DVD Verdict
Home About News Blu-ray DVD Reviews Upcoming DVD Releases Contest Podcasts Forums Judges Contact  

Case Number 13375

Buy Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection at Amazon

Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection

Mr. Wong, Detective
1938 // 69 Minutes // Not Rated
Mr. Wong In Chinatown
1939 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
The Mystery Of Mr. Wong
1939 // 68 Minutes // Not Rated
Doomed To Die
1940 // 68 Minutes // Not Rated
The Fatal Hour
1940 // 68 Minutes // Not Rated
Phantom Of Chinatown
1940 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by VCI Home Video
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // April 7th, 2008

• View Judge Charles's Dossier
• E-mail Judge Charles
• Printer Friendly Review


Every purchase you make through these Amazon links supports DVD Verdict's reviewing efforts. Thank you!




 

All Rise...

Next time someone offers Judge Dylan Charles a six-pack, he's asking for sarsaparilla.

The Charge

Thousands asked to see Collier's Magazine's famous detective on the screen…here he is!

Opening Statement

During the 1930's, audiences were paying big cents to see the film exploits of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. Nothing quite brings in the cash like a white actor playing an Asian detective. Monogram decided to take advantage of their popularity and brought James Lee Wong to the silver screen via Boris Karloff (The Mummy). I got all this from the back of the DVD box and there's nothing I enjoy more than putting movies into a historical context without having to do research on my own. Thank you, VCI! There are six Mr. Wong movies in all, on two discs, so let's get started.

Facts of the Case

Mr. Wong, Detective: When a CEO of a chemical company is killed, it's up to Mr. Wong to figure out who did it. Not much plot there, really.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong: Mr. Wong and Captain Street are back on the case. This time a noted businessman is murdered at a party, as opposed to a noted businessman being killed in his office. When the businessman's secret double life is exposed, it looks like anyone could be the killer.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown: For once the murder victim is not a middle-aged wealthy white guy but a Chinese princess. Hooray for variety—and this one has a midget! A midget who can't talk. And Captain Street yells at a guy. Stay tuned next week for…

The Fatal Hour: Captain Street's old friend Dan Grady is found murdered at the bottom of the river. Mr. Wong is called in and this somehow leads to a remote-controlled radio.

Doomed to Die: A noted shipping CEO is killed and his son is implicated in the crime. Will Mr. Wong discover the real murderer before it's too late?

Phantom of Chinatown: Keye Luke replaces Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong in this, the final chapter in the Mr. Wong series. Mr. Wong's old college professor at Southern College is murdered after coming back from an expedition to China. Mr. Wong must figure out the secret of the Eternal Fire and who killed the professor before it's too late. Again.

The Evidence

I have a scale of offensiveness for White Actors Portraying Asians. At one, the least offensive, there's David Carradine playing Caine in Kung Fu. At five, the most offensive, there's Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Boris Karloff rates about one on this scale. His Mr. Wong doesn't adhere to too many of the stereotypes of the day, there are very few parables, and he isn't afflicted with the Hollywood idea of a Chinese accent. In fact, the makeup they use is so subtle that, well, he doesn't look remotely Chinese. If you were to squint, you might assume someone had left Karloff in the sun for too long and he had acquired a tan—and a mustache.

Anyway, after I offered my thanks that I wouldn't have to watch a walking hodge-podge of stereotypes for six hours, I paid attention to the movies themselves.

Oh, boy.

After I inundated myself with Mr. Wong and his six movies over a period of two days, I sat down to write this review—and realized I could remember jack all about the plots and characters. They're formulaic and recycle the same plot elements time and again. Dumpy white businessman is a good victim maybe once, but by the time the third company executive bit the dust I began to wonder if maybe the business world is considerably more dangerous than I first assumed. Poison gas, bullets, sleeve guns; maybe they do deserve their insanely high salaries and health care plans.

It's always the person you least suspect, too. As Mr. Wong himself states in Phantom of Chinatown, it's never the person they heap all the blame on. The character they introduce two-thirds of the way through? Sure. That guy you saw one time in one of the other movies? Yeah, he's a killer. The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die carry this concept to such insane lengths that it's hard to see how the killer is even connected to the original crime at all.

Aside from Mr. Karloff, the acting is nails-on-a-chalkboard grating. Mr. Wong Detective, the first movie, is the worst offender in this regard. Stilted dialogue, scenery chewing, and strange affectations; it's like a how-to-manual of how not to act. It's a sad state of affairs when the guy in yellow-face is the shining beacon of acting.

Grant Withers, who plays Captain Street, is the worst offender. He has two modes: shouting and frozen. When he's not yelling, his face achieves a kind of rictus, apparently in an attempt to save up his energy for the next shouting scene. As the series progressed, I got used to his acting style, however. It got to be a part of these movies'…uh, charm? It's just not a Mr. Wong movie if you don't have Grant Withers shouting at the top of his longs at the tranquil James Lee Wong.

