Release Date(s)1938-1940 (June 20, 2023)
Studio(s)Monogram Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
For many decades, virtually the only way to see movies from the “Poverty Row” studios of Monogram Pictures and others was via very poor video transfers lifted from even worse 16 mm TV prints, prints often murky with heavy damage. Monogram’s output was rarely better than mediocre, but the movies didn’t stand much of a chance when, from the outset, they looked like dog meat.
Case in point: the five Monogram-produced “Mr. Wong” mysteries starring Boris Karloff. Made to cash in on the popularity of Fox’s “Charlie Chan” films, the Mr. Wong films aren’t exactly good, but Kino’s new 5-movie Collection, remastered from film elements mostly in excellent condition, is something of a revelation. Of course, great video transfers can’t make bad movies better, but seen in an approximation of how moviegoers saw them when they were new, this Blu-ray set shows them in an entirely new light.
As audio commentator Tom Weaver points out, what audience these films have had has mostly been because they star Karloff, which is true enough. But these clean, clear transfers allow us to reevaluate them and, in fact, they play much better than they did back in the days of VHS and early DVD. Clearly Monogram, realizing that with Karloff they could compete with Fox’s Chan films, as well as their contemporaneous “Mr. Moto” series (starring Peter Lorre), put a little more time and care into these pictures than the usual bottom-of-the-bill programmer. They still exhibit the same problems found in other Monogram titles, but have slightly better casts (particularly lively Marjorie Reynolds), very slightly better production values, and moderately better scripts. Indeed, seeing all five films for this review, what most surprised me most was how superior these are compared to Monogram’s own, later Charlie Chans when that series moved there in 1944, movies that would be virtually unwatchable were it not for the welcome comedy relief of Mantan Moreland.
Chinese-American detective James Lee Wong was the creation of writer Hugh Wiley (1884-1968), Wong appearing in 20 short stories published in Collier’s between 1932-40, some of which were collected in Murder by the Dozen. The literary Wong is virtually forgotten today, but the movies, par for the course during this period, were mostly original scenarios anyway.
There were five films with Karloff—Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong, Mr. Wong in Chinatown (both 1939), The Fatal Hour, and Doomed to Die (both 1940). Kino’s Blu-ray set uses British film elements for Doomed to Die, so the credits call that one Mystery of the Wentworth Castle. A sixth Mr. Wong film, Phantom of Chinatown, was also made by Monogram in 1940 but by this time Karloff had left the series and the part of Mr. Wong was played by Keye Luke, formerly Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son in Fox’s series. It’s a shame Kino didn’t include this last film; while no better than the others, it’s notable as the first Hollywood feature of the sound era to star an Asian actor.
In the original stories, Wong is a Yale-educated U.S. Treasury agent, but Karloff plays him with his usual faux-Eaton-educated if lispy British accent. While the movies benefit from Kino’s pristine video transfers, oddly enough Karloff not so much. As a character, Mr. Wong isn’t all that appealing or interesting, though this was more to do with the unimaginative writing than Karloff’s acting. In the Charlie Chan films with Warner Oland, Charlie is many things. He’s a stereotype, to be sure, but an undeniably positive one: exceedingly polite and a devoted family man (though he often complains about them), Chan is determined to raise his many children to be Good Americans. He’s a kind of proto-Columbo; murder suspects and red herrings alike think him rather stupid because of his clipped, halting English, which he cunningly uses to trick them again and again. Further, the best Chan films are surprisingly progressive—often the unappealing murder suspects will use slurs or offhand racist comments that Chan cleverly throws back at them that only makes them look stupid and unsophisticated.
In the Karloff films, however, that Wong is Chinese-American is virtually immaterial. Other than his Chinatown contacts and familiarity with ancient Chinese artifacts, he might just have been a sleuth from the backwoods of Kentucky. Unmarried with no children, he pokes around a traditionally decorated home with a manservant, but is pretty colorless otherwise. All the films feature Grant Withers as Capt. Sam Street. In the first movie he’s a typically thick-skulled copper, but this is toned down in the middle films and, beginning with the third, Marjorie Reynolds co-stars as “Bobbie” Logan, a newspaper reporter and Street’s nosy girlfriend. A real Lois Lane type, the character’s indefatigable nature might have been annoying in other hands, but Reynolds give Bobbie genuine appeal. On these Blu-ray discs, one can really appreciate her performances as it’s clear she’s giving a lot of thought to every line. Unlike most Monogram ingenues, Reynolds is clearly a star on the ascent, confirmed just two years later when she graduated to A-picture productions like Holiday Inn.
The casts of the Wong films are also fun, a mix of Monogram/B-picture regulars like I. Stanford Jolley, Tristram Coffin, John Hamilton, Charles Trowbridge, Angelo Rossitto; Asian talent like Richard Lee and Lotus Long; and aging silent era stars such as Evelyn Brent and Gibson Gowland, the star of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924).
The films are undeniably cheap and William Nigh’s direction is lazy: there are few close-ups and, common to Poverty Row potboilers, the editing is painfully sluggish, with Nigh exhaustively following characters in long takes of wide coverage angles: as they open a door, close the door, walk across a room, open another door, carefully closing it on their way out, etc.
Surprisingly, the direction and editing improve slightly as the series chugs along, with Doomed to Die by far the most atmospheric of the Karloff entries, perhaps owing to the gradual return to popularity of horror films. (That entry features a car chase through my old Los Feliz neighborhood, not far from Monogram’s studios, right past the Vista Theater, showing Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Waterloo Bridge, a theater now owned by Quentin Tarantino.) Yes, the films are talky and generally static, but as mysteries they’re certainly not significantly worse than, say, the average Mr. Moto title.
Kino’s Mr. Wong Collection presents five films on two Blu-ray discs. The first four look astonishingly good, the 1.37:1 standard, black-and-white image very crisp and clean throughout, with only dissolves and stock shots less than ideal. Nothing in the packaging indicates what was used, but original nitrate camera negatives are possible with the first four. The final film, derived from British film elements, is a notch below the others, but still well above average for a 1940 Poverty Row title. It does exhibit a strange black blob for a couple of minutes at the top of the frame in several shots, but that could originate back to the dirt in the film gate. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is also above average, and optional English subtitles are provided.
The lone extra feature is, fortunately, a terrific one: a new audio commentary track by genre historian Tom Weaver for the first film. It’s very enjoyable, often quite funny, yet also densely informative.
I wanted a copy of this set only to upgrade from my DVDs, yet to my surprise I found these transfers so inviting and the films several notches more enjoyable seen this way that I binge-watched the whole thing in under a week. For Karloff and/or B-movie mystery films, this is Highly Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV