By 1938 Boris Karloff was completing his second decade as an actor in movies. By that point his name had become synonymous with horror as he left his indelible mark with James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931) and the Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Karl Freund‘s The Mummy (1932) to name just three. Karloff continued his monstrous foray in the movies, on the radio and on TV for decades to follow, adding to the legend and building upon his reputation as the premiere actor in the genre. However, Karloff also made many films that were not horror movies. I’m most familiar with some of his early crime gigs, but today I take a look at the new-to-me James Lee Wong series of films starring Mr. Karloff.
James Lee Wong is a fictional Chinese-American detective created by Hugh Wiley. The character first appeared in a series of stories in Collier’s magazine from 1934 to 1938. I am actually coveting the “Murder by the Dozen” book on Amazon, which has the twelve Mr. Wong short stories by Wiley. In any case, it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of other Chinese detectives, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto that prompted Monogram Pictures to produce a series of movies featuring James Lee Wong between 1938 and 1940. (Thrilling Detective) Boris Karloff, who I imagine accepted the role in order to do something a bit different, starred in the first five movies in the series. Despite the unfortunate obvious, which is the fact that Karloff was not Chinese-American, he did a good job portraying the brilliant detective who is an expert in everything you can imagine – from chemistry to ancient art to literature and beyond. The Yale-educated Mr. Wong, who resides in San Francisco, uses his extensive knowledge to solve all manner of murders working in conjunction with Police Captain Street played by Grant Withers in all of the Wong movies. Interestingly several of the Mr. Wong movies were later remade as part of the Charlie Chan series. As a fan of Mr. Karloff I think it’s a hoot to hear the distinctive voice of The Mummy solving crimes.
The first James Lee Wong movie is Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) directed by William Nigh as are all of the entries in the series. A terrific supporting cast makes this a worthwhile introduction to the character with the standout (for me) being John Hamilton who is the unfortunate first victim. Hamilton, a veteran movie actor by 1938, is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Perry White in “The Adventures of Superman” TV series. I enjoyed seeing and hearing the familiar curmudgeon surface until he meets his untimely death by poison gas. My favorite scene in this, however, is one where we see Mr. Wong feign his own death by gas illustrating how he goes to any extreme to fool the bad guys in order to catch them.
In the second movie, The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) we see Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace) die of a gunshot wound during a charades game at the party he’s hosting. As it turns out art collector Edwards had been warned. He’d smuggled a precious jewel, “Eye of the Daughter of the Moon” out of China, but had received a note warning him that the possessor of the jewel would be killed. James Lee Wong knew of the jewel and was present at the party when Edwards met his end. After an additional murder or two later Wong reveals the name of the murderer in front of an audience of suspects who’d attended the party. He also ensures the return of the “Eye of the Daughter of the Moon” to China where it belongs in an enjoyable, Clue-style who dunnit.
Before I continue I should note that before watching The Mystery of Mr. Wong in this series I initially watched The Mysterious Mr. Wong also directed by William Nigh, but which has no connection to Monogram’s Mr. Wong. I didn’t notice the year of production of The Mysterious Mr. Wong and soon realized I was not watching Karloff as the clever detective, but rather Bela Lugosi as a Chinese criminal mastermind. That movie, which of course I finished watching, is a fun mystery from 1934. This can all be very confusing!
Onward – The third Mr. Wong movie from Monogram is Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), which has my favorite opening of the series with the initial murder happening right in Mr. Wong’s house. We see a lovely young woman sneak in and die of a poison dart just as she’s writing a note. She turns out to be Princess Lin Hwa who snuck into the home of the famed detective in order to leave him a clue about who was trying to kill her. She managed only, “Captain J” before she perished. When Police Captain Street arrives and sees the body his reaction is, “a murder in the house of Mr. Wong. Now I’ve seen everything.”
Mr. Wong in Chinatown is a lot of fun with more murders in store and even Wong being captured by the bad guys. By this point in the series I am not only used to Karloff as James Lee Wong, but enjoying him immensely. Also adding to the enjoyment of this one is Marjorie Reynolds featured here for the first time as Roberta “Bobbie” Logan who returns in subsequent outings as Captain Street’s reporter girlfriend. Bobbie Logan adds lively exchanges and wisecracks to the mix.
The fourth entry is The Fatal Hour (1940). This movie starts out with the murder of Detective Dan Grady who had smuggling detail in Chinatown. Of course Captain Street is assigned the murder investigation and recruits the brilliant James Lee Wong to assist. The long and the short of it in this case is that several murders are the result of a jade smuggling ring Wong uncovers while investigating Grady’s murder. The fun part here is that the story is a bit more convoluted than the rest, but involves a rigged phone so one of the murders could be heard over a radio play by a switchboard operator, which is Columbo-level clever. Several bodies appear and Mr. Wong himself faces sure death when the murderer turns a gun on him. Not to be worried though as Bobbie Logan saves Mr. Wong to make yet another movie.
The final Boris Karloff entry in the Mr. Wong series is Doomed to Die (1940). In this entry it’s the murder of shipping magnate, Cyrus Wentworth that kicks off the mystery. James Lee Wong is summoned to investigate the murder by Bobbie Logan who happens to be friends with Wentworth’s daughter, Cynthia. Here again we see Wong in Chinatown trying to get to solve the crime. While there Wong uncovers a Chinese bond smuggling ring connected to Wentworth as well as several other suspicious characters that may be responsible for the murders. As the story unfolds several other people lose their lives. Needless to say the murders are solved because Wong is there to look into matters. Boris Karloff leaves the series with a stellar track record.
It’s worth noting that the sixth movie in the Mr. Wong series features Keye Luke as Mr. Wong. Luke who made over 100 movies in his career played Kato in The Green Hornet serial and “Number 1 Son” in the Charlie Chan movie series so he was certainly familiar with the formula. With his portrayal of Mr. Wong in the sixth installment of this series, Phantom of Chinatown, Keye Luke became the first Chinese man to play one of the famed Chinese detectives of the era.
The Mr. Wong series of movies starring Boris Karloff are worth a watch and the star’s name had a lot to do with their popularity. After Karloff’s departure Monogram lost interest in the series and ceased producing it with the one exception. These may not measure up to Rowland Lee’s Son of Frankenstein, one of my favorites released during the Mr. Wong series, but at a bit over an hour each you can kick off the entire series in a week without pressure and will be sure to enjoy them. That’s particularly true if detective mysteries are your thing.
Although I’m quite late with this entry I’d still like to point you in the direction of the ‘Summer Under the Stars’ blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Be sure to visit her site throughout August to access submissions on the stars and movies featured on TCM.