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DETECTIVE-PALOOZA: ASIAN DETECTIVE-PALOOZA

MR. WONG, DETECTIVE (1938) ** ½

Boris Karloff stars as Mr. Wong in the first of six adventures. A wealthy businessman thinks his life is in danger, so he goes to Mr. Wong for help. The next day, the guy winds up dead and Wong investigates his murder. While examining the crime scene, Wong finds some broken glass by the body which may be the vital clue to cracking the case. Of course, more people wind up dead and it’s up to Wong to catch the killer.

I know some people are sensitive to the fact that a white dude was playing a Chinese character, so this is the obligatory paragraph where I address that shit. Some of these movies feature really garish “Yellow Face” make-up on their leading actors, but the make-up they used on Karloff is subtler than most. Yes, there are prosthetics around his eyes, but they don’t go overboard with it. Besides, it’s hard to tell most of the time anyway because they’re hidden behind his thick Coke bottle glasses. He also uses his normal silky British voice so he wasn’t trying to speak in a broken Asian accent. Because of that, his portrayal of an Asian isn’t nearly as offensive as some of his contemporaries.

The Mr. Wong series were never all that great to begin with, but this one is decent enough. Mr. Wong, Detective gets off to a strong start, kinda gets dull in the middle section, and finishes things off on a positive note. (The way Wong tricks the bad guys at the end is pretty clever.) While it may be a little on the creaky side, Karloff’s fine performance still makes it worthwhile. I particularly thought he had a good rapport with Grant Withers, who plays Wong’s associate, Captain Street.

Karloff played Mr. Wong a total of five times before handing off the role to Keye Luke (an actual Asian) in Phantom of Chinatown.

MR. MOTO’S LAST WARNING (1939) ** ½

Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) is on the trail of a group of spies. He sends an imposter to snoop around and when he winds up dead, the real Moto investigates. Moto quickly learns that the spies’ ringleader is a ventriloquist (Ricardo Cortez) traveling in a vaudeville show and his ultimate goal is to instigate a world war.

Unlike say, Mr. Wong; Mr. Moto can throw down when he has to. In one scene, he beats up a couple of sailors and performs some Saturday Night Wrestling moves on them. Oh sure, he still does the usual detecting stuff, but his ability to kick some butt sets Mr. Moto apart from some of the other Asian detectives of the time.

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning gets off to a good start, but kinda peters out by the end. The finale isn’t bad (some of which takes place underwater), yet it’s not quite enough to save the flick. Still, the great supporting cast helps to elevate the so-so material. John Carradine (sporting a funny looking fake beard) co-stars as a double agent and George Sanders is also on hand as one of the spies. And because Lorre does battle with Sanders at the end, it means you’re getting to see Mr. Moto fight The Saint (or the Falcon, take your pick), which is pretty cool. The highlight of the film though comes when we see that the theater Cortez is performing in is also showing a Charlie Chan movie!

CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE (1944) ***

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is a notable entry in the long running franchise. For one, it was the first Chan movie made at Monogram Pictures (after several years at 20th Century Fox). Because Monogram was a “Poverty Row” studio, their Chan films were smaller scaled productions. But they also happened to move at a brisker pace (most of their films were only an hour long), and were for me, more fun. But Charlie Chan in the Secret Service is notable in my eyes because it was the first film to feature Mantan Moreland as Chan’s loyal chauffeur, Birmingham Brown.

In this entry, Chan gets hired by the Secret Service to solve the death of an inventor and recover his missing formula. He goes to the inventor’s mansion and interviews the suspects. With the help of his Number Two Daughter (Marianne Quon), Number Three Son (Benson Fong), and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Moreland), Chan is able to find the murderer.

People are going to say what they will about the Charlie Chan films regarding their political incorrectness. They conveniently forget that he was created (by Earl Derr Biggers) to counterbalance the “Yellow Peril” stereotype found in fiction at the time. At a time where Fu Manchu style villainous types populated films and literature, Chan was a rare heroic Asian character. And some may take issue with Mantan Moreland’s servant role. Moreland was always a funny and talented performer who consistently got laughs and rose above the material he was given.

Look, I’m not going to apologize for these films. I grew up on these movies and enjoyed watching them as a kid. I still enjoy them now. When I watch these movies, I think of the joy they brought to me when I was young and not their “offensiveness”. Some people will feel differently. That’s their baggage, not mine.

The smaller budget and claustrophobic setting is beneficial for this outing. The whole plot is basically just an updated drawing room mystery. This works because all of the suspects are together under one roof and Chan readily keeps them on their toes. The killer also has a cool gimmick where he uses a magnet to pull the trigger of a gun remotely too.

You know, I actually prefer Sidney Toler over Warner Oland. He always seemed spunkier and his interaction with his sons was funnier. And Toler is in top notch form here. He’s particularly great whenever he’s bickering with Number Two Daughter and Number Three Son; who says stuff like, “We’re hip cats of the younger generation!” Of course, Toler gets all the best lines like: “Detective without curiosity is like glass eye at keyhole… no good!”

THE CHINESE CAT (1944) ***

A businessman is killed in his study and the police are unable to solve the case. A couple months later, an author writes a novel about the murder which claims the man’s wife is the killer. Concerned, his daughter contacts Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to exonerate her mother. Chan does some sleuthing and uncovers a plot involving some diamond smugglers hiding their loot in the titular feline.

The Chinese Cat is a solid Charlie Chan adventure. There’s plenty of atmosphere in this outing, which adds a bit of flavor to it. The scenes of Chan snooping around the foggy docks are pretty cool and give the film a slight edge over its predecessor, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service.

The plot gets a bit muddled at times, but the interaction between the series regulars is just as snappy as ever. Charlie gets a number of good lines in this one and his putdowns of Number Three Son (Benson Fong) are especially hilarious. (“Your assistance is about as welcome as water in sinking ship!”) And a running gag of a supposedly dead person popping up is a good excuse for Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) to do some of his patented mugging.

It’s Number Three Son who gets the best line of the movie when he says, “When Pop takes a case; pop goes the case!”

THE JADE MASK (1945) ***

A scientist working for the war effort perfects a gas that can turn wood into metal. When he gets murdered, it’s up to Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to find the killer. Predictably, before Chan can crack the case, even more bodies start to turn up.

The Jade Mask suffers from some occasional bouts of silliness. (Like the ventriloquist dummy that can fire poison darts.) But, it’s that same sort of silliness that makes it memorable. If you can get past the sluggish start (Chan doesn’t turn up until the second reel), you’ll probably enjoy it. Once Chan finally arrives on the scene it turns into a fun little flick.

The Jade Mask is a good example of why I love the Charlie Chan movies Sidney Toler made for Monogram so much. The plots don’t really matter. As long as Charlie solves the case and trades barbs with his family members, all is right with the world. Mantan Moreland puts in another good turn as Birmingham Brown and Toler has plenty of chemistry with Al Bridge, who plays the country bumpkin sheriff on the case.

Naturally, Chan gets all the best lines. His putdowns of Son Number Four are particularly priceless. Some of my favorites include: “Every time you open your mouth, you put in more feet than centipede!” and “If silence is golden, you are bankrupt!”

Tags: c, j, karloff, m, sequel, thriller
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