Welcome to From the Vault, the newest column from Mania where we dip into Hollywood’s extensive archive of genre films and review some classic, near classic and not-quite-classic films that are worth a view. Most of our picks will be from the era of the 1930’s to the 1960s with a dash of 1970s where appropriate and cover genres such as horror, Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and thrillers, and animation. Best of all, everything reviewed in From the Vault is available on home video either on DVD, blu-ray, or VHS, although you might have to search the dusty shelves of video stores or online dealers to find some of our picks.
This week, we take a look at some Boris Karloff films where the horror master played two very different Chinese characters…one a brilliant detective, and the other, one of the world’s most infamous villains.
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Studio & Year: MGM 1934
Cast: Boris Karloff & Myrna Loy
Running time: 68 Minutes
After having completed Frankenstein and The Mummy, Boris Karloff turned his considerable acting talents to playing Sax Rohmer's fiendish Yellow Menace villain, Fu Manchu. Even by the standards of the period, The Mask of Fu Manchu is VERY racist, but it is an exciting movie which has all the benefits of an MGM production, with cinematography by Tony Gaudio, and sets by Cedric Gibbons. Especially notable is the beautifully photographed and staged sequence of the opening of Genghis Khan's Tomb. While it might not be politically correct, one must take into mind the period in which it was made, the period it was trying to depict, the original source material.
Fu Manchu is after the sword and mask of the legendary conqueror Genghis Khan. If he gets them, he plans to lead the nations of Asia and the Middle East into a war to wipeout the “white race”. Opposing him is Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service and famed Egyptologist Sir Lionel Barton.
The Mask of Fu Manchu is also very much an example of pre-Code film making with some of the wildest scenes that ever made their way onto the screen in the early 1930's--particularly those in which Fu's daughter, played by Myrna Loy, drools over the nearly naked body of an immobilized member of Barton’s team. It's a bit unsettling to see the woman who would come to epitomize 30's style and chic in just a few years in the Thin Man movies, playing such a wicked and sex-crazed harlot.
The dialog is typically weak and outdated early 30's fare and there’s not much of a musical score, but other than those two drawbacks, this is a mighty fun film to watch. The film came under considerable criticism upon its release from the Chinese government for its hostile depiction of the Chinese people but one can imagine being a kid in 1932 and plunking down ten cents for this pure Saturday matinee fare.
One of the most popular series of the 1930s and 1940s was the Charlie Chan series featuring the famous Asian detective. There were over four dozen Charlie Chan films produced but contrary to popular belief, some of them DID star an Asian actor in the lead role. The earliest Chan films, produced in the 1920s, feature an Asian lead but the films did not do well and consequently the lead was changed to Swedish actor Warner Oland. After Oland’s death, Sidney Toler and later Roland Winters took over the role.
The Chan series spawned several other Asian detective imitators including Mr. Moto (Played by Peter Lorre) and Detective James Lee Wong played by Karloff in five films. Again, these films have become the subject of controversy due to the racial stereotypes and the lack of Asian actors playing the roles. What’s lost in this is the fact that these characters were always played in the best light. They were smarter than the regular police and solved the crimes that they could not.
The Mystery of Mr. Wong
Studio & Year: Monogram 1939
Cast: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers
Running Time: 69 Minutes
The Mr. Wong series was produced by Monogram pictures, known as one of the “Poverty Row” studios that produced mainly low budget films. It definitely shows as there is a decided difference in quality both on a technical level as well as a talent level between the Mr. Wong films and the Charlie Chan films. Despite the lower quality, the films are infinitely watchable thanks to Karloff who never failed to give his best effort.
The Mystery of Mr. Wong is probably the best of the five Mr. Wong films although none of them are great but none of them really horrible. The largest star sapphire in the world, known as the “Eye of the Daughter of the Moon”, has been stolen in China and smuggled into the United States. The gem comes into the possession of a wealthy gem collector named Brandon Edwards. Edwards is concerned about the curse the gem is alleged to carry and when he receives a death threat, he contacts Detective Wong to find out who wants to kill him. During a game of charade at Edwards’ mansion, he is shot dead and the gem comes up missing. Several more murders ensue as Wong has to determine who amongst the house full of guests is committing the murders.
The Mystery of Mr. Wong is not only a stylish and intelligent mystery, but is also a fantastic example of an “Old Dark House” style film where guests have gathered at a mansion for a party or reading of a will, and murders take place. Old Dark House films were quite popular at the time and Director Wiliam Nigh uses their popularity in which to build his Mr. Wong mystery. In the film, we learn that Mr. James Lee Wong is an authority on ancient Oriental art and literature, and a graduate of Heidelberg and Oxford Universities. This is key because it can at least provide an explanation as to why Wong has an English accent.
A solid cast and a well-developed plot makes The Mystery if Mr. Wong Karloff’s best turn as the detective. You can watch the full movie at this link:
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria Magazine, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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