The earlier entries have more speckling and frame damage but the detail is usually nice and the image improves dramatically as the series progressed. There are moments where cinematographer Harry Neumann’s work dazzles with its noirish lighting and silky black shadows. Oddly the worst looking film in the set is the final entry, Doomed to Die.

The set’s sole extra is a new feature length commentary for Mr. Wong, Detective featuring Universal horrors expert  Tom Weaver, and filmmaker Larry Blamire.

If anything, this release is an homage to Harry Neumann, one of the hardest working cameramen in Hollywood. He shot near 400 films in his long career including a boatload of westerns, several Bowery Boys comedies, Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, and Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman. Maybe someday Mr. Weaver will get around to that Harry Neumann book.

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