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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

Hugh Wiley wrote the James Lee Wong series of short stories in Colliers Magazine in the mid thirties and inevitably for an era known for Charlie Chan and Mr Moto, they soon reached the screen. English horror legend Boris Karloff played Mr Wong in five of the six films but Monogram Pictures, probably not deliberately, broke the whole trend of having caucasian actors play Chinese leads by casting Keye Luke in the role for the last film. I believe this is a unique occasion and it was sadly never repeated.

The film is a traditional detective thriller of the era and it features a plot focused on old school archaeology, full of adventure and death and tomb raiding. Dr John Benton (Cyrus in a newspaper report on him, but hey, this is Monogram) survives his Mongolian expedition searching for a Ming emperor's tomb and retrieves a scroll that points to the location of the Temple of Eternal Fire, but while delivering a lecture back at Southern University dies after taking a drink from a glass of water on his desk. Late for the lecture is James Lee Wong, a former student of Benton's and friend of the family, though he arrives in time to assist Captain Street of the San Francisco police department investigate.

The story isn't bad at all for an entry in a thirties detective series, though it betrays its budget with a whole slew of the sort of nonsense logic that the poverty row film studios simply thought nobody would bother noticing. Most of it here ties to the use of a cameraman as a character. He's there to film Benton being the first man into a tomb in centuries, which is fine except he's filming from the inside. He's there in the desert to film the expedition, which again is fine except we see film of him filming the expedition. All minor gripe points but they just keeping cropping up!

It's Keye Luke's portrayal of Jimmy Wong that is most memorable. He simply relishes the role, being as polite as he ever was as Number One Son Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan series, but more intelligent, capable and fundamentally in control. Grant Withers is the American cop, Captain Street, and had been throughout the six movies, but he blusters about playing second fiddle to Mr Wong all the way. By the end he's literally doing whatever Wong asks and not necessarily having a clue why.

Keye Luke obviously enjoyed being the one in control, the one with many of the most memorable lines and the one with his name above the title of the film. He gets to show off a subtle sense of humour and even gets a small chance to be an action hero. In short, there's not much here that doesn't centre around Mr Wong, and it's highly refreshing to see such a part played by an Asian actor. In fact, second on the bill, credited above Grant Withers is Lotus Long, who doesn't have as much of a part but remains an Asian actor playing an Asian character. Perhaps this is because it's her fourth Mr Wong movie and her fourth different character!

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