The 1930s were a different time in many ways. There was a fascination at the time with the concept of the Chinese detective, a sleuth who could solve crimes that baffled the police but who was nevertheless an outsider whose ways both gave him insights foreign to the general public and at the same time made him an eccentric who could not always be understood himself. While best exemplified by Charlie Chan, Chan was hardly the only example, and there were extensive runs of short mystery films based on the similar Mr. Moto and Mr. James Lee Wong, of which 1938’s Mr. Wong, Detective is the first.
But at the same time that America was so fascinated with the Chinese detective, Hollywood wasn’t about to put an Asian man in the lead role of a film. So, in a move that would be cringe-inducing today, Mr. James Lee Wong, Chinese-American, is played by Boris Karloff, an Englishman with some distant Anglo-Indian heritage, with a fair amount of squinting. (Racial sensitivity wasn’t remotely on Hollywood’s radar back in those days.)
“Karloff” probably isn’t even in the top 100 Chinese names.
Mr. Wong is approached by a Mr. Dayton (John Hamilton), a partner in a chemical manufacturing plant that is preparing and shipping a new chemical weapon. Mr. Dayton fears that he is being targeted for murder, and as it turns out, he’s right, as he is killed the next day. With the help of a bungling police detective, Street (Grant Withers), Mr. Wong investigates the death even as other murders start to pile up. Suspects are cleared almost as soon as they are suggested; Carl Roemer (John St. Polis), inventor of the gas, was in the company of Dayton’s secretary Myra (Maxine Jennings) at the time. Dayton’s partners, who stood to gain substantially, are murdered almost as soon as they become suspects.
The acting in the film is all right, if you can overlook the casting of Karloff as a Chinese American (indeed, other than a few cliches here and there, you could almost believe Wong was meant to be an English detective). But where the movie breaks down is, of course, in the mystery. There are certain things you don’t do if you want to tell a good mystery story, and this movie unfortunately does several of them. First, you don’t make your genius detective look like a genius by having everybody else be stupid. Second, you don’t rely on the crime being committed by somebody who — at least for some of the murders — could not have been anywhere near the scene of the crime at the time. (There’s a bit of leeway there, since the crimes are set up beforehand, but there are still items that need delivering that we have no evidence of being delivered.) And third, while you should certainly give out clues, they should be clues that make a modicum of sense, and aren’t just random ethnically charged bullshit.
Only a Bavarian would use so much magnesium in making glass!
That’s an actual clue. No joke.
The actual method of murder is genuinely diabolically clever, but it’s not enough to elevate this into a good murder mystery. So, although I enjoy Boris Karloff’s acting, I doubt I’ll be looking into the rest of the series of Mr. Wong mysteries.