The only other reoccurring cast member is Marjorie Reynolds as hardboiled reporter Bobbie Logan. Logan's constant sparring with Street is one of the highlights of Mr. Wong and it's a shame that she wasn't in all six, instead of just three, because she added the small bit of vitality that the series could have used in spades.

Considering the fact that none of these clocks in much longer than an hour, they're amazingly slow and plodding. Superfluous scenes of Mr. Wong tinkering in his lab and just the nature of the character slowed down the action. Mr. Wong is civil and polite, and finds things out by quietly appearing on the scene, asking a few questions and then quietly disappearing from the scene. While this is perhaps more realistic than Philip Marlowe barging around and insulting everyone with his wise-ass remarks and still getting the information he needs, it hardly makes for gripping cinema.

In fact, the most enjoyable of the six was Phantom of Chinatown in which Boris Karloff bows out and Keye Luke steps in. Keye Luke has appeared in hundreds of things, including both of the Green Hornet serials as Kato and a large number of the Charlie Chan movies as Lee Chan. His Mr. Wong (who goes by Jimmy since he's younger and hipper) is far more kinetic and even fires his gun on occasion.

But Phantom of Chinatown suffers from its own share of problems. Since this is a younger Mr. Wong, it's supposed to take place at the beginning of his career as amateur detective. So we get to see him meeting Captain Street for the first time. Except that Captain Street is still the same 35-to-40-year-old Grant Withers and he's still a captain. Somehow Street manages to avoid promotion and the tenacious grip of old age during their long tenure together. There's also The Mystery of the Disappearing mustache as Keye Luke's mustache wavers in and out of our dimension, an elusive thing that is rarely seen and even more rarely recorded on film.

VCI hasn't done much in the way of cleaning up these old films. There's still an awful lot of hair and the like on the image, but hell, maybe they were even worse before VCI got their hands on them. They also threw in a few vintage shorts as extras. Of the two cartoons, one's unbelievably bad (Who in the hell is Gabby?) and one is about Popeye, so that's an automatic win right there.

They also included the first chapter from Red Barry, a serial from 1938 starring Buster Crabbe. I enjoyed it, though my preference is for the superhero serials, which is why I got a thrill from hearing the Green Hornet's fight music during Crabbe's obligatory tussle with some henchmen. But the inclusion of the chapter was needlessly cruel. You don't stick the first chapter of a serial on a disc and then leave it at that. What happens next week? I'll never know. Red Barry will probably end up dead and the bad guys will win. Sigh.

Closing Statement

The Mr. Wong movies managed not to be too offensive with their portrayal of the eminent detective. Of course, they also managed not to be very interesting or memorable. They're nothing more than relics of an era of cinema that gloried in chapter plays, Asian detectives, and crime fighters with good strong names like Dick and Barry. The Mr. Wong movies will be interesting only to the people interested in those relics.

The Verdict

Mr. Wong and Monogram are found guilty of cashing in on other, more successful franchises.

Give us your feedback!

Did we give Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection a fair trial? yes / no

Share This Review


Follow DVD Verdict


Other Reviews You Might Enjoy

• The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1958)
• Sunrise
• Quatermass 2
• Ten Little Indians

DVD Reviews Quick Index

• DVD Releases
• Recent DVD Reviews
• Search for a DVD review...

Genres

• Classic
• Mystery

Scales of Justice, Mr. Wong, Detective

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 50
Acting: 75
Story: 75
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, Mr. Wong, Detective

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Wong, Detective

• Red Barry (1938) - Chapter 1

Scales of Justice, Mr. Wong In Chinatown

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile, Mr. Wong In Chinatown

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Wong In Chinatown

• None

Scales of Justice, The Mystery Of Mr. Wong

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 78
Story: 75
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, The Mystery Of Mr. Wong

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Mystery Of Mr. Wong

• None

Scales of Justice, Doomed To Die

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 75
Story: 70
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, Doomed To Die

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Doomed To Die

• None

Scales of Justice, The Fatal Hour

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 90
Acting: 75
Story: 70
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, The Fatal Hour

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 68 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Fatal Hour

• Photo Gallery
• Classic Boris Karloff Movie Trailers
• Classic Cartoons of the Era

Scales of Justice, Phantom Of Chinatown

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 75
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile, Phantom Of Chinatown

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Phantom Of Chinatown

• None








DVD | Blu-ray | Upcoming DVD Releases | About | Staff | Jobs | Contact | Subscribe | Find us on Google+ | Privacy Policy

Review content copyright © 2008 Dylan Charles; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.